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The Humpback Highway is Open! Whale Migrations along WA's coast, with Pia Markovic

The Humpback Highway is Open! Whale Migrations along WA's coast, with Pia Markovic

5 minute read

Pia Markovic is a Marine Biologist onboard Naturaliste Charters, an eco-tourism company specialising in whale watching around the south coast of Western Australia. 

Ocea's Market Manager, Sarah, was lucky enough to intern for NC over the last couple of years, so we wanted to pick Pia's brain about all things whales and marine science!

Tell us a little bit about yourself - where are you from, and where are you currently living?

I am originally from the Perth Hills, and now live in the south-west of Western Australia. Once I graduated from my Bachelors Degree I moved around for work, living in Far North Queensland, Coral Bay, Rottnest Island, Fremantle and for a short period on a boat at the Abrolhos! 

What inspired you to become a Marine Biologist?

My childhood wonder just never left! I grew up snorkelling and exploring remote places around Western Australia with my family and I was so incredibly curious of this alien underwater world. Exploring remote places as a young adult such as Exmouth, and heading out onto the water with ecotourism companies and meeting their crew cemented my decision. I couldn’t believe that the ocean could be my office! 

Tell us all about the whale migration happening along WA's coast! When and where can we expect to see them?

Right now we are in the midst of the annual migration of the Humpback Whales. They are currently heading south, away from their breeding grounds in Camden Sound, Broome, back to their feeding grounds in Antarctica! The entire migration is a round trip of approximately 13,000kms, the longest migration of any animal on the planet!

Why such a long distance? Firstly mating and to give birth, but also as a bit of a trip to the day spa. Their skin replenishes in the warm northerly water and they can rid of any bacteria and excess lice! Threats along the way include Killer Whales, which wait for vulnerable mothers and newborns, plus ship strikes and rope entanglement.

From approximately May to November each year you can see the migrating whales up and down the Western Australian coastline, including Southern Right and Blue Whales! There are some areas that will attract larger numbers of whales such as Geographe Bay in September - October and Exmouth in July - August. It is best to check your local guides! 

What is your most memorable marine encounter at work?

Phew! Hard to pick just one, because for me every day out on the water is memorable.

One that keeps growing in significance for me would be when one of our regularly encountered killer whales gave birth (on my birthday) and the new momma brought her calf over to our vessel in the following days. In an act which appeared to be her showing off how proud she was of her days old baby, I could not contain my excitement, with tears flowing and squeals of pure froth! This encounter is something I could never have dreamed of. A baby apex predator, are you kidding! Seasons have passed, but even now we still eye-balled each other! There’s me going bananas and waving my arms, while she effortlessly swims along below. It seems that time can stand still in these moments!  

Tell us a bit about Naturaliste Charters! What makes them unique?

Naturaliste Charters are an ecotourism company that operate year round in the south-west region of Western Australia. They are the pioneers of whale watching here, and were the first to start Killer Whale Expeditions in Bremer Bay. The company has strong environmental values which is reflected in their eco-accreditation status and being members of premium wildlife agencies such as Australian Wildlife Journeys. The crew have a wealth of experience with skippers holding the Australian record for most amount of days working alongside killer whales.

NC employs Marine Biologists, such as myself, to ensure the commentary given on tour is hot out of scientific journals. We also have the special insight in knowing what research is currently being conducted and will even collect our own research or collaborate with international scientists. For example, we are working with the best marine scientists to currently understand the population, habitat use and social dynamics of Southern Right Whales. While onboard, we can actively collect data which then goes directly to positive impacts for the species. This means that our passengers are funding whale research!

What are your future goals for Marine Science? Are you working on any exciting projects?

My dream for the future of Marine Science would be to have more opportunities for passionate scientists. There is so much for us to learn about our watery world but limited opportunities. There is a really beautiful feedback loop that occurs when we are given the chance to study our ocean in depth. When we learn about its resilience, diversity and alien-like creatures, we fall in love and naturally want to learn more.

I personally am working on a few projects which includes information guides, scientific literature, assisting with building apps (whale-based of course), alongside the current research we do onboard.

Any advice to aspiring female marine biologists?

If you are passionate, you can make any opportunities work in your favour. Keeping in mind both the science and boating industry has historically been male dominated which means you once had to prove yourself. You do not need to prove anything, just go have fun, enjoy the wild ride and make plenty of friends along the way. 

There is an incredible network of us out here, if you need specific advice you can always reach out, especially through social media. Now go and experience all that the ocean has to offer! 

Keen to hang out with Pia and some whales in the South West? Book your whale watching tour with Naturaliste Charters now:

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