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Humpback Whales Hit Great Barrier Reef Early this Year
Humpback whales feeding.
Credit: NOAA.

Humpback whales have been sighted near Australia's Great Barrier Reef weeks earlier than the massive mammals typically show up.

Humpback whales make annual trips to the region, along Australia's northeastern coast, to breed and recover from the harsh, frigid conditions of frozen Antarctic waters, where the species spends much of the year.

On Tuesday afternoon (May 24), a tourist boat spotted a pod of humpback whales about 25 miles (40 kilometers) off the coast of Cairns, Queensland, the Cairns Post reported.

Humpback whales, a species that travels widely across the planet's oceans the whales even spend time near New York City aren't usually seen along the Great Barrier Reef until late June or early July, according to a local dive operator.

Although humpback whales were nearly wiped out by whaling in the early 20th century, the species has made a comeback and their numbers appear to be growing.

"It's a bit over a 10 percent increase each year, which means we'll possibly have close to another 1,500 whales born ... this year," Peter Harrison, director of the Southern Cross University Whale Research Center, told the Cairns Post.

Recently, researchers in Antarctica spotted the largest aggregation of humpback whales ever seen more than 300 whales were crowded into a tiny bay for a feast on krill, a type of tiny crustacean and humpback whales' favored snack.

The Great Barrier Reef's most famous humpback whale, a mysterious white whale named Migaloo, hasn't put in an appearance yet this year.

In other parts of the world, whale-watchers have already gotten an eyeful this year. In Cape Cod bay, off Massachusetts, researchers saw a record number of critically endangered right whales gorging on a plankton bloom just offshore in April.