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Rolling in the deep: How frolicking whales have turned Gold Coast into the ultimate day spa

Whales have been caught on camera enjoying a bit of ‘me time’ at a marine version of a day spa off the Gold Coast and it’s all about the exfoliation, darling.

Apr 19, 2023, updated Apr 19, 2023
A supplied image obtained on Tuesday, April 18, 2023, of Humpback whales using the sandy sea bed off the Gold Coast as a day spa, rubbing themselves on the bottom to rid themselves of dead skin before they return to Antarctic waters.  (AAP Image/Supplied by Griffith University)

A supplied image obtained on Tuesday, April 18, 2023, of Humpback whales using the sandy sea bed off the Gold Coast as a day spa, rubbing themselves on the bottom to rid themselves of dead skin before they return to Antarctic waters. (AAP Image/Supplied by Griffith University)

Griffith University whale researcher Dr Olaf Meynecke has for the first time documented how humpbacks use the tourist strip’s golden sands to rid themselves of dead skin and irritating ocean hitchhikers.

Dr Meynecke didn’t set out to uncover this. He and his colleagues were trying to shed light on the behaviour of competing pods of humpbacks that use Gold Coast waters to rest, breed and socialise.

But over two southerly migration seasons, in late 2021 and 2022, video-equipped sensors stuck to the back of a handful of whales captured five of them rolling around in the sand on the sea floor.

“They were doing these bizarre rolls, going fully on their back and on their side,” the marine ecologist says.

“You could actually see the skin flying off. And then fish would come in and eat it. The fish were also picking skin off the whale, not just the floating skin.”

The whales even seemed to seek out roughly the same area – about 10km from Main Beach, at a depth of 40-50 metres.

Dr Meynecke says he’ll use this year’s southerly migration to look for more evidence of the same behaviour and get samples of the sediment.

He thinks the area where the behaviour has been observed is likely to have a good mix of sand and fine rubble to help with the shedding process.

“If the skin stays on too long, then barnacles can settle. Obviously, they start very small, and while they are small they’re easy to remove,” Dr Meynecke says.

“But once they become bigger they are very hard to remove for the whale. They can get really quite big, and they are heavy and not good to have around because it impacts their movement.”

The video footage also revealed another secret.

Just like humans, humpbacks appear to think time at the sandy day spa is an excellent way to get quality time with their friends or partners.

“The five individuals were doing this in a very similar context, in a socialising context,” Dr Meynecke said.

“We had two whales that were swimming with each other for several hours. They clearly had a very good relationship and they were both rolling on the ground together and having a great time.”

The phenomenon has been detailed in the journal Marine Science and Engineering.

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