THE WHALE- WATCHING TEST UNTO THE BREACH
Barry Oliver presents a slew of options for spotting humpbacks, orcas and southern rights
WHALES off the port side.’’ The captain’s announcement is in a brisk, matter-of-fact tone. Been there, seen that. We passengers aren’t so restrained and rush to secure front-row positions, ignoring fears the boat may be in danger of tipping over.
The whales don’t disappoint. Within a minute, a hefty humpback corkscrews out of the water, almost in slow motion, earning oohs and aahs from the audience. It’s a breach. Cameras click and flash as it disappears back into the murky depths with an almighty splash. If it were Dancing with the Stars we’d be holding up perfect 10s.
It’s a show that’s repeated around Australia during our winter months as humpback, southern right and killer whales (orca) make their annual 10,000km migration from Antarctica to mate and calve in the warmer waters of the Great Barrier Reef.
Wally Franklin of the Oceania Project, based at Byron Bay in NSW, estimates the humpback population at between 9000 and 10,000 and growing at the rate of 1000 a year. It sounds like good news until you learn the pre-whaling population was between 40,000 and 60,000. Franklin’s not rejoicing yet: ‘‘ There’s still a long way to go.’’
Meanwhile, whales are strutting their stuff along the Australian coast. In some cases admittance to the show is free: all you require is a suitable cliff-top position and a pair of good binoculars. Otherwise you need to get on to the water, which means booking a spot on a whale-watching cruise, whether it’s a big ocean-going craft with all manner of electronic trickery, or a modest sailing boat. In most areas there’s a lot of choice. While you’re coming to terms with pec slapping, breaching and other whale-watching lingo, you should consider the humpback population was down to about 150 in the early 1960s. That’s how close they came to extinction. ‘‘ We’re very, very lucky to have them,’’ says Franklin. And so say all of us.
THE state gets two bites of the whalewatching cherry: in June and July when they arrive and late August to November when they make their journey back to the Antarctic. It’s mostly humpbacks, but southern right, killer, pilot, minke and fin whales can also be spotted.
Whale-watching cruises operate all along the NSW coast, from Eden, Narooma and Huskisson in the south to Nelson Bay, Port Macquarie, Byron Bay and Coffs Harbour in the north. All the state’s coastal national parks and reserves have lookout platforms for those blessed with infinite patience. Eden, which has a whale museum, makes life easier by sounding an alarm when whales are spotted in the bay. In Sydney, Captain Cook Cruises runs whale-watching trips from June to midOctober out of Darling Harbour and Circular Quay. Passengers get a second free cruise if no whales are spotted. SOUTHERN right whales can be seen close to the shore at Victoria’s Logan Beach near Warrnambool, where the viewing platforms get a serious workout.
Rare blue whales can be spotted off Cape Nelson near Portland, where they arrive in December and remain until May. It’s one of the few places in the world where whales can be seen surface feeding (due to a phenomenon that brings krill and plants to the top). The whales are often sighted within 10km of land and sometimes within a few hundred metres.
WHALE-WATCHING is big business in the west, where the giants of the sea appear from June to September. Key spots are Augusta and Cape Leeuwin (good vantage points at the lighthouse), Albany, Broome, Exmouth, Hillarys, Denham and Geographe Bay.
Humpbacks and southern rights are the usual species sighted, with midday the best time for viewing. In September, blue whales and their calves take refuge in the calm waters of Geographe Bay at Dunsborough. During October, whales can be seen frolicking in King George Sound, an area known for its whaling past. (The former whaling station is now an interactive whale museum.)
HERVEY Bay lays claim to the title of the nation’s whale-watching capital, with the season running from July to early November. The place is synonymous with humpbacks and even holds a festival (August 10-12) to celebrate their arrival.
There’s a huge choice of operators here. Some boats are fitted with sophisticated extras to get the most from the whale-watching experience. This year, for instance, the Tasman Venture is recording the day’s action from underwater windows and replaying it on big screens at the end of the trip. Quite a few craft are equipped with hydrophones to pick up the strange call of the whales.
Cruises also depart from Fraser Island, where the Kingfisher Bay Resort offers whalewatching packages. Fantasea runs trips from Shute Harbour with connections to resort islands in the Whitsundays.
VICTOR Harbor, 80km south of Adelaide, is popular for land-based viewing; some winters the season attracts about 400,000 visitors. The other annual visitors, mostly southern right whales — up to 80 tonnes and 18m long — tend to hang around as well: their top speed is just 16km/h.
There are viewing platforms at nearby Encounter Bay, cruises depart from Ceduna and there are four-wheel-drive trips to watch the whales at the Head of the Bight, where a new sign at the entrance gate records how many whales are in the area (sea lions and great white shark are occasional bonuses). One operator even offers aerial viewing.
If you fall in love with the whales you can go as far as persuading your community to adopt one. Oceania’s Franklin has about 30 humpbacks looking for owners under his Humpback Whale Migration Icon Project (www.oceania.org.au). Byron Bay, NSW, has claimed one named Yumbalehla, which is Aboriginal for always keep moving. The way it’s looking with whale hunting, that sounds like good advice. www.whales-australia.com www.visitnsw.com.au www.captaincook.com.au www.whalewatchingbyronbay.com.au www.naturecoast-tourism.com.au www.sawhalecentre.com www.whales.org.au
Tail spin: A whale surfaces beside a tourist boat in Hervey Bay, Australia’s whale-watching capital, to the delight of camera-clicking onlookers