THE WHALE- WATCH­ING TEST UNTO THE BREACH

Barry Oliver presents a slew of op­tions for spot­ting hump­backs, or­cas and south­ern rights

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

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.

NSW

VIC­TO­RIA

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.

WEST­ERN AUS­TRALIA

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.)

QUEENS­LAND

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.

SOUTH AUS­TRALIA

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

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