Hump­back whales on hol­i­days

Her­vey Bay on the Fraser Coast is prime ter­ri­tory to view leviathans of the deep

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - LOUISE STE­WART

WE have had our share of sloshy, sickly ferry rides in the past and the sight of the five-storey Spirit of Her­vey Bay is giv­ing us some cause for trep­i­da­tion. With our sev­en­month-old daugh­ter, Flo, in tow and a six-hour voy­age ahead, we set our con­sti­tu­tions to salty sea dog and pa­tience di­als to ex­treme as we roll the pram down the gang plank.

‘‘First, a few house rules,’’ an­nounces skip­per An­drew as we cruise out of the ma­rina. ‘‘Noth­ing goes down the toi­let you haven’t eaten. It can get very breezy on the top deck, we lose a heck of a lot of hats. And we’ll be serv­ing morn­ing tea soon. For those look­ing for some­thing stronger, the bar opens at 10am.’’

I shoot a glance at my part­ner, Jon, who’s now got Flo strapped to his front. We both scan the deck won­der­ing which of the booze-cruis­ers will be the first to crack open a tinny.

What fools we are. This is no ferry and th­ese folk are here for an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent in­tox­i­cant; it doesn’t take long be­fore we take the first heady sip.

As we head through the Great Sandy Strait that sep­a­rates Fraser Is­land from the main­land, Pel­i­can sand­bar rises from the turquoise wa­ter like some cartoon desert is­land. All it needs is a thatched shack sell­ing cock­tails.

Two seabirds race along­side the boat, keep­ing pace for a few min­utes be­fore mov­ing into fifth gear and over­tak­ing us. The Fraser Is­land beach is fringed by palm trees cast­ing long, dark shad­ows across its blind­ing-white sand, turn­ing the shore into a gi­ant bar­code.

As we are tak­ing in this only-on-a-post­card view, An­drew an­nounces a hump­back calf has strayed from the bay and is swim­ming around the sand­bars. Thirty pairs of eyes quickly nar­row, scan­ning the wa­ter’s sur­face for the tell­tale white. An­drew kills the engine and we wait.

Within sec­onds, a smooth, black ex­panse of shiny back arches through the wa­ter, just 20m from the star­board side. The enor­mous grey shadow moves around the boat.

‘‘It’s a young­ster,’’ An­drew an­nounces. ‘‘Prob­a­bly two or three years old, weigh­ing around 10 tonne.’’

He adds that once fully grown, its lungs will be the size of a small car. Its heart will weigh more than 200kg. With th­ese ab­surd num­bers spin­ning in my­head, sud­denly I see the sur­face break and there’s a col­lec­tive gasp from al­most all the pas­sen­gers, per­fectly syn­chro­nised with the whale’s awe­some blow.

It’s close enough to see the small bar­na­cles on its skin. In Moby-Dick, Her­man Melville wrote that the hump­back ‘‘is the most game­some and light-hearted of all the whales’’. The de­scrip­tion is apt; our whale swims right up to and then un­der the boat, seem­ingly en­joy­ing play­ing with us.

I am not sure what I thought the ex­pe­ri­ence of see­ing a whale this close would be like. I am per­haps strug­gling with the im­prob­a­bil­ity of this gi­ant an­i­mal even ex­ist­ing. Sure, we’ve seen them de­picted in sto­ry­books from child­hood, but as fa­mil­iar as the idea of a whale may be, its re­al­ity is both ex­hil­a­rat­ing and be­wil­der­ing. Th­ese gi­ants of the deep may as well in­habit a dif­fer­ent planet, but here they are, swim­ming among us.

The en­ergy on board is pal­pa­ble. Ev­ery­one (in­clud­ing the crew, who must have seen this spec­ta­cle a thou­sand times) has a huge, child­like grin.

As we head farther out into the bay, morn­ing tea is served.

We take the chance to pop Flo into her pram and soon the mo­tion and gen­tle hum of the engine sends her to sleep. We­sip our cof­fees and munch on bak­ery-fresh buns on one of the rear decks.

Spirit of Her­vey Bay con­tin­ues cruis­ing Platy­pus Bay, hug­ging the north­west side of Fraser Is­land. Crew­man Craig says he caught sight of a whale a few kilo­me­tres back. There are no tell­tale foot­prints (gi­ant cir­cles of still wa­ter cre­ated by the flick of a tail un­der­wa­ter and a slick of whale oil) but this, he is sure, is the spot. Sure enough, up one pops, right in front of us, but it is not alone. We are vic­tims of what Craig an­nounces as ‘‘the first mug­ging of the sea­son’’. Three crowd-pleas­ing hump­backs are per­form­ing for us, rolling in unison. Crew mem­bers tell us to clap and wave to at­tract their cu­rios­ity, and now we watch­ers have be­come the watched.

The whales are sur­pris­ingly ag­ile and ac­ro­batic, breach­ing within a few me­tres of us, rolling to show off their white bel­lies, danc­ing to­gether in a sur­real dis­play of large-scale syn­chro­nised swim­ming.

Of course, this in­ti­mate in­ter­ac­tion be­tween hu­mans and hump­backs wasn’t al­ways so in­no­cent. In the ‘‘bad old days of Aus­tralian whal­ing’’, An­drew ex­plains, ‘‘more than 40,000 hump­backs were slaugh­tered’’. They were hunted to near-ex­tinc­tion to make soap, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals and ten­nis rac­quet strings. The east coast pop­u­la­tion dwin­dled to less than 300 by the time com­mer­cial whal­ing was banned in 1986.

Now, more than 17,000 whales mi­grate an­nu­ally along Aus­tralia’s east coast, from late July to Novem­ber. From their freez­ing feed­ing grounds in the Antarc­tic they jour­ney north to mate and give birth in the warm wa­ters of the Great Bar­rier Reef.

On their re­turn trip, around half stop for some R&R in the sanc­tu­ary of Her­vey Bay, which means it’s one of the best places for view­ings — they are not pass­ing by, they are on hol­i­day and want to play.

The first to ar­rive are the teenagers. In Septem­ber, mothers come with their calves to teach them sur­vival skills be­fore their re­turn to the Antarc­tic. In Oc­to­ber, the males ar­rive, try­ing to out-mus­cle each other in their pur­suit of fe­males.

Craig spots an­other pod in the dis­tance. We soon see a hump­back. Then an­other. And dol­phins leap­ing through the clear wa­ter, as though lead­ing the whales in some sort of mad cetacean mardi gras pa­rade.

There are at least a dozen dol­phins and eight whales. This sight­ing is dif­fer­ent. Each pas­sen­ger is silently ab­sorb­ing this won­der of na­ture.

The hush is bro­ken by a soli­tary whale per­form­ing a tail slap. He heaves his gi­ant tail out of the wa­ter, slam­ming it back down on to the sur­face with a mighty thwack. He re­peats this move an in­cred­i­ble 41 times over the next 10 min­utes to a mute au­di­ence, our jaws agape.

Fi­nally some­one cracks and the bar sells its first drink. What an ap­pro­pri­ate and re­fresh­ing cel­e­bra­tion of a mag­i­cal morn­ing and, yes, the sun has def­i­nitely crept over the yardarm.

Louise Ste­wart was a guest of Tourism Fraser Coast.


Mi­grat­ing whales en­joy the sanc­tu­ary of Her­vey Bay; dol­phins can also be viewed on tourist cruises

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