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