Between April and November, humpback whales conduct their annual migration along Australia’s east coast, turning the Pacific into the Humpback Highway.
First they travel north to warmer waters to mate or give birth, then they turn tail and head back south. The young males go first, followed by the newly pregnant females, and mom-baby combos bring up the rear.
Along the way, the whales make a pit stop in Queensland’s Hervey Bay (pronounced ‘Harvey Bay’ to us non-Aussies). Hervey Bay is protected by Fraser Island off the coast, giving it calm waters and making it a whale’s playground. It’s considered one of best spots in the world to watch for whales, so I was all in.
Since there were so many operators in Hervey Bay, I didn’t book a whale watch until the week before. Of course it was school holidays, which meant that my first choice – Blue Dolphin Marine Tours – was full.
“We might have a spot on Thursday,” the woman told me over the phone, “but it won’t be like a regular tour. It’s a charter and we’ve got an artist coming who wants to sing to the whales.”
I politely declined and booked with our second choice, Freedom III. The boat was bigger (Blue Dolphin capped their passengers at 25) but still not overcrowded. What clinched it for me was the promise of delicious profiteroles. If the whales decided not to turn up, at least I could drown my sorrows in pastry.
Within minutes of setting off I feared I was going to have to rely on Plan Profiterole.
“Yesterday was a shocker,” the skipper told us. “We must have seen 50 or 60 whales but every one of them disappeared as soon as we caught a glimpse of them.”
He pointed out a whale’s ‘footprint,’ a large, flat circle of water that’s created by the force of a whale’s tale as it dives deep into the sea. When you see the footprint, it’s likely that the whale will remain under for a while.
I don’t blame the whales for keeping their distance; the truth is I’m conflicted about whale watches. Here the whales have found an incredible playground just for sea creatures and then all these humans turn up with their big stupid boats.
There are rules in place – you’re not supposed to get within 100 meters of the whales – but I’m not convinced the rules are always followed. On a number of occasions the skipper got on the radio to non-commercial boats who were getting too close, chastising them for harassing the whales.
The whales we saw were especially cautious; we arrived towards the end of the season, right when the new mothers were escorting their calves south. This resulted in several ‘floating logs,’ which is what you see when the calf is feeding.
For the frisky whales, it’s better to visit in July when the young whales are charging forward on their own. Still, we got a bit of action.
A whale watch is a lesson in patience; we were on the boat from about 9am – 4pm and there were a few whale-less hours in between. At one point I gave up my vigil and went to grab lunch; it was then, with my plate of chicken and salad balanced on my knees, that a mother and baby decided to cruise up to the boat and see what was going on.
The crew dropped a microphone into the water so we could hear them communicating: loud, high-pitched screeches that were unusual but not calming in anyway. I ditched my plate and elbowed my way past some kids to the cushions at the front of the boat for a view of them gliding past.
Whatever these giant mammals are doing – swimming, floating, singing slapping the water, jumping clean out of it – it’s fascinating to me. Eventually the whales descended into the blue and all we could hear was their fading whalesong.
“They must still be pretty close,” a woman announced. “I can still hear them singing.”
“You’d be surprised,” a crew member said. “You can hear them from a long way off.”
“Well, I can hear them pretty good now,” she said. “I think they’ll pop up soon.”
For the next hour she assumed the role of resident whale expert, providing misguided commentary that the crew attempted to refute.
“They didn’t go too deep that time,” she said. “There’s no footprint.”
A circle of flat water shimmered on the surface but the crew said nothing, instead offering around some more profiteroles as we sailed back to the marina.