Having a whale of a time…

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Humpback random fact time!:

  • The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is the fifth largest of the great whales. Their scientific name comes from the Greek word ‘mega’ meaning ‘great’ and ‘pteron’ meaning ‘a wing’, because of their large front flippers that can reach a length of 5 metres, about one-third of their entire body length
  • An adult humpback’s two lungs, each the size of a small car, are emptied and refilled in less than two seconds
  • After a 12 month pregnancy, calves are born 5 metres long and weighing about 1.5 tonnes. They drink around 240 litres of milk per day and the suckling calf can gain more than 45 kilograms a day during the first few weeks of its life
  • In the past, humpback whales were heavily exploited by commercial whalers all around the world, hunted for their oil, meat and whalebone. Hunting was banned in 1963 after the species became nearly extinct
  • Humpbacks are ‘baleen’ whales, so instead of teeth they have 270-400 baleen plates which hang from the top jaw. They feed by taking big gulps of water and filtering shrimp-like krill and small fish between these plates. Humpbacks can consume nearly one tonne of food each day

Location: Hervey Bay, Queensland
Weather: Blustery wind from the north with great sunshine. 28c

The last few months here in Queensland have given me the chance to get close to some of THE most amazing creatures on the planet…Humpback Whales! From the conversations I’ve had with my Mum and Dad (who’ve been out here and done it all before) and other people up and down the Queensland coast, THE place to come and see the graceful monsters ‘up close and personal’ is here in Hervey Bay.

Humpback whales travel along the coastline of Queensland between July and November, initially travelling from south to north (when I’d seen them from the balcony of the house on Hamilton Island) and then turning south with their young calves after fattening them up as they head back towards the cold Antarctic waters.

Being so late in the season it would be hit and miss as to whether or not I’d actually see any on a day trip out from the marina but as I’m in the area I thought it’d be too good an opportunity to miss out on…

As I walked down the marina to find my boat for the day it became obvious that this is the place to come and watch whales. There’s a fair few companies all offering the chance to get out on the water to spot whales, but all seem to offer a slightly different tack on the activity…

You can choose virtually any means of getting there you want…there’s the hugely overpowered “That’s Awesome” with 1200hp of outboards strapped to the back of a massive RIB operating three times a day for the quick trip, the “Mikat” a larger luxury cruiser which houses up to 95 people and takes a day to motor around the bay, or my choice the sailing catamaran “Blue Dolphin” catering for up to 24 people giving the chance for a small number of people to take a more sedate way of getting around using the power of sail wherever possible.

Captain Pete

Pete and Mel welcomed me onboard and as we cast-off from the harbour I introduced myself to the other hopeful sailors/whale watchers who were on for a ride into the unknown. The wind was blasting from the north and Pete which explained wasn’t the best to get out and try and see whales as the bay would be full of swell with whitecaps making spotting just that little bit more difficult than normal…

Blue Dolphin The catamaran Blue Dolphin

Only ten minutes out of the marina and Robby, one of the local Hervey Bay tourism representatives, cries out “eleven o’clock guys…I’m sure I saw a spout!”…and sure enough there it was, the  distinctive spray of a whale on the horizon. Pete turned our boat into the wind and waves and made for the disturbance on the horizon slowly but surely closing the gap between us and them.
As we approached it was clear to see there were two whales, one mother and one much smaller calf cruising south and as they did so the young beast, still a size-able 5 metres in length, broke the surface of the ocean with a series of breaches, tail slaps and launches into the air….all resulting in a mass of foam and spray, to the amusement of all on board! Cameras clicked, tape rolled and everybody ooo’d and ahhh’d delighted by the immediate success of the mission.

A little wave at us? Photographers everywhere!
We slowly drifted downwind gawping in awe at the pair as they played in the bright light, the distinction between their dark tops and white bellies emphasised by the water and sunshine beaming onto the ocean…this was the perfect time to start using up my memory cards!

We watched them raise their tails with perfect timing as they readied themselves to dive deep again and descended out of our sight into their watery world hidden from view within seconds. It was time to move on….

“Blue Dolphin” was the first boat out of the marina that morning and as the day progressed the radio crackled into life alerting us to sightings made by other operators in the area – these guys help each other out to give the punter the best possible chance of seeing our underwater buddies. There’s no point in working alone on this sort of project as there’s a huge area to cover along the Fraser Island coastline. Another pair had been sighted around ten miles north of out position…Pete made for the new position.

As we neared the area, the sight of another breaching whale greeted us….hang on a minute that’s not one leaping mass of blubber…that’s two, excellent news. Two pairs had joined together and Nick explained that sometimes several groups of mothers with their calves will join together for protection against rogue males looking for a last minute bit of nookie before heading south – something potential mothers want to avoid at all costs. A horrible situation could arise with the mother giving birth to a second calf whilst in the freezing waters of the Antarctic which would almost certainly result in its death due to a lack of milk-produced and fatty blubber, essential in keeping it warm during the cold winter months.

Getting ever closer it was clear to see that in a boat of this size, at just over 10 metres long, the whales pay no attention what-so-ever to the vessel as they splashed and played in the warm Queensland waters breaching every 15 seconds or so giving us the perfect chance to take literally hundreds of photos.

Popping its nose up Breaching 100%

Then as we watch hypnotised from the deck one pair decide to investigate us further and pass right along our side – the calf is huge in comparison to us and that’s before the mother decides to do the same, dwarfing us she moves across our bows so close that her tail actually brushes our bow!

We drift downwind with the group watching from a distance until time gets the better of the day and we finally and reluctantly have to make for port after a truly epic performance from one of nature’s great performers. The vibe amongst my fellow passengers is one of excitement, joy and utter contentment…..we couldn’t have hoped for a better experience and being aboard a yacht has to be the best way to do it for that ‘up close and personal’ experience.

As I jump off back onto dry land my year of whale watching feels complete; whale sharks in Mozambique, Killer Whales in Vancouver and now Humpbacks in Queensland…..so what’s next Australia?

End of day location: Hervey Bay, Queensland
Distance covered: 30kms watching whales!

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