Every year one of nature’s great spectacles takes place off the coast of eastern Australia. Around 16,000 Humpback whales travel some 10,000 kilometres to breeding lagoons on the Great Barrier Reef. Here they give birth and mate before attempting the return journey with their young. On their way back to feeding grounds in the Antarctic, around half of the whales stop in the sheltered waters of Hervey Bay.
Hervey Bay is protected by the immense Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island, and is probably in the top three places on the planet for seeing Humpback whales. Here they rest, socialize and play with their calves before heading south. To be in a small sailing boat surrounded by mothers and their calves breaching, spyhopping, lobtailing and slapping their fins on the water, is a magnificent experience. One I will treasure for many a year.
So good are your chances of spotting a whale in Hervey Bay, around 80,000 people come here every year to see them. That itself is something of a miracle. Globally, over 250,000 Humpbacks were killed by whalers, bringing them to the brink of extinction. When commercial whaling was banned in 1986, the original population on the east coast of Australia had plummeted from around 60,000 to 100.
Humpbacks can live up to 50 year, and I find it extraordinary that they are prepared to tolerate the whale watching boats. They exhibit no residual fear, or antipathy, and sometimes come thrillingly close. An adult female can measure 18.5 metres in length, and top the weighing scales at 40,000 kilogrammes. When they are coming directly towards your small boat you have reason to be concerned.
I arrived in Hervey Bay at night after a long drive from Crows Nest. I’d booked a self catering apartment but, when I arrived, the office was closed. Luckily there was a sign on the door saying ‘Bell’. Next to the sign was the door bell. I dutifully rang it and a disgruntled looking woman opened the door. I explained I’d booked a room, she looked at me like I was an imbecile.
I was confused by her obvious annoyance. She said, “You’re Paul, right?” I replied that I was. “Paul Bell, right?” Correct again. She then pulled the envelope with the word ‘Bell’ written on it that was taped to the door, off the door and handed it to me. Inside was my key. I tried to explain that, because it was next to the door bell, it wasn’t obvious that it was intended for me. Her withering look silenced me.
I’d arrived late, I’d annoyed the owner, I had a self catering apartment but no food, and the nearest supermarket was closed. At this point I threw in the towel and headed to a nearby pub I’d spotted on my way to the apartment. As I relaxed with a beer and ordered food, I made plans for an early start and my trip into Hervey Bay. Tomorrow would hopefully be a day to remember.
There are many operators offering whale watching trips, but I wanted a small boat that offered a more personal experience. I sailed with Blue Dolphin Tours on their sailing catamaran skippered by the owner, Peter. They sail with no more than twenty people, although the day we went there were only eight of us. We started at 7.30am and the trip lasts for around 8 hours, giving lots of time to spot whales. You also get a tasty lunch.
It was a great experience. Not only because we saw lots of whales, including two groups that came together right next to the boat, but because it was glorious to be sailing on the open ocean in fantastic weather. I can heartily recommend it.