Humpbacks of Hervey Bay
Whale watching has been a bucket list item for me since... well, forever. Along with seeing the Northern Lights and backpacking around Europe, it's probably been one of my top ten bucket list items since I knew what a bucket list was. (I think I called those early iterations my "life lists.") I'm excited to say that back in October my dreams finally came true when Emmett and I got to go whale watching in Hervey Bay.
Our day began with a shuttle ride from our home-sweet-tourist-park to the Urangan Marina. Once there, we boarded our boat for the day: the MV Whalesong 2. After some deliberation, I had booked our tour with Whalesong Cruises for two reasons: price and small tour size. Our morning whale watching tour had cost us $115 each and that day our boat ended up with less than capacity - there were only about 30 of us on the tour. Perfect.
It was quite overcast when we set out. I was worried that we'd have a lot of rain, meaning low visibility and rough waters. It didn't rain, though it was was windy. Though wind did not equal choppy waves, thankfully. As a crew member offered us fresh fruit and cake slices for breakfast, we embraced the chilly breeze and staked out a spot at the very front of the boat. Soon the loudspeaker crackled and our captain said that it would be about an hour before we reached the parts of Platypus Bay where the whales are often spotted.
We were all constantly scanning the horizon, looking for any movement. Suddenly, the girl to my left pointed and said to me "I think I saw one jump." We looked and then gasped - indeed there was a whale breaching on the horizon. Collectively, our group at the bow of the boat pointed and our captain steered in that direction. The baby whale was too far away for us to get a video but I did shoot in "burst" mode on my camera which means I can give you the next best thing: a gif. This was how it looked as our boat approached the jumping baby humpback:
It. Was. Incredible. We were all silent except for an ooh or ahh after each splash. We couldn't get enough; it was quite the sight to behold. The baby humpback must have breached at least half a dozen times while we watched. It was almost like she was showing off just for us. Some times she made it most of the way out of the water, other times she just peeped up for a few seconds. Here she is, mid-big jump. (Full disclosure: I don't actually know the whale's gender, it was just easier to call it a "she.")
On the boat, we learned more about all of this breaching we were seeing. There are quite a few theories behind breach behavior. Scientists think that is serves many different purposes including escaping predators, asserting dominance, serving as a warning signal for other whales, and just plain old-fashioned fun. Whales get more and more tired the more that they breach - it's physically exhausting to hurl their heavy bodies so far out of the water. That definitely explains why one of the last breaches we watched our whale pal do looked like this:
Pretty soon the baby humpback stopped coming out of the water altogether. We watched her swim alongside her mother for awhile until our boat set off in the hopes of finding even more whale activity in the bay.
From then on, the whole boat was on alert. Once we'd had a taste of such a magnificent display of whaliness, we were all dying to see more. Emmett and I each took up perches alongside the edge of the boat to look for more whale activity. Everyone was waiting with giddy anticipation.
The boat pulled within sight of Fraser Island's sandy coastline. We saw a few more mother and baby humpback duos, but they were mostly asleep! Apparently whales love sunny days with calm seas because they get to be lazy. We were actually lucky that the day had started out so windy because whales are more active in rougher seas. Anyway, it turns out that a sleeping humpback whale basically looks just like a floating log...
After a buffet-style lunch (they had veggie burgers - score!), our boat cruised alongside Fraser Island in the hopes of finding a whale that was not napping. A whale swam very close to our boat but soon ventured off out of sight. I tried to film it on GoPro, but distance is not a GoPro camera's strong suit.
The next bit of our tour involved a whole lot of watching and waiting. We saw a teeny glimpse of an adult whale breaching but he seemed so small due to distance that it was a bit of a "blink and you'll miss it" moment. The weather was fantastic, though. We soaked up the sunshine as the boat bobbed and we all kept an eye out. Then: another mama and baby were close by. The baby was feeling playful and started splashing around, giving us a good view of his flukes. (Click each image for more detail).
That exciting display ended up being the last of our whale sighting for the day. Mama and baby swam off with a big damp exhale and our boat headed back to the marina. Our captain had been so dedicated to finding whales for us to watch that we ended up returning to the marina an hour later than initially projected. We even spotted a few big sea turtles in the bay on our way back! (Sorry, they were too quick to photograph).
Know Before You Go:
Whale watching season in Hervey Bay is from late July to early November.
We heard from guests at the tourist park where we worked that August is the best time to go. Apparently, around August is when all the teenage whales visit the bay during their migration. Teenage whales are extra curious and will some times pop their heads out of the water right next to the boat to look at the whale watchers face to face. How cool is that?!? Because it's so cool, though, the whale tours in Hervey Bay book up super fast during that time of year, so be sure to book in advance.
Late winter/early spring weather is notoriously unpredictable out in the bay, so be sure to bring sunscreen and a raincoat to stay prepared for any climactic conditions.
Let the tour company know your dietary restrictions in advance! For instance, we only had veggie burgers at our buffet because we'd told them ahead of time that we were vegetarian.
Bring a camera! Obviously, I bring a camera everywhere I go but this is a pretty exciting photo-taking opportunity. I recommend that you put your camera on burst/continuous shooting mode. That's the best way to get shots of the whales during the very narrow window between jumping and landing. As long as you hold the button down, all you have to do is just point in the whale's direction and your camera will take non-stop pictures. You might also want to bring extra batteries in case your camera doesn't hold charge well. You'd probably be bummed to miss out on these photo ops.