Whale watching can be hit and miss.
On my first go, off Sydney in the mid-1990s, my elderly father gripped the rail on the upper deck pretending not to be nauseous while looking as white as a seagull, while down on the lower deck my partner was retching out the window and wailing, “Tell the captain to turn back immediately! Please, I’m begging you!”
We saw just one whale: a blink-and-you’ll-miss faraway flash of its tail that blew our ‘no sighting’ refund right out of the water.
You won’t have issues like this in Hervey Bay, in southern Queensland. It became the world’s first Whale Heritage Site in 2019, and although four others have since been proclaimed (two in South Africa, one each in the US and Spain) Hervey Bay offers a whale-watching experience unlike any other.
Humpback whales are hard to spot at sea, as they typically go underwater for 5-10 minutes at a time (the longest yet recorded is 48 minutes!).
Harvey Bay, though, is a safe ‘stay and play’ area for newborn calves, bounded by K’gari (formerly known as Fraser Island) on one side and the mainland on the other.
“It’s a shallow, warm area of water protected from ocean swells, giving migrating humpback whales perfect conditions to raise their newborn calves,” says Andrew Ellis, the director of Australian operations at Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) and PacWhale Eco-Adventures Australia.
“It creates the best place in the world to view humpbacks in their natural habitat. The shallow waters mean increased surface time not found anywhere else on the planet on a consistent basis.”
It’s also a perfect place for romantic sunset cruises: No spilling champagne and no lurching on deck, no begging the captain to turn back!
PWF has been studying humpbacks in Hervey Bay for the past 36 years.
“Each one is individually recognisable from the markings on its fluke, so scientists can work out population data easily,” says Andrew.
“The population’s rising at about 10.5 percent each year, one of the most remarkable recoveries of any species known to man.”
The East Australian population, once as low as 300-500 humpbacks due to commercial whaling, is now about 30,000, he says. It’s not all stay and play in Hervey Bay for the mothers, though – they have to produce about 300 litres of milk every day for their calves.
Hervey Bay’s whale watching season runs from July to October each year, celebrated annually with a whale festival, including a street parade and ‘big paddle out’.