Having a whale of a time

Humpback whale fluke in Hervey Bay
Humpback whale fluke in Hervey Bay

Stretched taut like delicate fabric on an embroidery frame, there’s not even a wrinkle in the Coral Sea below me. Weather conditions are ideal for a light aircraft flight across Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, where spiralling threads create one of nature’s greatest designs, an intricate pattern visible from space.

But as I head towards my destination, Hervey Bay, in southern Queensland, I realise I’m not the only traveller in transit. Below, a procession of sea-salt plumes chugs purposefully northward, part of an epic annual migration of humpback whales.

From the end of July until mid-October, thousands of these mighty marine mammals leave their feeding grounds in Antarctica in search of warmer waters to calve. It’s a phenomenon that’s been happening for centuries, although a short-lived but decimating whaling industry reduced numbers to just 150 in the 1960s.

Yet today, Australia’s east coast humpback population is booming, with an estimated 30,000 annually visiting the Barrier Reef. It’s one of the few positive stories to emerge from the beleaguered region, currently grappling with the damaging effects of climate change and warming waters, and proof this is still one of the most dynamic and resilient eco-systems on the planet - not to mention an enduring magnet for tourists.

While whales can be seen along the coastline, one of the best places to observe their behaviour is Hervey Bay, a shallow, sheltered body of water buffered by World Heritage listed Fraser Island - the largest and oldest sand island in the world.

Chatter-filled, open-front cafes and informal seafood restaurants line a long, laid-back esplanade, although most of the whale-watching action is centred around the Great Sandy Straits Marina, where my hotel, Mantra Hervey Bay, is a five-minute walk from the jetty - convenient for 7am tour departures.

Along with his wife Patricia, Dr Wally Franklin has been studying Australia’s east coast whale population since 1989, and he estimates 34% of migrants pass through Hervey Bay. One of these is prolific breeder Nala, a local celebrity who’s gleaming statue breaches above the Fraser Coast Discovery Sphere educational centre.

The pair’s research has shown that whales spend between 1.4 and 2 weeks “resting” in the bay, making it a “globally unique” place to witness their interaction and behaviour.

“Because the whales are stopping and socialising with each other, you’re getting to see them do a lot of surface things - like breaching, head rising and pec slapping,” Wally tells me over the phone from his home in Byron Bay. “That makes for incredible whale watching.

“As the season progresses, you’re getting to see different whales and different behaviours, so there’s wonderful variety as well.”

Enthused by Wally’s words, I’m eager to set sail. But as well as getting out on the water, I’m hoping to get in there too.

Last year, a trial ‘swim with whales’ scheme was launched in Hervey Bay - although it’s only really beginning to take off this season, with 11 boats licensed to sell the experience.

On a windy July winter morning, I join skipper Peter Lynch on his sailing catamaran Blue Dolphin. Carrying just 20 passengers, the full-day trips are intimate and travel at a much slower pace than other whale watching boats. By lowering a platform into the water, Peter offers an “immersion experience” with the whales, and commendably doesn’t levy an additional charge.

“So far, we’ve not been able to get in the water very often,” he tells me, as the shadowy outline of the marina’s pier fades away and a watery horizon drifts into a haze of clouds. Stringent restrictions, including the need for guests to have feet already in the water while the whales are still at a minimum 100m distance, are proving challenging.

There may be no chance of getting my toes wet today, but there are plenty of other distractions to keep me entertained. Within 45 minutes of leaving the harbour, I’ve seen all manner of acrobatic tail flukes, furious peduncle throws and energetic games of tag with porpoising dolphins.

It’s no wonder Hervey Bay has passed the first stage in being named a Whale Heritage site, an application process in which Peter, a former SeaWorld employee, is heavily involved.

My second stab at snorkelling with cetaceans comes on a trip with Hervey Bay Whale Watch on their speedy, multi-level Quick Cat II. Couple Brian and Jill Perry pioneered the area’s whale watching industry in 1987, although they’ve since sold the business to another family.

There’s a chance to swim with whales on every trip if the conditions are suitable (costing an additional $95AUS/£57, payable only if you actually get in the water) and so far they’ve had a 50% success rate.

“Firstly, we’ve got to find the right whales,” explains Sam, a tousle-haired twenty-something who works seven days a week on the boat for his father. Suitable candidates are apparently individuals who show interest in the vessel, without being too boisterous or playful. And females with newborn calves are a total no-go.

Our voyage gets off to a slow start. Most of the whales we pass are snoozing, suspended on the surface like yogis in a meditative state. But when two curious individuals start circling the boat, I wonder if this might be my chance to join their underwater dance. After three laps, Sam is convinced these are indeed “the right whales” and we scramble into our swimsuits and snorkel masks.

Six people at a time are tied to a rope attached to the boat, and in a flurry of excitement we quickly become knotted in a tangle of arms and legs. A rousing symphony blares from two large speakers (whales apparently respond better to sound), followed by cheers and applause from the on-deck audience as our headline stars glide into the limelight.

Despite poor visibility in the silty water, the outline of two giant white-bellied, pec-arching angels is unmistakable. Intrigued by his new playmates, one pops his barnacled head gently above the surface - another spins slowly beneath us like a propeller plane in slow motion free fall.

Separated by liquid walls where distance is distorted, at times it feels as if we’re only metres apart.

“This is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me!” squeals one girl through her snorkel. No-one can be certain the whales share her sentiments, although the fact they stick around for a remarkable 30 minutes suggests they must be having fun.

Not everyone, though, is so enthusiastic about the experience.

“Trish and I are strongly opposed to the programme,” says Wally, who bases his decision partly on the risk factor involved in swimming with such large and powerful wild animals.

More importantly, he believes it’s a distraction which “undermines and diminishes the value of vessel-based whale watching”.

But does any form of whale tourism potentially disturb or alter the whales’ behaviour? On that issue, Wally doesn’t seem too concerned.

“Whales evolved to their present form between 12 and 23 million years ago,” he explains. “Even before Hervey Bay and the Great Barrier Reef existed.

“They’ve been able to adapt to incredible changes, whereas we’re not showing a lot of capability in our rather short lives.”

Those word echo around my head as our whales bid farewell with a final flick of their flukes.

Like Wally says, chances are they’ll probably still be here when we’re long gone.