We left Brisbane on the 7.45am Greyhound bus and were in Hervey Bay – the whale watching capital of Australia - by lunchtime. The first thing I noticed was that the air was warmer and that I didn’t feel the need to reach for my woolly hat! With the sun shining, and in T-shirts and shorts, we set off on foot to the other side of town to the harbour to check out competing prices for whale watching. On the local map we had it didn’t look very far, but it took us about two hours to get there and another two hours to get back! Next time we’ll check the scale box. Our afternoon walk did help us to take in Hervey Bay, the beach, the harbour and the sights (we realised there were no ‘sights’ per se).
We also came to realise that people only probably come to Hervey Bay to do one of two things: whale watching (that’s us) or visit Fraser Island. Every other shop is a ticketing agent trying to sell you a 2/3 day package tour of Fraser Island by 4WD and/or a 1 day whale watching boat trip. We began to feel like we were back in Asia with everyone trying to sell us something. With no opportunities to do the trips yourself you are cornered into handing your money over to the tour companies. We were a little downhearted by that as we had hoped that Australia would have somehow been different on the backpacker route.
As whale watching was something that we had been wanting to do since arriving, we coughed up the dosh for a day trip. We felt a little better when we managed to knock the extortionate price down by $20 each due to it being low season and there being numerous companies vying for our business. With town checked out and our day trip booked for the next day, our work for the day was done, and we set about finding food. Wandering up and down the streets near to our hostel shortly after 7pm, everything was closed – even the fish ‘n’ chip shop – what kind of place was this?! As has been happening frequently since Byron Bay, the chain Subway came to our rescue. This chain seems to be more common in Australia than McDonalds, Starbucks and Pizza Hut, and we have found out that they do incredibly tasty sandwiches with plenty of healthy salad on them!
We were up at 7.15am the next day to get showered, fed and watered before our 8.15am pick up to take us to the harbour (thank goodness we didn’t have to do that walk again!). At the harbour we were greeted with smiles and welcomed aboard a luxurious yacht and told to help ourselves to tea/coffee and cake – I was comfortable straight away.
The captain was very good at giving us a running commentary throughout the trip and after only about 45 minutes from the harbour, he announced that he could already see lots of whale activity a couple of miles or so ahead. The only way to spot a whale is to look out for huge splashes of water as they breach, or the blow of water as they come up for air, and by their ‘footprints’ that they leave behind on the water’s surface where the water swirls in ripples following their movement. I didn’t think it would be possible to see the splashes of water that far away, but you definitely can because an adult humpback whale weighs about 40 tonnes so that’s a huge splash! The blows of water can be seen at least every 40 minutes or so as this is how long a whale can stay underwater before it has to come up for air.
When the yacht stopped, we were surrounded by four different pods of whales and even the captain exclaimed he didn’t know which way to look! As we sat there in the calm water, one of the pods starting swimming closer to us to take a look. I could hardly believe it when they came right up close next to the boat and started lifting their heads out of the water to take a look at us – what curious creatures! It was surreal. Here we were out at sea in the Hervey Bay waters, in the whales’ natural habitat and home where they come to breed after migrating the 12,000 km from south to north and vice versa, and they were coming over to say hello to us. I had honestly thought that we’d maybe see some whales in the distance on this trip and that we would never get this up close and personal to the mammals because they would be scared of the boat and the noise. I was wrong obviously.
I think the whales liked playing games with us and showing off as they breached the water next to the yacht and swam underneath us back and forth from one side to the other making all the passengers scurry from one side of the yacht to the other, trying to get a good photo. It was whilst they were this close that you got to see just how huge these mammals are (some of the ones we saw were about 14 metres in length). After this wonderful extended display from all angles, all pods left us and we watched them swim off into the distance. At this point the captain announced that we would move on but that he didn’t know where to take us next because it didn’t get better than that. He told us we were very lucky and that we should probably buy a lottery ticket.
With an excellent morning of whale watching behind it us, it was time for lunch. A tasty buffet and a glass of white wine for me (naughty but nice).
As we were finishing off our lunch, the captain announced that there was a mother and calf close by. Cue more scurrying of photographers back to the decks. I expected to see a very small whale, but the 2-3 week old calf was already a few metres metres long. Hervey Bay is known as a breeding ground for the humpback whales and they believe this is due to it’s sheltered warm waters.
During the day we saw 20-25 whales, of which 19 were recorded in the log book by the (Irish) marine research student aboard our vessel.