It’s the middle of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, but the temperature in Queensland, Australia’s Hervey Bay is a balmy 23 degrees Celsius (75F) and the sky above is clear, save a few cotton candy clouds on the horizon. An in-your-face afternoon sun has turned the calm turquoise sea into cellophane white, though a series of waterspouts off in the distance hint at a flurry of activity stirring just below the surface.
I’ve come to Hervey Bay in search of its most famous residents, the elusive humpback whales, whose arsenal of maneuvers, I’ve been told, are unrivaled in the marine world. Completely bypassing any charts that might otherwise describe the scientific reasons for these beloved whales’ behavior, I’ve taken instead to anthropomorphizing. These blows off in the distance, I figure, are the whales’ way of telling me: “Hey. We’re over here. Let’s play.”
As our boat approaches the first pod, the whales become characters in a grand, interactive play. It begins with a slow-motion spy hop (to size me up), followed by a few pectoral slaps (for a big splashy hello). Once we’ve finished with all the formalities, the entire pod leaps into the sky for a few breaches (to show off). Then, there’s a bit of tail slapping (because they know I need the pictures) and the odd peduncle throw or two (because they know I want to laugh).
For Nick Thorp, of Tasman Venture, this is all in a day’s work. Thorp leads tours out of Hervey Bay each winter from July through the end of October when some 16,000 humpback whales migrate up the eastern coast of Australia. That number is down from an estimated 40,000 before whaling began in the late 1700s but up considerably since 1979 when Australia outlawed the practice.
“Humpback numbers are increasing by about 10 percent each year,” Thorp says, making them a rare success story in marine conservation. Thorp cites work done by the Oceania Project, which has studied whale populations in Hervey Bay since 1988 and uses tourists’ pictures to help keep track of returning animals.
This warm, shallow and predator-free bay is protected by the largest sand island in the world, Fraser Island, and has evolved over the years into the most popular resting place for humpbacks on their 10,000-kilometer (6,215-mile) return journey from Antarctica. As such, it’s considered one of the best places in the world to watch these massive mammals at play.
“Humpbacks are the most surface active of all whales -- and the most acrobatic. No other species does this,” Thorp explains, pointing to a humpback that’s just hurled its truck-sized body completely out of the water. “They breach for fun, but it’s also to navigate and to dislodge barnacles.”
Hervey Bay is like a playground where these creatures stop for up to a week each year to relax, do some tricks and, if obliged, hang out with eager, camera-toting tourists. Once they depart from this tranquil oasis, the whales won’t stop again until they reach the cold waters of Antarctica to gorge on krill.
Humpbacks can live up to about 80-years old, but the ones out in Hervey Bay in early August belong to the first wave of migrating subadults, who are between 1- and 8-years-old. They’re a little smaller -- and a lot cheekier -- than the whales yet to come.
A trip out into Hervey Bay to see the humpbacks is unlike any experience you’ll find at SeaWorld; it’s not choreographed, there are no visual cues to guide your eyes to the next big breach, and anything can happen anywhere at any time, leaving whale-gawkers racing around the boat to watch the pods, as Thorp says, “mug, go berserk, then mug, then go berserk again.”
That whole process is a marvel to watch, and it looks a little something like this:
Getting There: The tourist town of Hervey Bay is about 3 hours north of Brisbane, along Queensland’s Fraser Coast. Qantas Link offers a quick 1-hour flight up to Hervey Bay Airport from Brisbane several times daily, while Virgin Australia offers a once-daily direct flight up from Sydney. Whale-watching boats leave from the Great Sandy Straits Marina, a short 10-minute taxi ride from the airport.
Where to Stay: The Ramada Hervey Bay is a short walk away from the Great Sandy Straits Marina and an ideal base from which to explore the region.
While You’re in the Area: Once you’ve tried whale watching, why not go dingo watching on Fraser Island? This Unesco World Heritage site boasts the remnants of a majestic rainforest, a 122-kilometer (75-mile) stretch of uninterrupted beach, half of the world’s perched freshwater dune lakes and hardly any inhabitants -- save the 250 odd dingos. The sandy “roads” have been the site of many an accident over the years, so the best way to explore the world’s largest sand island is on a bus with a reputable company like Fraser Explorer Tours.
***All photos courtesy of freelance photographer Felipe Bascuñán. You can visit his website here.