Having a whale of a time
Whether you live in Sydney or are visiting, any reason to get out on Sydney Harbour should be grasped with enthusiasm. For most of us, the closest we get to the open ocean is catching the ferry to Manly and walking down the Corso to the surf beach.
Thankfully this is all changing and the shift is due to the return of the whales migrating along the east coast of Australia. In the past, seeing a whale off Sydney was a major event. Now several thousand humpbacks pass by each year on their annual migration between Antarctica and the tropics.
To see if we could find any whales we took an afternoon Captain Cook Cruise from Circular Quay on a sparkling Sydney winter day. The trip past Fort Denison and Rose Bay was beautiful. Then we turned east between Manly and Watsons Bay and set off through the Heads.
Previous days had been quite windy so we had been told to expect some swell and to take whatever pills worked best to prevent seasickness. However, the large and new 160-passenger catamaran named “Maggie” was very stable and in the fresh air of the top deck no-one was suffering.
The boat’s skipper headed north towards Harbord as a whale had been seen up that way. It was a young humpback, so perhaps just 20 tonnes of baby fat, and he was more interested in feeding than interacting with us so we went out further where a mother and calf had been spotted.
Whale watching is a closely regulated activity in Australia. The approach distance for a vessel is 100m from a whale but when calves are in the pod, the approach distance increases to 300 metres. To the delight of passengers, whales and dolphins often approach the vessel. In these situations the captain is required to slow down gradually, stop and wait until the animal moves beyond the approach zone. It’s the moments in between that make the cruise truly special.
And so it was for us. The first male had given us some great photo ops with his tail in the foreground and Centrepoint Tower in the background. The calf seemed curious so the boat sat still as they swam around us then dived to surface right alongside, to considerable squealing from all of us. They stayed with us until finally moving far enough away that we could move on – towards yet another whale that proved quite elusive. You’d think it would be hard to lose something that weighs 30 tonnes but we did. Throughout the voyage we had expert commentary from a staff member with a PhD in her study of whales.
In any case, it was time to head back to Circular Quay and we were well on our way when another whale appeared, being very active some distance ahead of the boat. Like the others he was a humpback and he did some partial breaches, flipper flaps and tail slaps before we got the grand finale – a full breach when the whole whale was suspended in mid air before crashing back with tsunami-like force.
As we sailed back through the Heads the sun was setting down the harbour, bathing the whole city, the Bridge and the Opera House in a golden glow. That glow was shared by all of us on board who had just witnessed a great sight of the natural world.
The majority of whales seen along the New South Wales coastline are Humpback and Southern Right Whales, with the occasional sighting of Killer and Minke whales. Throughout June and July Humpback Whales head north for breading before return south with their calves from September to November. Southern Right Whales do not migrate, instead move along the coast finding protected shelters for their young.
Where to go
There are a handful of cruise companies who offer whale watching tours in Sydney. Captain Cook Cruises operates whale watching cruises daily until Sunday 01 November, 2015. Book before 31 July to pay $49 per adult, normally $65, and $29 per child (5-14yrs) normally $40. Whale Watching Cruises operate daily from Jetty 6, Circular Quay, departing at 1.30pm and returning at 4.15pm. An additional morning cruise operates on Saturday and Sundays departing at 10.15am and returning at 1.00pm. With a 99% success rate, Captain Cook Cruises offer a whale guarantee; if a whale is not spotted, passengers can cruise again for free.
For more information on whale watching in NSW click here.
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