One of the most amazing natural migrations is passing along the east coast of Australia. The Humpbacks are on their way north to calve and you can get up close and very personal with them as they frolic and play, seemingly for the awe and amusement of spellbound spectators.
Living on the Gold Coast for more than 10 years now, it would be logical to assume we were regular whale watchers. But no. We have meant to, each and every year. And we have bought our share of vouchers for relatives and visitors, but this was our first time thanks to Gold Coast Tourism and Gold Coast Adventures.
Deliciously crisp mornings this time of year are followed by glorious sunny days, topping 24C in the sun. But that’s on land, in a sheltered spot, at midday. Our whale watching cruise began at 8.30am and the chill wind felt right off the South Pole. Still, some of our fellow passengers donned nothing but T-shirts, shorts and the ubiquitous thongs – the uniform of residents and holiday makers to this region. They would rue that decision.
Our high-tech and high-speed cat. - Tourism Queensland
Under the watchful gaze of the crew of Gold Coast Adventures, one of the several charter companies to set off from Mariners Cove Marina at Main Beach, and raising body temperatures with the free hot coffee, tea and assorted muffins, the Bones took to the high seas.
After heading through the Gold Coast Seaway from the calm of the Broadwater, we felt the effects of the open sea – rolling waves, the breeze cutting through our fleece jackets and making eyes water. Thankfully, the 32m wave piercing catamaran is as stable and as comfortable a platform as you could wish for.
Of the 198 passengers there were just three who sought refuge at the stern for the cross breezes there were promised would ease any seasickness. Most people were still scoffing chips, muffins and other refreshments and looking out for whales.
We were told to look out for the tell-tale puff of steam and water as the Humpbacks rise to the surface and following a dazzling display of dolphins riding in our wake, the first pod was spotted – just 15 minutes into the tour.
Between June and November, thousands of Humpback whales make their way through Queensland’s waters during their migration north from the icy waters of Antarctica to Hervey Bay and further north where they give birth – one of nature’s most mysterious rituals and one which has never been recorded.
The Humpback whales that visit Australia's coastal waters spend their summer months feeding in the Antarctic. With the onset of the southern hemisphere winter the Humpbacks migrate an average of 2,500km from polar waters to their tropical breeding grounds, undertaking some of the longest migrations in the animal kingdom. Although similar migrations of the same species occur in the northern and southern hemispheres, the two populations never interbreed, even where they use the same equatorial breeding waters, because the northward and southward convergences on tropical waters occur six months apart.
Whereas most migrating whales avoid land masses, the Humpbacks follow the coastline reasonably close to shore, which makes them an ideal tourist attraction.
On our tour, three whales breached just 20 or so metres from the boat, which maintained its distance and stayed parallel to these great creatures, as required. The electric blue of their surfacing was so exciting, I found myself squealing along with the gaggle of girls (all wearing the mandatory thongs) at the display. Puffs of water vapour created rainbow arcs above these nobbly giants, which all too soon disappeared beneath us.
Heading further out, we were told sightings of orca pods were frequent this time of year – something I had never heard of around the Gold Coast. By now, 10.30am, the 'weekend warriors' as our host described them, were joining the whale watching fray, so we peeled off to ensure the whales were not hassled by the sounds of too many engines. While they can find the rumbling of the motors interesting, more than four boats and it can be too hectic.
'Humpbacks are naturally curious and like to interact with the vessel,' says Dale Longworth at Gold Coast Island Adventures. 'The shape of our hull and the way it shines down into the water creates a very appealing aqua colour directly below. This entices the curious humpback whales as they can often be clearly seen sitting below us and popping up alongside the vessel to have a look at the passengers onboard.
'This can happen as soon as we pass through the Seaway which is about 15 minutes into the tour. The experience of seeing a whale up close for the first time is a truly exhilarating and unforgettable experience.'
Offering the Gold Coast’s only Eco Certified whale watching vessel , with five spacious viewing decks and elevated viewing angles to ensure that your view is never obstructed, Gold Coast Island Adventures is a family-operated company that has been going for over 20 years.
All too soon, the three-hour tour was over. Thanks to the knowledgeable commentary, we departed wiser and with a sense of wonder about the aquatic world just off the edge of our urban environment – one which is so hastily dismissed by many people as 'the glitter strip'.
Did you know that when Humpbacks migrate they leave their main food source (krill) and have to survive off their fat stores for up to six months? Or that they can hold their breath under water for over half an hour – which would be a swim from Coolangatta to South Stradbroke.
We saw about 10 individual whales during our experience, a myriad of dolphins and 198 very happy faces – some of them more wind-blown than others.
My recommendations? Take a decent camera, slap on your sunscreen, wear warmer clothes than you might think (including shoes), go easy on the coffee and muffins and most importantly, be prepared to feel awe-inspired by these magnificent mammals who deign to share with us their majestic performances. More at http://goldcoastadventures.com.au/ and www.visitgoldcoast.com