I went whale-watching for the second time this season last Monday. I’d been watching the weather forecasts, looking for the very bestest day when the bay would be calm and the wind a zephyr and when the planets were in alignment I’d booked my trip on my favourite boat, Freedom III, for the following week. But the weather gods are fickle. Checking the forecast on Sunday for the following Monday, I noted that the wind was forecast to be coming from the north, a little more briskly than a zephyr. I’ve been told by the knowledgeable boating folk (I’m looking at you, Bruce) that a wind from the north isn’t nice. It blows down the throat of the bay and makes for a lumpy ride. I wished I’d booked for Wednesday, when the wind was supposed to be gentler. But it was too late now.
Next day, Peter dropped me off at the marina and, armed with my trusty Canon, a spare battery, and a cap I doubted I’d wear, I made my way to Freedom‘s boarding ramp and gave my name. I wasn’t listed on the manifest. I explained I’d received a confirmation and everything so we went to see Sue. She checked her records, while I found the email on my phone.
“Ah, that’s it,” she said. “You booked for Wednesday.”
I could go out on Wednesday. That meant I’d have to send an SMS to Peter’s mobile to pick me up and kick my heels at the boat harbour waiting for him. His mobile was sitting on his desk and he had a few errands before he went home and found the message. But on the other hand, Freedom‘s skipper assured me the weather forecast was essentially the same all week and I was welcome to go on today’s trip.
Well… I was there and feeling suitably silly so I went.
At this part of the season most of the curious, teenage whales have headed off back to Antarctica for a Great Big Feed. By now, they’re hungry because they hardly eat at all on the Great Migration. We’d be seeing mums and bubs and randy males looking for a bit of nooky. There’s a chance of some breaching from the big boys but also from exuberant calves learning the ropes of being a whale.
The forty-five minute trip out to Platypus Bay off the coast of K’Gari (Fraser Island) was a roller-coaster, riding up the waves and down into the dips. We stopped halfway in the lee of K’Gari for a morning tea of profiteroles and scones, baked fresh that morning, then we set off for the next part.
When we arrived at Platypus Bay our lovely skipper, Toni, slowed down and we went in search of whales happy to stay and chat. There were plenty around but sometimes they’re not interested and the subadult we encountered first didn’t want to know about us. So we moved on.
The next lot didn’t want to know about us, either, but that was because they were fighting amongst themselves. It’s called a fighting pod, a collection of males all vying for the right to mate with a female. Keith, the owner of Freedom, says the biggest pod he’s seen was nineteen whales. This one had about five. There’s a lot of testosterone flying around, much blowing and thrashing and jostling and bashing. The female at the centre of it all had a calf, but the males have no respect for a youngster. If it’s in the way it’s brushed aside. We’re told a female can become pregnant as little as two weeks after giving birth. What a life. Pregnant for a year, at the same time bringing up the latest calf? I’ve heard they’re more likely to have a calf every other year. And she chooses the father. Here’s an intro to our whales.
We left them to it and cruised on. There were whales everywhere. I got a sharp snap of a whale doing a peduncle slap just to our port side. Nobody had realised it was there.
I was chatting with another passenger and mentioned what we really needed was a mother and boisterous calf. The babies, full of rich milk, sometimes do breach after practise breach. The words were no sooner out of my mouth when we came across a mother and calf. The calf treated us to a couple of lovely breaches before I could get my camera into position to take a picture.
Lunch time was approaching. Toni slowed down and manoeuvred the boat to reduce the pitching as much as possible while we ate our roasted chicken wings with coleslaw, potato salad, green salad, and fresh warm bread rolls. I was last to collect my lunch because I was watching several whales breaching a long, long way away and maybe if we weren’t doing lunch we could have sped over there for a look. Having said that, what usually happens is you speed over there and the show stops.
Lunch over, we searched for another pod (even if it’s one whale, it’s a pod). We came across a super relaxed young whale drifting on his back on the surface, lazily slapping his pectoral fins. Interesting fact – it you want to know how long the whale is, measure its pectoral fin and multiply by three.
This guy was a straggler from the first wave of teenagers and when Toni turned on the boat’s music system playing such hits as Johnny Be Good, Mambo No. 3, Twist and Shout, and other sing-along hits for oldsters, the whale decided to investigate. He hung around for about an hour, circling the boat and checking out the people. He didn’t do any spy hops but lots of rolling around. I figured I got lots of great pictures of the whale’s eye. Whale’s eyes are comparatively small, about the size of a cow’s eye.
We knew it was a male because, since he was rolling around, we got a look at his genital slit on his belly just in front of the tail. Males and females both have slits but the females have a hemispherical lump near the entrance, the males do not. The males keep their equipment tucked away inside their bodies and only pop it out when they’re ready to do the deed. Stands to reason. The water’s cold around Antarctica.
We had afternoon tea on the way home, cheese and biscuits and fresh fruit. If you hadn’t had your free drink (wine, beer, soft drink) at lunchtime, you could have it now, or buy yourself another.
I was looking forward to getting those picture off the camera and onto my computer. They were going to be great.
And here’s the sad bit.
When I go whale-watching I set my camera to TV (shutter priority) to take photos of moving objects. I was all set up went I left home, with aperture set to 1/500 and ISO at 320. But as I’ve mentioned, it was rough out there with plenty of water sloshing around, even sitting at the back of the boat. I had to mop the camera and then tucked it under my waterproof coat. Somehow, I must have managed to alter the aperture setting to 1/160, which meant most of my lovely photos turned out to be artistic blurs. Look carefully and you’ll see almost every picture I took is slightly blurred.
Still, I got to see all that. Not everyone has the opportunity.
However, I’ve seen breaching calves and fighting pods before, so here are some I prepared earlier.