An unforgettable experience

Black backs and dorsal fins – a moving pod

It’s whale season in the Bay, that time of year when humpback whales make their annual migration up both sides of the Australian continent to give birth to their young in the warm waters of the tropics before heading back down south to Antarctica for the summer. Many whales on the East Coast run stop into Hervey Bay on the way south to take a break, maybe see if they can get a fin over (the boys) or fatten up their calves for the southern cold (the mums). The sub-adults come along for some fun and to learn the ropes and they’ll often interact with the people on the whale watching boats. Numbers are increasing every year and a few Minke whales and some southern right whales have been spotted, too.

I love whale watching. Armed with my camera, I go out at least once a year and sometimes twice. Some experiences are better than others, depending on the whales. It’s not a circus. They don’t perform to order. Sometimes they feel like interacting with the boats, other times they don’t. But when they do, it’s simply wonderful.

The very first time I went whale watching was 2007, the first year we lived here. We’d moved north from Victoria with a removal van full of stuff and two cars carrying the fragiles, clothes and so on. After wo weeks of unpacking boxes, moving furniture around, buying shelves and sideboards, and all those other jobs associated with moving house, we needed a break. Hervey Bay touted itself as the whale watching capital of the world so we bought a couple of tickets and off we went. On that occasion, Pete came, too. He doesn’t have my passion.

The trip from the harbour to Platypus Bay off Fraser Island, where the whales congregate, takes around forty-five minutes, travelling straight across the Great Sandy Strait to Fraser Island’s Moon Point, then up the channel that runs so close to the beach you can almost reach out and grab a handful of sand. From there, the boats fan out over the wide expanse of the bay and start looking for whales.

That year the whales were in spectacular form.

I parked myself on the boat’s top deck (it has three) while Pete stayed down on the lower deck, closest to the water. I used a Canon 20D. It was my earlier photography days and I had the camera set at sports mode, which is basically shutter priority with auto everything else. You never know when a whale is going to do something so I soon learned to keep the camera up to my eye with my finger hovering on the shutter.

On any whale watching trip you’ll see whales just cruising along like those in the top picture, often in casual groups of two or three that’s known as a ‘pod’. It’s not a family – humpbacks are normally solitary. A dorsal fin will slice through the water, a column of expelled air will spout from the blowhole, then they’ll dive to rise again somewhere else. People who have never been whale watching before will take lots of pictures of backs and fins. Yes, me too, in the early days. But now I want something more to photograph.

The whales have a number of “party tricks” which are really just their natural behaviour. They’ll display their tail fins, roll around in the water, slap their tails hard in an action known as a peduncle slap, wave their long pectoral fins in the air, and perform kind of horizontal rolls in the water. Groups of randy males will get together in ‘fighting pods’ where they’re trying to prove who’s bigger and tougher, and that’s something to see with lots of grunting and churning water.

But all the skippers agree there are two behaviours that are stand-outs: breaching, where the whale flings its whole body up and out of the water, to fall down with a monumental splash. And there’s the skyhop, where the curious whale approaches a boat and hangs vertically in the water with its snout above the surface. Breaches are fairly rare and you have to count yourself lucky. So are serious skyhops.

Friends, on that wonderful trip in 2007 we saw it all. Tail-waving, pectoral-waving, tail slaps – and breach after breach after breach and the most magical skyhop I have ever seen. So… come along and see the photos I took with my pretty amateur camera back in 2007. Excuse the quality – just enjoy the moment.

A tail wave. The underside of the tail is like a fingerprint – every whale’s is different

Waving a pectoral fin. The whale is on its side, relaxed and happy, and there’s another whale cruising along beside it.

A vigorous tail-slap

A (slightly fuzzy) breach. She’s on her way down.

He’s come right out of the water and now he’s heading down for the splash

A truly spectacular back flip

Sideways, horizontal to the surface

The splash down is incredible

Face to face with a humpback. They can see clearly through water and air. The eyes are just below the surface.

So close

Many of my other trips have been marvellous in their own special way. Approaches by a mother and calf, a very young calf frolicking in the water, a pod of six males fighting, and a forty-five minutes ‘mugging’ (where whales hang around the boat, meaning the skipper can’t move until they leave) by a curious teenager. But this first time was totally memorable. I hope you enjoyed the glimpse.

 

A royal visit and a warning

Fraser Island’s rain forest

It’s all been happening here in Hervey Bay. We started the week with a Royal Visit and ended with something completely different… but I’ll get to that.

Harry and Megs arrived at our little airport and it’s wasn’t until then that we learned they were going over to Fraser Island (largest sand island in the world) in different ways. We’d speculated helicopter, but no. Pete, watching the live coverage on the telly, immediately said the car the drone was following was going into town, not to River Heads where the barge leaves for Fraser. Turned out Meghan very wisely decided to skip the bumpy 4WD sand tracks from the barge and go direct to Kingfisher resort in one of our whale boats. Much more comfy for a pregnant lady.

Harry went on the barge and got to see the amazing thousand-year-old satinay trees in the rainforest, and the pristine waters of Lake Mackenzie. Megs missed out.

Of course some of the locals turned out for a glimpse, gathering at the marina. I wouldn’t have said ‘thousands’ but (of course) the media did. After all, the whale season’s all but finished. Gotta look at something.

Personally, I’m very happy for them. They both seem to be nice people and they obviously like each other, which is good. I wouldn’t trade my life for theirs for anything, really. Always under a microscope, always being analysed.

Our bathroom refurbishments were finally finished last week, almost in time for a visit from friends Sandy and Col, and just like last year, just about this time, the four of us had dinner at The Vinyard. You know how it is with restaurants, the moment you extoll the virtues of a place, it changes hands, or the cook resigns, or they decide to change to Hard Rock Café or something. So there was a certain amount of trepidation. Totally unnecessary, as it turned out.

The meal was delicious.

Three of us had grilled Moreton Bay bugs with a salsa and shoe string fries. We were served two whole bugs each with three dipping sauces and as you can see in the photo a heapin’ helpin’ of fries and a whole bowl of yummy salsa. Pete had a beautifully cooked steak with roasted root vegetables and rocket. Since we’d been before we knew the meals were huge so we hadn’t ordered entrees. Just as well. All of us were full up to pussy’s bow. The restaurant isn’t cheap, but since we all only had a main course, plus one bottle of wine and two beers, it wasn’t a hugely expensive evening at all.

Next time you have a spare evening in Hervey Bay, give it a go.

The week ended with Pete receiving an extortion email. I’ve quoted it in full here.

I’ll confess that I laughed. I suppose these people will come across a viewer of porno, or a paedophile silly enough to fall for this stuff, but I didn’t take it terribly seriously. After a moment’s thought I didn’t think it wise to ignore it completely. Yes, they quoted a real password. That might have been a problem. They also said they’d installed malware on Pete’s machine. We checked using Windows Defender, and then again with a more robust product. No threats were found.

We also checked on Acorn, the Federal Police site for reporting cyber crime. They already knew about it.

Here’s their response.

“Australian police are aware of an email scam where users are requested to pay bitcoin to prevent the release of embarrassing footage. The scammers attempt to establish credibility by including one of the user’s actual passwords, sourced from previous data leaks published on the internet. The threats are not credible and no footage exists. The emails should be disregarded.”

So there you are. There are bastards out there, without a doubt. If you’re not using a password generator it might be worth looking at something like LastPass, which I use. It won’t stop leaks such as our mate used to get a live password, but at least it’ll make it much harder for a real hacker to come up with the goods. Have a look – LastPass.

And to finish, here’s a lorikeet. Or five.

What the hell, I can’t sleep anyway

The kookaburras start their territorial battles before dawn, shouting at each other across their arborial borders. Greyish light filters through the bedroom windows, a promise of the end of night. It’s 4:30am. What the hell, I can’t sleep anyway. I head for the beach, taking both my cameras with me. It isn’t cold. Temperatures on summer nights rarely fall to less than 20C. In fact, the car’s outside temperature records as 27C.

I park my car at my usual haunt, where Tooan-tooan creek finishes its meandering flow at the bay. The streetlights are still on, but on the horizon high cloud is tinged with colour. I walk out on the rippled sand bar, splashing through shallow tidal pools with my bare feet, looking for a good place to take a shot. There’s a breeze, and a slight chop, but the tides is at half, and there are pools to reflect the water as the sun rises over the land, even if it isn’t going to be the mirror-perfect conditions I’d hoped for.

I wait. Fraser Island is a shadow in the distance. The last of the bats row through the sky above my head, returning to their roost at the creek behind me. The air is full of high pitched complaints as the colony’s denizens jostle for position in the trees. Beside me, small wavelets roll onto the sand, an endless susurration.

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The colour along the horizon deepens, flares into orange. The sun’s not far away. Behind me, ibises which have roosted on the trees above the bat colony launch into the air to begin their day, flying in stately triangle formation to their feeding grounds. Butcher birds warble in the trees along the shoreline, and groups of gleeful lorikeets swoop, shrieking, to announce the coming of the day.

People appear, some alone, a few with dogs, letting them play in the shallow water before the heat of the day. They cross onto the main sand bank between me and the rising sun and I swear at them under my breath, urging them away so they don’t spoil my shot, as if I have sole ownership of this place at this time.

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Of course, they don’t spoil the shot. In fact, they give it greater meaning.

IMG_4983As I amble back towards my car, I notice a large bird. I can’t see it clearly, but I know them so well now, just by their flight. It is a Brahmani Kite, and as it approaches, even though there’s not enough light for a decent shot, I take one, anyway.

Good morning, world. It’s a beautiful day.

 

It’s whale time in Hervey Bay

Those who know me would be aware that I’ll take any opportunity to go out and watch the whales in my own back yard. In August, the youngsters from last year’s crop show up. They’re young, sexually immature, curious and playful, so if you’re on one of the fleet of whale boats taking tourists out to visit, you’re sure to see a show. The boats are not permitted to chase the whales, or come in too close – but the whales are quite happy to approach the boats for a close-up look at the funny little air-breathers on the decks. I’m sure they do a LOT of people watching and as times have changed and they are no longer hunted, they’re happy to share the space with us.

But this year I was elsewhere in August, so now it’s September, which is mums with bubs time. The females stop in Hervey Bay’s warm, comparatively safe waters, to feed up their calves, building their fat reserves for the cold of the Antarctic waters. Whales don’t suckle. Their milk is extremely high in fat (figures vary so much – somewhere between 30% to 50% seems safe) and has the consistency of yoghurt. The female expresses milk into the water near the ocean floor and the calf scoops up the fatty fluid in its mouth. On this rich diet it puts on as much as 80kg per day. In contrast, the adult whales rarely eat on their migration, relying on the fat reserves built up on krill during the summer months, before the annual migration.

This baby humpback holds itself above the surface to look at the boat

In between feeds the mothers teach their offspring how to do whaley things, like breach to find their way around. Baleen whales, which includes humpbacks, right whales, Minki whales and others, don’t use echo location like the toothed whales – Orcas, sperm whales, dolphins etc. Breaching is thought to be an important way the whales locate where they are. (Scientists also think they do it to knock off parasites and maybe discourage predators. What that means is the only reason we KNOW they do it is for fun.)

Later in the year you’ll see mature males chasing females for the right to mate. They don’t care if she has a calf with her, they’ll shove the youngster out of the way for a chance to get at mum. If there’s more than one male, they’ll fight, using their massive size to try to dominate each other. I once watched a group of five males wrestling, blowing noisy threats through their blowholes and damaging each other with the barnacles that soon attach to every whale’s body. They completely ignored the boat in the way.

Humpbacks are noted for their athleticism. Those incredibly long pectoral fins add to their ability to manoeuvre and seeing one of these massive creatures breach is a privilege. A beast the size of a locomotive launches itself into the air with a couple of flips of that powerful tail, performs some aerobatics and then crashes back down into the water. It’s a wonderful sight to see.

One last factoid – these are southern humpbacks. Their bellies are mostly white. Their cousins in the northern hemisphere are basically black all over.