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.

 

The Last of the Whales

Whale off Fraser Island

Whale season is drawing to its inevitable close. Since late July the Bay has been jumping with acrobatic humpbacks, a curious Right Whale and her calf, who hung around for a couple of weeks and even did some breaching, and a few Minki whales. As many as twenty-four thousand whales do the annual migration up the East Coast of Australia and it’s estimated a third of them drop into Hervey Bay on the way down south.

But now it’s only the stragglers left. Mums in a hurry to fatten up bubs before going down to the ice, the cold – and the krill – in Antarctica. Sandy and I left the boys at home to potter and took a whale boat for what will be almost the last whale watch trip this season. There weren’t a lot of whales left and mums and bubs are hard to spot. They’re spending most of their time on the bottom, feeding the calf. Whales aren’t built for suckling. The mother expresses her milk from her body, where, being forty percent fat, it floats in the water. The calf scoops up copious quantities – anywhere from fifty to five hundred litres a day, loading itself up with blubber to insulate it against the colder temperatures down south. It triples its body weight – about one tonne to three tonnes – in its first year of life.

Mother and calf

If the boats are lucky, they’ll come across a lively calf living it up around mum. They’ve got lots of energy and can entertain for long periods as they practise whaley stuff like breaching, tail-slapping, pectoral waves and the like. We saw three pods, most of them passive. We saw some vigorous activity (lots of splashing) a fair way away and the skipper headed over there. But, as so often happens, by the time we arrived it was all over and mum was a floating, breathing log, with her baby close to her side. We did get a burst of activity late in the day, with a calf doing laps and throwing itself around but they didn’t come near the boat so the pictures were more like long distance splashing. Still and all, it’s wild creatures doing what wild creatures do, so everything is a privilege.The camera ran out of power and, after tossing up whether it was worth it, I went down to the cabin to find my spare battery. When I got back Sandy, who was wearing polaroid sunglasses, pointed at a spot nearby. “It’s right there.” I pointed the camera – and blow me down, the little bugger popped headfirst up out of the water. It was the shot of the day. Of the one hundred  and fifty or so pictures I took, I’ve kept three or four. Maybe if I’d never seen a whale before, I would have kept more but I’m an old hand at this whale watching caper.

Still, it was a lovely day out on the water, not too hot and not at all rough, although the wind picked up in the late afternoon. And since we were on Freedom III, the food was marvellous.

Here’s a few photos I took in earlier seasons.

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

Mum is lying on her back, pectorals extended. The calf is crossing her body

 

A mother humpback whale and her calf approach the boat in Platypus Bay

A whale calf rolls over in the warm waters of Platypus Bay off Fraser Island

Whales and dolphins, oh my

The annual whale migration from the Antarctic up both coasts of Australia is underway. Numbers are growing and though it’s early days before the main influx, there are quite a few whales in the Bay. I decided to take advantage of some wonderful cool, calm, Winter weather and go off on a whale watch to see what we could see. I went with minimal expectations – Hervey Bay holds a *lot* of water and though whales are big, they’re scattered and they spend a lot of time beneath the surface, so they can be hard to find. But I was pretty sure we wouldn’t go back to port without having seen a whale up close and personal.

I was right, of course.

Freedom III is one of Hervey Bay’s small fleet of about seven whale watch boats. I’ve been on all of them and they all offer great value for money. But each has its own niche, if you like. Some feed you, one’s a yacht, one’s large with heaps of deck space, some go out for short trips, others spend most of the day. Since I live here, I’m happy to dedicate the whole day to whale watching. It’s about a 45 minute trip from the harbour into Platypus Bay off Fraser Island where the whales are mainly seen, which means if you’re on a four-hour tour, that’s actually two and a half hours up where the whales are. That’s just fine in peak season (August-September-October) when it’s kinda sorta wall to wall whales, but not so early in the season. Freedom leaves at 9:30 and gets back at 4pm, which gives us five hours to find pods. (A ‘pod’ is a group of two or more whales. They don’t stay together for long, it’s more like meeting a buddy and saying ‘hi’, then going off on your own.) While you’re out on the boat, you get morning tea (profiteroles and warm scones with jam and cream), lunch (chicken, roast beef, potato salad, mixed salad with fetta, warm dinner rolls), and afternoon tea (cheese, biscuits, and fresh fruit). You can buy alcohol and/or fizzy drinks, and water, coffee, and tea are on the house.

Context; boat, two whales, and Fraser Island

The weather was superb – few clouds, not much wind, flat sea. Freedom carries 45 passengers, but there were certainly less than thirty, so we had plenty of room.  The vessel headed on up past Moon Point into Platypus Bay and we soon encountered a young humpback who hung about at a distance before he disappeared. Oh well. I suppose some whales are shy. Moving right along.

Curious youngsters checking us out

A couple of youngsters came over to say hello. They’re smart and they’re curious. They can see and hear underwater much better than we can, so even if their eyes are below the water, they can still see the humans waving at them. We caught a few spyhops (that’s when they put their snouts above the water).

Whales are unpredictable critters. One pod we visited splashed around and checked us out, but then the whales went quiet, so we went off to find some others. That’s when we saw our first breach – behind the boat. The two we’d been with decided to perform. Bugger. But that’s how it is with wild creatures. We were in their country and they were just doing what whales do.

I did manage to get a series of shots of another breach. It’s always amazing to see a huge creature fling itself out of the water with a couple of flips of its tail. These are not very big whales. At this time of year most of the whales are juveniles, not sexually mature. You could say they’re whale teenagers. But even so, they’re big. A whale calf is born at about four and a half metres, and they grow fast.Further out in the Bay we were treated to a supporting act from a few of the local bottle nosed dolphins, who surfed the bow. Freedom, like all the whale boats, is a catamaran. Each hull played host to a dolphin. In fact, they were VERY disappointed when we slowed down for a whale encounter. The dolphins went over to the whales to have some sort of fishy conversation. We were told the dolphins surf the whales, too. Whales can travel very fast when they want to, creating a bow wave under their bodies. The dolphins surf on that, the same way they surf the boat.

One dolphin in particular hung around, aware, I’m sure, that we would have to leave and that then we’d pick up speed. Every time the skipper moved the boat he’d be back, waiting for some action. He had a short last run before we moved out of his territory.

All in all, it was a great day, exceeding expectations.

 

 

Not every whale story is happy

The Great Sandy Strait

I’m busy editing my latest book, ‘For the Greater Good’. For anyone interested in that aspect of me, take yourself over to my spot at Spacefreighters Lounge for all the news.

The event that caught my interest this week was the ‘beaching’ of two juvenile whales in the Great Sandy Strait, which separates Fraser Island from the mainland. The strait is treacherous, with shifting sandbars and narrow channels, all exacerbated by the tides. These two young whales must have taken a left at Inskip Point, and simply run out of water in that area between the two occurrences of the words ‘Great Sandy Strait’ on the map, among those islands. A few years ago, a pod of orcas made the same mistake. Most of them made it out to the Bay, with help from the whaling community up here, although two died. Reports are starting to come out that Parks and Wildlife did not want help from the whaling people here in trying to rescue this pair. If that’s true, I’m horrified. Humpbacks have recovered well after having been at the brink of extinction and as their numbers grow, incidents are bound to happen. Some calves won’t make it, some whales will become sick, and some will get stuck in shark nets along their migration route. (I abhor those things – the reasoning is the nets are there to protect swimmers, but they catch anything that hits them – sharks, dolphins, turtles, fish, whales) Surely we must offer them help when they need it, especially if they’re caught up in situations where they cannot help themselves.

And in this context I’ll mention another recent incident captured on video – a humpback encumbered with bundles of heavy rope that had cut into its dorsal fin. Here’s the story told by a young man brave enough to go into the water to help the creature. Mind you, I know I would have, too. Anyway, the story is that the experienced people at Parks and Wildlife were not around to help with that whale because they were down south attending a training session. Which leaves me speechless. Whale season is from July to November, every year, without fail. The first arrivals are always the inexperienced youngsters, the teenagers if you like, and just like human teenagers, bullet proof and willing to take risks – or make mistakes. THAT’s when the experienced rangers should be on duty, to help prevent these mistakes becoming tragedy – especially when it’s about getting entangled in human ropes.

I’ll be going whale watching as part of a mentored photography group later in the month. I’m hoping there will be some happy photos. Meanwhile, here’s some photos from seasons past.

And here’s some of my previous whale watching posts.

It’s that time of year again 2016

The whales are back 2015

It’s whale time in Hervey Bay 2013

 

A whale leaves a footprint made by the huge tail

A young whale spy hopping – checking out the people on the boat

This is a fairly lazy breach. Just enough energy to give the whale a good look around

Check out the size of the whales against this runabout – and they’re not even bog ones

It’s that time of the year again

Raser Island gets rain something like 300 days a year - this is one of those days. We're in Platypus Bay

Fraser Island gets rain something like 300 days a year – this is one of those days. We’re in Platypus Bay

It’s that time of the year again. The whales are back! Humpbacks are on their annual migration from Antarctica to the Whitsundays to have their babies. They stop off in the shallow, calm waters of Platypus Bay off Fraser Island to fatten their calves, mate, and generally mooch around before heading back down to the rich feeding grounds around the South Pole. This break in the journey gives us humans a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with these enormous, curious, gentle giants.

I go whale watching at least once a year, every year. Each trip is different, no trip has been disappointing. Sometimes you see the spectacular breach, sometimes you’ll see mums and bubs, sometimes pods of four or five males doing that macho thing, sometimes a curious juvenile will pause and stick its head above the water to check out the little critters on the boats.

This year a couple of friends and I went out to see what was around. The weather had been poor, with wind and rain, but the bay settled down for us, with a breeze from the south – which meant Platypus Bay was protected by Fraser Island. We encountered a number of pods, most of which were pretty quiet (as in no breaching etc) but the boat was ‘mugged’ by a group of five juveniles which hung around VERY close to the boat and swum under the hull. We saw some tail stands, a bit of tail slapping, and one whale breached on the other side of the boat from where I stood with my camera.

Yes, I took photos. But (clears throat) I pretty much deleted all of them. Operator error I’m afraid. The shutter speed wasn’t high enough to stop the action – which is good sometimes – but not always. However, all is not lost. I have lots of whale pictures. So here’s this week’s photo gallery. I have whale photos on all the sites where I sell pictures. Take a look at Red Bubble or at Dreamstime or at My Profile on Can Stock Photo

A young whale spy hopping - checking out the people on the boat

A young whale spy hopping – checking out the people on the boat

Check out the size of the whales against this runabout - and they're not even bog ones

Check out the size of the whales against this runabout – and they’re not even big ones

A whale leaves a footprint made by the huge tail

A whale leaves a footprint made by the huge tail

Rainbow in the spray. It has just exhaled

Rainbow in the spray. It has just exhaled

This was so close I couldn't catch all the action

This was so close I couldn’t catch all the action

But I did with this one.

But I did with this one.