27 Sep 2018 WHALE WATCHING
Simon was in Brisbane for a week to spend time with his mum and celebrate her birthday with her. The idea of a whale watching jaunt to Hervey Bay, a 3 ½ drive from Brisbane, was proposed and I was eager to join in. Simon has been whale watching there five times. The first close to thirty years ago with me. The most recent with his wife Nicole, two years ago. I’m not sure if this was Kathy’s first trip. It was my second.
Humpback whales occur in the northern and southern hemispheres. There is even an isolated population in the Arabian Sea. When the Australian whaling industry ended in 1963, it was thought that the east coast population of humpbacks had been reduced to a little over 100 individuals. Now it is reckoned that 20,000 or more migrate from their feeding grounds in Antarctic waters, so that the females can give birth in the tropical and subtropical waters of Queensland’s coast.
Hervey Bay is a whale watching hot spot. It is the home of a flourishing and valuable industry during a season which extends from late July to November. It is sheltered by Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island, a miraculous place with glorious rainforest, freshwater lakes, the country’s purest dingos and beaches tens of kilometres long. The bay is therefore ideal for mothers to give birth or just prepare their calves for the journey back to Antarctica, accompanied by male escorts.
In the whale hierarchy, the humpback – Megaptera novaeangliae, though growing to over 14 m long and weighing as much as 40 tons, is only of medium-size. Females give birth to a single calf and breed every two to three years. Gestation is 11 ½ months. The famed whale singing is produced by male humpbacks. Its purpose is a matter of conjecture.
The day we drove to Hervey Bay was cool and rainy. By evening it was dry, warmer but windy. The weather underwent a complete transformation on the day of our voyage. The sun was out, the wind had all but gone and the sea was calm. Our boat was a catamaran with immensely powerful engines which took us to the whale watching grounds at tremendous speed. It had room for about eighty passengers. There were between fifty and sixty on this trip, even though it was school holiday time. The lady providing the commentary was exemplary. She told us the basic facts and figures about the whales and their migration, described how individual whales are identified, touched on the scientific research being conducted in Queensland waters and explained what the whales were doing as we looked on.
Thirty years ago there was no guarantee of seeing a whale. On that first trip, Simon and I struck gold. Our boat happened upon two young males who were intrigued by its presence and were happy to spend an hour or so in close proximity, swimming alongside only a few metres away and even diving under the boat.
Now, we saw several mothers and calves, some with a male escort. They did not approach the boat, because they were otherwise engaged, but allowed us to watch them from a distance of fifty metres or so. As we sped further into the bay towards Frazer Island, we passed several more whales, until we reached a large female alone with her calf, who was willing to let us come much closer, though not as close as the two young males. Calves weigh a ton at birth and are up to 4 m long. This one was a few weeks old and had grown considerably, but to my eyes, because it was just about bigger than any other animal I had seen, it didn’t possess an iota of cuteness.
The mother repeatedly rolled over and hit the water with her enormous pectoral fin. The calf frolicked nearby. At one point it rested on its mother’s head. The mother next resorted to breaching, though she was just shy of fully emerging from the water. The calf’s attempts to copy her were initially clumsy, until, towards the end of our time with them, it successively leaped above the waves. In due course a male joined them. We spent an entrancing hour in their company. The wind had picked up by the time we headed back to shore, but the going remained smooth. How incredibly fortunate I am, to live close to so many natural wonders.