There is something almost spiritual about these giants that have graced our oceans for 50 million years, yet we almost drove them to extinction. It is amazing to think that relatively few humpback whales were seen travelling along our shores 15 years ago. These days you can almost be guaranteed of seeing a humpback whale during winter and spring. Australia has advocated the need for whale conservation and protection, and is now reaping the benefits.

Whale watching has become one of the fastest growing tourism industries in Australia, providing revenue for coastal townships such as Merimbula, Narooma, Jervis Bay, Byron Bay, Hervey Bay and Exmouth. It is a big business and one in which everyone benefits – especially the whales.

The economic value of whale watching has sky rocketed. In 1991, whale watching contributed $46million to the Australian economy, while in 2003 this figure had risen to $300million. And it is reported to be worth a staggering $1.5billion internationally! Last year, more than nine million people throughout 87 countries enjoyed whale watching, including some 1.5 million Australians.

Ambassadors of whale watching and conservation, such as Olive Andrews, Frank Future and Mick McIntyre are dedicated to educating other countries on the value of whale watching and many are now reaping the benefits. The Kingdom of Tonga refused to permit the Japanese to kill whales in their waters. Tourists now travel from all over the globe to watch and swim with their humpback whales. It has become a valuable asset to the Tongans and if the whales keep coming back each year, so will the tourists.

SAFE SANCTUARY

The most significant progress in whale conservation to date is the proposed establishment of whale sanctuaries worldwide. In March, 2003, Fiji created a whale sanctuary in its waters and in doing so joined a growing number of South Pacific countries, including Australia, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Niue and French Polynesia, that are now actively protecting whales and dolphins.

There are two main species of whale found in Australian waters; humpback and southern right whales. The humpbacks travel north along the east and west coasts in June/July each year, and return in October/November. During their migration north to the warmer waters of Queensland and Western Australia, the humpbacks travel quite quickly and breach (jump) very little. On their return journey south, they usually travel much slower because they have calves, but can be seen breaching more often.

Places like Narooma, Merimbula and Eden, along the east coast are wonderful places for whale watching during October/November. The best way to view these creatures is from a whale watching boat, as they can quietly follow them several kilometres offshore. You can also enjoy some excellent whale watching almost anywhere along the east coast where the coastline juts out to sea. I remember watching two pods of humpbacks breaching off the Mimosa Rocks National Park near Bermagui.

Southern right whales usually swim very close to the beach or shore and will often stay in one area for several days or weeks. They tend not to breach as much as humpbacks, but I have seen a calf breach four times at Mollymook Beach on sunset, and a pair of adults put on an exciting show of belly-flopping at Narrawallee Beach. Their black and white bellies look similar to that of orcas, but their lack of a dorsal fin helps to distinguish them. Right whales make for great land-based whale watching. If you are approaching whales in boats, please observe the whale watching guidelines.

Other whale species seen along the east and west coasts are short- and long-finned pilot whales, minke whales, orcas and blue whales. Pilot whales are occasionally seen in Jervis Bay and in offshore waters, while the orcas seem to follow the migration of the humpback whales. They can sometimes be seen around Montague Island in May/June, and later in October/November.

BIG BLUES

Once on the brink of extinction, blue whales can be found in a feeding ground off Victoria’s coastline. They grow up to 33 metres in length and weigh 180 tons. I remember seeing one in Antarctica and it was the most beautiful ‘swimming pool blue’ colour when seen swimming below the surface. When the whale surfaced, it was a light motley grey colour.

So, armed with these little bits of information, I hope I have encouraged you to go whale watching. I will be standing on the headlands watching and waiting for that magical whale spout or great splash. I hope to see you out there.

Following is a list of some of Australia’s best whale watching sites. You can even go whale watching in your own boats in some of these areas, but be sure to check with the local authorities first.

VICTORIA

Cape Otway, Bass Strait (May to October). Its surrounding cliffs provide great viewing platforms for spotting right whales and dolphins. Warrnambool, Logans Beach (May to October). One of the best places to see right whales. Other good spots include Gabo Island, Port Fairy and Wilsons Promontory. Gabo Island is particularly good for humpback whales.

INFO & TOURS: Warrnambool Visitors Information Centre, tel: 1800 637 725.

NEW SOUTH WALES

Cape Byron (June-July, September-October) is Australia’s most easterly point. Cape Byron is prime shore-based whale watching. The Cape Byron Lighthouse makes for a fine vantage point as do the surrounding cliffs.

Sydney (June-July, late September-October) offers some excellent whale watching from places like North Head and South Head on Sydney Harbour, Whale Beach along Sydney’s northern beaches and Cape Solander at Botany Bay. There is, in fact, good humpback whale watching almost anywhere you have the coastline jutting out to sea, and where you can get a good clear view of the ocean. Right whales have even played in front of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. The Royal National Park sea cliffs and Stanwell Tops sea cliffs would also make superb viewing platforms. Whale watching boats operate on Sydney Harbour.

Narooma (June-July, October-November). Narooma and Merimbula offer some of best humpback whale and dolphin watching in New South Wales, and there are several whale watching boats which operate from Ulladulla, Narooma, Merimbula and Eden. Narooma is a prime area, as Montague Island and its seal colony can be seen on the same trip, but be prepared to go elsewhere, such as Merimbula, if the Narooma sea bar is closed due to large swells. Sperm whales are also occasionally seen along the New South Wales south coast.

The cliffs off Jervis Bay also make for fine whale watching, especially the ‘Ruined Lighthouse’, which is quite accessible and only a short walk from the car park. You can stay overnight in the Booderee National Park (camping) or neighbouring tourist towns of Huskisson and Vincentia. Or if you have your own yacht or powerboat, stay on Jervis Bay.

TOURS: Byron Bay, Coffs Harbour, Port Stephens (dolphin and whale tours), Eden, Merimbula, Jervis Bay (Huskisson), Ulladulla, Wollongong.

INFO: Tourism New South Wales, tel: 132 077.

IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare), tel: 1800 00 4329 (IFAW).

IFAW WHALE WATCHING WEBSITE (Day-to-day, reports on whale sightings).

WESTERN AUSTRALIA

North West Cape (June-October). Here you can see humpback whales on their annual migration along the Ningaloo Reef, as well as whale sharks from June to August, although the whale shark season extends from April to August. The Ningaloo Reef is famous for its whale sharks and divers can snorkel with them. Indo-Pacific dolphins can also be seen here. If you are planning a whale watching trip to Western Australia, roll up in July and board one of several whale watching/eco-tourism boats operating out of Exmouth.

Monkey Mia, at Shark Bay (June-October, for whales), dolphins, dugongs and turtles. Humpback whales only pass along the coast so you are probably best to board a whale watching/fishing boat out of Perth.

Esperance (June-October). Located at the western end of the Archipelago of the Recherche, the Bay of Isles is a breeding and calving area for right whales. July to October is good for right whales.

May to October is the best time to see right whales in Western Australia, with August to November being the best time to see right whales off Albany.

In Perth, September to November is the best time to view humpback whales, while July to September is the best time to see humpbacks in northern Western Australia. Other sites include Bunbury and Cape Naturaliste.

TOURS: Perth, Fremantle, Geraldton, Exmouth, Carnarvon, Albany, Denham, Monkey Mia (dolphin tours).

INFO: Western Australia Visitors Centre, tel: 1300 361 351.

SOUTH AUSTRALIA

The Great Australian Bight is a great place to see right whales and dolphins. Its massive sea cliffs make great vantage points. The Fleurieu Peninsula, 80 kilometres south of Adelaide, and the ‘Head of Bight’ near Nullarbor, are the best sites during May to October for right whales, as is Victor Harbour (May to September).

Victor Harbour was once a whaling station, but now hosts the South Australian Whale Centre. Ceduna is a top spot during June to October. Other prime sites are Kangaroo Island, Yorke Peninsula, Port Lincoln and Streaky Bay.

TOURS: Ceduna, Victor Harbour.
INFO: South Australian Visitor & Travel Centre, tel: 1300 655 276.
Ceduna Visitor Info Centre, tel: (08) 8625 2780.
South Australian Whale Centre, tel: (08) 8552 5644.

QUEENSLAND

Hervey Bay is the whale watching capital of Australia. August to November is the prime time to see humpback whales off Hervey Bay and the Whitsunday Islands. Morton and Stradbroke Islands are becoming increasingly popular for whale watching, due to easy access from Brisbane.

TOURS: Airlie Beach, Bundaberg, Hervey Bay and Tangalooma.
INFO: Fraser Coast/South Burnett Regional Tourism Board, tel: 1800 444 155;
www. frasercoastholidays.info.
Queensland Travel Centre, tel: 138833.

TASMANIA

Storm Bay is an excellent place to see right whales, as is Coles Bay, located near the Freycinet National Park. The best time is September to November. Other top sites are Bicheno, Bruny Island and Maria Island.

Occasional strandings of large pods of sperm whales occur along Tasmania’s west coast.

TOURS: Bruny Island Charters: tel: (03) 6293 1465.