Destinations Magazine

On the Trail of the Mighty Humpback

By Russellvjward @russellvjward

There is no animal on the planet that evokes more of an emotional connection with we humans than the whale.
We have an intense affinity with these mammals - to protect them, see them flourish, and delight in their incredible journeys across the world's oceans. And I, for one, never fail to be amazed by these gentle leviathans playing before me in the wild.
Off the west coast of Vancouver Island, I followed gray whales near the remote fishing village of Tofino. As a teenager, I sponsored two right whales tagged in the waters near eastern Canada and the US. Magnificent creatures so named because they were the 'right' whale to catch due to their meat and high oil content.
Living on Sydney's Northern Beaches, I count myself extremely fortunate. Every year, humpback whales, southern right whales, and even blue whales make their way along the coast - up and down the 'Humpback Highway'. It's a privilege to stand on any of the local headlands and spy the tell-tale spouts of water or the occasional tail fluke as these beautiful animals migrate close to our shores.
When the opportunity arose to track whales along the east coast of Australia as part of the State Government's Wild About Whales campaign, I could therefore hardly refuse.
After all, this was my kind of adventure.

On the Trail of the Mighty Humpback

Heading out in search of humpback whales.

On an overcast Friday evening, I arrive at the Q Station in Manly. A former quarantine station, it was transformed into a boutique hotel while still retaining the historic features of its former life. Nestled on the North Head of Sydney Harbour and set amidst stunning national parkland, it boasts one of the premier views of Sydney and is the perfect spot to glimpse a whale or two passing by.
But not tonight.
It's late in the evening and work commitments have prevented me from joining the group's earlier efforts to spot whales with marine fauna programs coordinator, Geoff Ross. Instead, I'm treated to the delicious local cuisine served up at the Boilerhouse Harbour Restaurant and hope that the weather clears up in time for our two-day road trip and whale watching expedition to the north.
Early the next day, we set off in a pair of brand new Subaru Forrester 4WDs in the direction of Port Stephens, New South Wales. It's an area of outstanding natural beauty less than three hours from Sydney and, thankfully, the sun is out and the clouds are absent.
The outlook is good for an afternoon's whale watching.
After a brief pit stop at Murray's Craft Brewing Co. on the outskirts of Nelson Bay where I taste arguably the most delicious pizza outside of Italy and am served continuous tasters of Murray's famous Whale Ale, we get back to the job at hand - searching for whales. We're met in the small town of Nelson Bay by rangers from the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service who will lead us on a three-hour bush trek along the Tomaree Coastal Walking Track in the Tomaree National Park.
It's late afternoon and the winter sun is slowly starting to set. This is an opportune moment to see any number of humpback whales making their way to warmer waters in the north and we frantically crane our necks each time the trail offers any glimpse of the water or vantage point for potential whale watching.
But nothing. No sight or sound of marine life greets us.
Not to be put off, we carry on with our hike, whilst constantly spoiled by the great Australian outdoors. It is beautiful here on an epic scale.

On the Trail of the Mighty Humpback

Our group makes its way through the bush.

From sheltered coves to sandy beaches, unspoiled and uncrowded, there's literally nobody here but us. We crest one forested hill after the other and gaze down on deserted bays. We follow inland tracks almost entirely enveloped by palms, ferns, firs and eucalypts. The diversity of our natural environment impresses at every turn and we round out the afternoon's hike on a rocky point near the southern end of Fingal Bay.
Taking a narrow path leading on to the sandstone cliffs, we're once again met by the ocean. In the distance sits a lone island with a solitary white lighthouse standing sentinel over the bay. Closer to the shoreline, a smaller and rockier island rises out of calm waters where barely a ripple marks the surface.
The sun sets rapidly lighting the sky a bright pink as we snap away with our cameras, desperate to catch the last of the day's light. We've seen no whales but we've covered a lot of ground and these coastal national parks continue to win me over with their ruggedness and their beauty.
Suddenly one of our group calls out.
A breaching humpback has been spotted to the right of the smaller island and, sure enough, I catch sight of the whale's tail fluke breaking the water's surface as it starts to dive. It's a fleeting glimpse of a magnificent creature but it's perfect timing - the solitary lighthouse framed against the pink sky, the mirror-flat water, the setting winter sun, and our solo mighty humpback.
We've finally found our first whale.

On the Trail of the Mighty Humpback

The distant tail fluke is all that remains of this solitary humpback.

On our final day of the trip, we're taken out on the MV Spirit whale watching boat, care of Tamboi Queen Cruises. It's another chance to spy a humpback or two.
The wait isn't nearly as long this time.
Almost immediately, the captain's radio chatters and we join another whale watching boat tracking the passage of four migrating humpbacks. There's no golden photographic moment with the four leaping out of the water, no impressive fluke-up dives, but it's a golden opportunity to study these mammals as they slowly rise and submerge near the trailing boats.
It's always interesting to watch the reaction of fellow whale watchers.
The sudden intake of breath. Then silence as the moment is appreciated. The sense of awe and gratitude at seeing these animals firsthand in the wild. It's an experience I'll never grow tired of and one I'm likely to repeat over and over again.

On the Trail of the Mighty Humpback

Whale! A humpback dives down in the Port Stephens bay.

By the end of the morning, we've seen more humpbacks, a pod of dolphins playing in the surf of the boat as it cuts through the water, seals basking on the rocks of one of several remote islands, and an albatross circling the boat from the air, but no right whales, minkes, sperm or orcas this time, and no sign of the illusive blue whale spotted closer to Sydney earlier in the weekend.
Was it ever going to be that difficult finding humpbacks along this stretch of ocean? Probably not when many thousands now make their way along the 'highway' every year. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, population numbers are slowly recovering, trending upwards by 13-14% each year as a result of their protected status. The season for whale watching is from June right through to November where once it was divided into two distinct periods of a month or two.
I've lived in many places and seen a fair few things, and I'm often guilty of taking a unique environment or experience for granted without fully realising its importance until I've gone. But with the whales that pass by close to my Northern Beaches home, I've not once forgotten how fortunate I am to bear witness to their annual migration.
Because to forget their significance would be unforgivable.
Have you watched whales along the Australian coastline or anywhere else? If not, is it on your bucket list to do? Share in the comments below.
Disclaimer: This whale watching weekend was hosted by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service along with Destination Port Stephens and Subaru Australia. Follow Wild About Whales on Facebook or Twitter to keep up-to-date with whale activities in New South Wales or download the App here to plan future trips and register your own marine life sightings.
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