October 5, 2011

New south whales


I'd been whale-watching before (see A whale of a time, September 2010), off Moreton Island. I'd seen Humpbacks: they gave me goosebumps, such was their power to enthrall.

A few days ago, however, I went whale-watching on a much smaller boat, out from Brunswick Heads into Byron Bay and beyond, and this time the experience was... well... awesome. You run out of words on such occasions. Spellbinding; captivating; engaging; mesmerizing; wondrous; gobsmacking: whales are all of these and more. I was reduced to feeble 'oh-my-god' exclamations bordering on incoherence.

Before we could start looking for clues of whale activity, we had to negotiate Brunswick's white-water bar. The tidal Brunswick River has a narrow mouth, where a bar has formed from sand drifting along the coast. This reduces the depth of the water considerably (to a metre at times), and waves break over a hundred-metre stretch. Taking a boat through this water is not recommended unless you are familiar with the wave patterns, and swells and winds are light. Ideally, you cross a bar on an incoming tide when the waves are running with the tide.

Our boatman had to inform the coastguard of his intention to cross the bar, and then study the wave patterns on this particular day and observe any lulls in wave activity. He headed for the deepest parts of the channel, while at the same time manoeuvring around breaking waves. Once you decide to go, you have to keep going, maintaining a constant speed that will lift the bow over a wave, then bearing away along its back.

Everyone has to wear a lifejacket (by law) while crossing a bar. And hang on. I'd love to be able to show you a view of the oncoming waves bearing down on our 8.5-metre Cougar Cat, but this was a white knuckle ride. No hands for cameras.

As we boarded in Brunswick Heads Boat Harbour there were thunder rumblings, and the coastguard warned of a storm in the Bay. Luckily, my desire to see whales was greater than my fear of lightning. Our boatman correctly judged that the bad weather was moving away from us, but added that the winds had been veering wildly all day and he couldn't be sure what would happen. Once the heavy clouds had moved on, however, the sea became calmer and whale-spotting easier.

We must have sailed for half an hour before getting anywhere near a whale. Fortunately, they are curious creatures. Once we'd approached some, they invited a couple of their mates over and, for about 30 to 45 glorious minutes, eight or nine whales kept us company as we moved very slowly in the direction of their southward migration.

Having stared, wonder-struck, for a while, you think you must try to capture these moments – for Facebook mates in Europe at the very least – and, while hanging on with one hand, you stab at your camera, producing a series of grey frames, perhaps with a trace of spout or post-breaching spray in a big seascape, but few bits of whale. Between the lot of us (12), hundreds of useless shots must have been taken during the three hours we were out in the Bay. My friend was more patient than I – and the best of these photographs are his. I gave up to gaze, again, but he was determined to catch a tail fluke in all its glory and some breaching action.

The whales came so close to the boat, we could have almost touched them. They passed under the boat, then circled round to pass by again. A couple of times one turned on its back, flashing a white tum. This is what whales do when they're relaxed, we were told. And once, one showed it's beady eye above the surface and had a good look at us. That's quite rare, we were told. But I didn't need further embellishment; this trip was special enough already.


Our boatman had told the coastguard when we would return to harbour, and, eventually and reluctantly, we had to leave our friends. Some whales had been spotted further inshore, so we did a loop towards Byron's beaches before heading back to Brunswick Heads.


Sure enough, a female and her two-year-old calf (our crew guesstimated) were having fun. The calf breached repeatedly, to whoops of joy from everyone on board every time.

The awesomeness has stayed with me. A couple of days after our trip, we were walking the cliff path from Broken Head. We looked out to sea for a long time, searching for telltale signs of whale activity. I felt very close to them, still. Before sleep that night, I wondered where they all were. Do whales sleep? They must do, but how?*

By the time whaling ceased off the east coast of Australia in 1963 (1962 in Byron), the Humpback population had been reduced to little more than 100, less than five per cent of pre-whaling stock. Last year, it was estimated that 14,000 whales migrated the 10,000 kilometres from Antarctica to the subtropical waters off Northern Queensland, and the recovery rate is expected to be maintained at about ten per cent a year. This year six Southern Right Whales** have also been spotted, four more than last year.

Our adventure was with Blue Bay Whale Watching (www.bluebaywhalewatching.com.au). They do diving and snorkelling tours, too. They were recommended to me by someone I chatted to, a local, up on Cape Byron in August as we watched whales from afar. He was not wrong. I have no doubt it was the best $80 ($55 for a child) I've ever spent. Ever.

There is no more beautiful thing than several Humpbacks' synchronised arcing. Right in front of you.


* Whales sort of half-sleep, or doze. They are not 'conscious breathers', which means they have to decide to surface to breathe while they're underwater, otherwise they'll drown. So they only switch off half their brain, while the other half monitors breathing, potential predators and, if the whale is female, the safety of calves.

** Southern Right Whales and Blue Whales were hunted almost to extinction by Australian whalers, who then turned their attention to the Humpback


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