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“Whale watching is a humbling, emotional experience that you’ll never forget,” says Karen Inglis, manager of the Hervey Bay YHA in Queensland. She’s busy preparing for the stream of visitors that accompany thousands of humpbacks on their migration up the East Coast to Australia’s whale watching capital, 300km north of Brisbane.
Hervey Bay is the final stop on the whales’ 10,000km journey north each winter, when they seek warmer waters to mate, give birth, raise their calves . . . and, after a voyage so long it makes Heathrow to Sydney in cattle class seem like a doddle, just chill out.
“What makes Hervey Bay so unique is the fact the whales are not in transit – the whales come into the bay to rest, play and frolic,” Karen explains to me. “This also means that because they’re relaxed and feel safe, they approach the boats and put on quite a show!”
You only need to stroll around Hervey Bay to see what whales mean to the place, a sun-drenched town of 50,000 that’s also your launching pad for the postcard-perfect Fraser Island, which shelters the bay for humpbacks to rest up and raise their young before the long haul back to Antarctica.
There’s the 14.8m wide, 22-tonne sculpture of ‘Nala’ the whale leaping out of the ground in the middle of town. There’s the nine-day festival each August to celebrate the annual migration. There’s the veritable flotilla of boats coming in and out of the aptly named Whale Bay Marina, the best way to see the humpbacks rolling, spy hopping, and breaching, as well as performing their rhythmic songs to an admiring audience.
Stay at: Hervey Bay YHA
There’s no question that Hervey Bay is Australia’s whale watching epicentre – but it’s certainly not the only spot you can get up close and personal with these awe-inspiring mammals . . .
Port Stephens is home to 130 bottlenose dolphins 12 months a year – but when the big boys roll in during their annual journey up the East Coast in late May, the dolphins know it’s time to shuffle off centre stage.
“During the winter months they take on the role of supporting act for their bigger cousins,” says Bronny Starling from Imagine Cruises, an eco-friendly whale-watching tour operator with over a decade of sustainability certification under its belt.
“There’s nothing quite as spectacular as a 30-tonne animal lifting its entire body out of the water . . . To see them socialise, travel, and navigate their surroundings is quite special and to see the sheer size of these animals is quite humbling.”
And when you’re standing in a catamaran transfixed as a humpback breaches through the surface of the water then slaps its enormous body back into the sea, it’s hard to disagree.
Port Stephens – a region of 26 sparkling beaches just two hours’ drive north of Sydney – will witness 25,000 whales pass their coast between now and November, a humpback population that’s growing almost as steadily as their number of followers.
To accommodate whale watchers, the council has opened a new walking path along the striking Noamunga Headland in Boat Harbour just down the road from the verdant Samurai Beach Bungalows Port Stephens YHA, while Tomaree Head and Barry Park in Fingal Bay both offer sweeping views of the Pacific.
Oh, and whales aren’t the only wildlife you’ll see in Port Stephens – there’s the resident dolphins, a rookery of albatross that come to feed during the cooler months, and a small colony of fur seals that sun themselves on Cabbage Tree Island at this time of year.
But the humpbacks leave you in no doubt about who are the stars of the show.
Stay at: Port Stephens YHA
Next stop on the Humpback Highway? Coffs Harbour. Popular road trip pit stop midway between Sydney and Brisbane, home to the much-loved Big Banana, and dotted with viewing platforms for you to watch whales cruising up the Pacific.
And there aren’t many more convenient vantage points to witness the mammoth mammals’ migration than Muttonbird Island, just a stroll across the breakwater from town.
“Muttonbird is great, as you get a complete 360-degree view from the water to the mainland,” says receptionist Kate Bolte at the front desk of Coffs Harbour YHA, only 10 minutes on foot from the island.
“We are literally surrounded by the best look-outs that Coffs Harbour has to offer. You get the best view from Muttonbird . . . Sawtell South Headland, or ‘Southies’ as the locals call it, is another great place to check out the whales . . . Moonee Beach ‘Look At Me Now’ Headland is also amazing for whale watching if you have your own car.
“It’s something you cannot explain unless you see it first-hand. Being able to see whales’ fins in the air or the big splashes they make, the small calves that come through, it’s an awesome sight to see.”
Two hours south of Coffs, Port Macquarie is another whale-watching hub with a modern YHA full of travellers keen to spot a humpback or two.
Stay at: Coffs Harbour YHA
Introducing the Rolls Royce of whale-watching vessels. The Ocean Dreaming II was custom-built for whale cruises, with three levels of 360-degree viewing decks that stretch right around the boat, plus a comfortable indoor cabin space and plenty of speed to zip around Sydney Harbour.
“If you do get lucky whales get curious and come right up to you – something you would never get sitting on a cliff,” says Jacqui Carroll from Whale Watching Sydney.
“Sighting a whale within their natural habitat is jaw-dropping incredible. It’s difficult to accurately describe the thrill you get when you watch these magnificent majestic mammals effortlessly glide though the water, let alone the adrenaline rush when without warning you witness their full power as they propel themselves into the air for an aerobatic display that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.”
More than 30,000 whales – mainly those acrobatic humpbacks but also the occasional southern right, minke, and blue whale – will migrate past Sydney’s rugged cliffs this season, the biggest mass migration in the world. So many, in fact, that Whale Watching Sydney will give you another tour if you don’t spot one on your first.
Their most popular package – the Discovery Cruise Combo – combines a three-hour whale-watching tour departing Circular Quay or Darling Harbour on the Ocean Dreaming II with free professional snaps of the whales you spot, as well as a 24-hour Eco Hopper hop-on, hop-off ferry ticket to catch all of Sydney’s best harbour-side attractions, including travel on the Manly Fast Ferry.
Stay at: six great-value YHAs around Sydney
There’s something in the water around Albany . . . literally.
The spectacular port city – 400km from Perth on the south coast of Western Australia – is accustomed to placid humpbacks and southern right whales cruising past between June and October.
But a pod of killer whales? That was always going to make a splash when marine scientists made the discovery only three years ago, in Bremer Bay canyon east of Albany.
The rare congregation of orcas was found in a tiny, nutrient-rich patch of water that catches cold, salty currents from the Antarctic for six weeks each summer (February-April), luring up to 100 killer whales – as well as plenty of other marine life for dinner – to the biological hotspot 40km off the coast.
If you’re after something a little more tranquil than a Free Willy feeding frenzy, stick to the whales wandering past Albany, basing your adventure at Albany YHA, a 19th Century property with ocean views from the top floor.
The seaside town is a former whaling port, but the hunters’ harpoons have long been traded for travellers’ long-lens cameras, and the old whaling station has been converted into a world-class museum.
“We recommend it highly to our guests,” says Stefanie Ball, part-owner of the Albany Bayview Lodge YHA. “The area was recently renamed into Discovery Bay and many facilities were upgraded. A wildlife park and botanic gardens with only plants native to South West Australia have been included. It is also located in the Torndirrup National Park and is surrounded by many other natural tourist attractions.”
It’s a scenic one-hour hike from the museum to Peak Hill, the highest point in the Torndirrup National Park, which offers panoramic views of the Southern Ocean as the whales seek shelter on their migration to and from the Antarctic.
But be warned, nutrient-rich salty water isn’t the only thing being blown north from Antarctica – remember to rug up to escape the wintry bite of the wind.
Stay at: Albany YHA
Lazy whale watchers, your prayers have been answered.
No need for a tour. No need for a bushwalk. No need to even change out of your pyjamas if you can’t be bothered. The balcony at Port Elliot Beach House YHA boasts 180-degree views of Basham’s Beach, a sheltered bay an hour south of Adelaide where a pod of southern right whales raise their calves each winter. That means dawn-till-dusk whale-frolicking every day in July and August.
“We have avid whale watchers stay with us every year as one never gets tired of watching these majestic creatures,” says Steve Woodward, who manages the historic and beautifully maintained sandstone lodge.
“To see the southern right whale is quite a rare and special opportunity, and now with their increase in numbers along the southern coast of Australia, they come so close to shore it makes for the perfect opportunity to witness the whales giving birth and spending the winter in the local bays to fatten up their calves.”
The miracle of life is just that – a miracle – when you learn that whaling almost wiped southern rights off the face of the earth in the 1970s. Even the species’ name comes from the fact that their languid nature made them ‘right’ to hunt.
But these days, intrepid southern rights travel as close as 100m to the shore when they’re gliding between Victor Harbor, Port Elliot and Middleton along the dramatic Fleurieu Peninsula, and set up their nursery just 50m from the sand at Basham’s Beach, making it prime whale-watching territory.
Or you can see it all from the YHA balcony in your PJs. Up to you.
Stay at: Port Elliot YHA