On the whale trail in Australia

WT Writer
Feb 13, 2018
The east coast of Australia comes alive during the annual migration of humpback whales every April to November. Here are the prime viewing spots…

“There!”someone shouts, pointing excitedly to the blue horizon. I stop mid-paddle and follow their finger, rewarded by the tell-tale spray of a surfacing humpback, followed moments later by the graceful arc of its fluke as it dives again. “Dolphins!” another voice cries, causing nine heads to swivel as one to watch the playful pod, mere metres in front of us.

By the end of the three-hour Go Sea Kayak tour off Byron Bay in northern New South Wales, we’ve totted up two humpbacks and dozens of dolphins and green turtles, although there’s no sign of the legendary white whale, Migaloo. First spotted off Byron in 1991, sightings of the rare humpback as he makes his annual migration create plenty of excitement – there’s even a website (migaloo.com.au) detailing his movements.

Each year, from late April to November, thousands of humpbacks make the 10,000km round-trip from Antarctica to the warm coastal waters of Queensland to mate and give birth. Known for their spectacular acrobatics, you can spot the majestic creatures from the shore along the coast or on-board a sightseeing boat in towns like Hervey Bay, the whale-watching capital of Australia and our ultimate destination.

Byron Bay

But Byron has plenty to offer up first. Famous for its beaches and bohemian vibe, the town served as a whaling station in the 1950s, before surfers arrived in the ‘60s, followed by hippies in the ‘70s. Today, everyone from backpackers to Hollywood A-listers, like Chris Hemsworth and Jesinta Campbell, holiday here.

After checking-in to our suite at The Byron at Byron resort, we head off to explore. Set within 45 acres of rainforest and minutes from Tallow Beach, we’re spoilt for choice with boardwalk and beach strolls, guided rainforest walks, spa treatments, tennis and yoga. We opt to tag along with head chef Gavin Hughes on his weekly visit to Byron Bay Farmers’ Market.

The Byron at Byron Resort & Spa

The Byron at Byron Resort & Spa

As we stock up seasonal vegetables for tonight’s menu, Gavin makes a beeline for the stall selling black garlic. “It’s the Vegemite of the garlic world,” he explains, referring to the dark brown Australian spread that divides opinion. “It’s really gooey and pungent.” Later that evening, we enjoy cocktails on the terrace overlooking the pool and feast on butter-soft braised beef cheek and fresh asparagus, knowing we nabbed the last bunches that day.

The Byron hinterland is just as beautiful as its beaches, we discover the next day with Kristina Drapes from Green Cauldron Tours. Rolling green hills and lush valleys are planted with neat rows of macadamia and avocado trees, and a meandering web of country roads connects curiously named towns like Goonengerry, Coorabel and Myocum.

The Byron hinterland is just as beautiful as its beaches

We pull into Mullumbimby, ‘The biggest small town in Australia’ the sign proclaims, and visit the weekly farmers’ market, held in the shade of magnificent fig trees at the showgrounds. We continue on to Crystal Castle, a centre devoted to New Age philosophies with landscaped gardens filled with Buddhist and Hindu statues. You can have your chakras aligned or your tarot cards read but we opt for an aura reading. After placing each hand on a sensor, a staff member takes my photograph and hands me a Polaroid showing the “energy field” around my body. The blue haze above me signals sensitivity and intuition, while my husband’s red and gold aura indicated higher wisdom, much to his delight.

Mighty Mount Warning dominates the landscape, the 1,156-metre-high core of an ancient shield volcano known as Wollumbin (‘Cloud-Catcher’) to the Bundjalung people. “They say it’s the first place the sun touches, as this is the most easterly point of Australia,” says Kristina. During its three-million-year reign, lava ebbed and flowed from the volcano, creating the Green Cauldron caldera enveloped by subtropical rainforest.

Hervey Bay

We bid Byron farewell and drive five hours north to Hervey Bay. Settled in 1868, the beachfront city is home to around 65,000 people and attracts just as many tourists when the whales are in town from late July until November. The bay, part of the Great Sandy Strait, is protected by neighbouring Fraser Island and provides sanctuary for around 10,000 weary whales each year, thus tour operators guarantee sightings.

Our home for the next few nights is Akama Resort, a five-star spot on the esplanade overlooking the marina where the tour boats depart. “Akama means ‘whale’ in the Butchulla language, the traditional owners of Fraser Island,” resort manager Chris Crause explains, as he shows us around our one-bedroom apartment. With contemporary décor, a fully-equipped kitchen, open-plan living areas and floor-to-ceiling folding doors that open onto a private balcony, it’s bigger than our apartment back home in Dubai.

All the whales

Chris books us onto a whale watching trip the next day, followed by a full-day tour of Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island. We ask about bike riding and within half an hour, he’s rented us bikes from a local company. We spend the afternoon cycling along the beachfront paths, stopping now and again for a swim and an ice cream at one of the many cafes.

We take Chris’s advice and book a table at Coast for dinner. We’re glad we did, as the restaurant is packed on our Tuesday night visit. We soon see why; the menu is brimming with local produce, executed with Michelin-star pedigree, minus the pretence, by head chef Nick Street-Brown and his team. We share juicy Hervey Bay scallops and succulent slow roasted lamb shoulder with quinoa salad and sweet butternut pumpkin risotto, and somehow make room for the cheese plate overflowing with creamy Queensland brie.

Byron Bay

Byron Bay

At 8am the next morning, we board Quick Cat II, hoping to not only see the whales but slip into the water with them, a new experience that’s being trialled in Hervey Bay. Skipper Steve tells us conditions are not quite right today, but assures us we’re still in for a treat. “There are normally around 70 whales in the bay each day,” he says. While boats have to keep a distance of 100 metres, the naturally inquisitive mammals usually approach the boat if you shout and wave.

It’s not long before we spot breaching whales in the distance, so we all wave and holler like fools. Our antics are soon rewarded, as a mother and calf cruise alongside the boat, eyeballing us in what is known as a ‘mugging’. Next, a pod of three adolescents show up and lead us on merry dance, as we race from one side of the deck to the other to catch their fin-flapping, lobtailing (slapping the water with their flukes) and spyhopping (rising vertically out of the water).

Just when I think they’ve disappeared, a huge grey whale erupts out of the water, right in front of where I’m standing at the stern, before crashing back down. Humpbacks can reach 40 tonnes fully-grown, but nothing quite prepares you for the shock and awe of witnessing a breach. We see around 15 more whales during the four-hour cruise, but nothing tops that amazing moment.

It’s not long before we spot breaching whales in the distance, so we all wave and holler like fools

Our last day is spent exploring Fraser Island by four-wheel-drive. Inscribed on the World Heritage List 20 years ago, the island is blessed with pristine lakes, rare rainforests growing on sand, and the country’s purest wild dingoes, of which we spot only one. “The island has recently returned to its original Aboriginal name, K’gari, meaning ‘paradise’,” our ranger-guide tells us.

We join holidaymakers floating down Eli Creek, a fast-flowing freshwater creek lined with banksia and pandanus palms, and visit the rusting hulk of The Maheno shipwreck, a trans-Tasman liner driven ashore during a cyclone in 1935. Something out to sea catches my eye. It’s a humpback, breaching, providing one last spectacular goodbye.