Humpback whales are among the most exciting marine creatures you can encounter: growing to 16m long and weighing up to 36 tonnes, they make their presence known from a distance by their habit of “breaching” – making spectacular, crashing leaps out of the water – and expelling jets of spray as they exhale. Prior to 1952 an estimated ten thousand whales made the annual journey between the Antarctic and the tropics to breed and give birth in shallow coastal waters; a decade later whaling had reduced the population to just two hundred. Now protected, their numbers have increased to over eight thousand, many of which pass along the eastern coast of Australia on their annual migration. An estimated two-thirds enter Hervey Bay, making it one of the best places to spot humpbacks in the country. The whale-watching season here lasts from August to November, a little later than northern waters because Fraser Island leans outwards, deflecting the creatures away from the bay as they migrate north, but funnelling them in to the constricted waters when returning south. The town makes the most of their visit with an August Whale Festival (herveybaywhalefestival.com.au), and operators are always searching for new gimmicks to promote day-cruises and flights.
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In the early months you’re more likely to see mature bulls, which, being inquisitive, swim directly under the boat and raise their heads out of the water, almost close enough to touch. You may even see them fighting over mating rights and hear their enchanting mating songs; of course you may also see and hear nothing at all. The later part of the season sees mothers and playful calves coming into the bay to rest before their great migration south, a good time to watch the humpbacks breaching. Whether all this voyeurism disturbs the animals is unclear, but they seem at least tolerant of the attention paid to them.
Cruises last for a morning or a full day and cost around $115 per person; some boats can take up to 150 passengers but this doesn’t necessarily mean they feel overcrowded – check the boat size, viewing space, speed of vessel and how many will be going before committing yourself. Breakfast or lunch is usually included. Most boat operators continue to offer cruises outside the whale-watching season and spend four hours searching for dolphins, turtles and – with real luck – dugongs (sea cows) for around $95 per person. Alternatively, Air Fraser Island offer 30-minute whale-watching flights from $85 per person (depending on the number of passengers).