Written by Lizzie Macaulay
As a resident of the Fraser Coast for nine years (and counting), there are few times of year more special than whale season.
There is a special buzz in the region as visitors and residents alike hope for a sighting of our annual migratory pals.
Will we see them?
What will they do?
Are they really as big as Wikipedia says they are?!
(To answer: Yes. It depends. and Oh yes … in case you were wondering)
I’ve certainly been on my fair share of ‘whale boats’ since moving to the Bay from Glasgow, Scotland in 2013. But with the addition of tiny tots into my life, there had been a lengthy gap since my last oceanic adventure.
So when the offer of getting a sneak peek behind the scenes of one of the region’s most iconic operations came across my desk, my little fingers couldn’t type fast enough: “Y…E…S.”
This month’s learning experience was with the wonderful crew and owners of Whalesong Cruises.
With family in-tow, it was time to get back out on the water and reconnect with everything this incredible time of year offers. The majestic creatures themselves. The warm sun beating off the water, despite mid-winter temps. The genuine tingle of anticipation in a life that’s been otherwise-curated to be fairly predictable.
Arriving at the Hervey Bay marina we had the sense we were in for something special.
Making our way amongst the spectacular vessels – picturing that one day, we might embark on a literal sea change and inhabit one ourselves – we found our home for the morning, and boarded.
I was struck by the elegant interior of the Whalesong vessel, and immediately began picturing hosting a soirée in amongst the dark black and burgundy detailing.
As the crew busily made their preparations, my little family and I settled in for a morning voyage.
Leaving the calm waters of the marina, we took the time to get to know the crew who we busily preparing warm drinks for the guests. The combination of hot drinks and choppy water didn’t seem to bother them in the slightest as they moved effortlessly up and downstairs around the vessel until everyone had been seen to.
The service crew had varying levels of experience, but you would never have known. No matter what, each one was friendly, accommodating and so happy to be part of the experience that lay ahead.
While there was plenty of hustle and bustle downstairs, upstairs captain, Doug Greenshields was confidently navigating out to open waters, alternating between the tools of the trade – the steering wheel, binoculars and the ever-chattering radio.
Something that’s always impressed me about the sightseeing cruise operators in the area is their ability to collaborate rather than simply see each other as competition. Doug and the gang are no exception, with the priority being happy guests, rather than having the bragging rights of an exclusive experience.
It wasn’t long before our first encounter – something that Doug had been at great pains to manage expectations about, being so early in the season.
There, ahead of us, was the tell-tale splash of something incredible hovering just beneath the surface.
A slight puff of air sent a huge cloud of water skyward, and we all knew we would be in for a very special day.
We stayed to watch for a little while and then continued north to see what else we could spot.
Meanwhile, an incredible feast of fruits and cakes was being prepared by the fabulous crew to be enjoyed as we traversed.
As we tucked in to the generous morning tea, we kept our eyes on the horizon, just in case it was our turn to be lucky enough to make the next sighting.
Given that the binoculars I’d brought for my girls were made out of cardboard rolls, the chances were on the slim side. But hey, you never know.
After morning tea, and for the next few hours we spent time darting here and there strategically to have the best chance of an up-close encounter.
We’d rest for a bit and Captain Doug would share his insights and impressive depth of knowledge about what we were seeing play out in front of our eyes, the history of the whale watching industry here on the Fraser Coast and what we might still anticipate in the season ahead.
Despite it being ‘early’ in the season, we saw plenty of whale action thanks to Doug and his experienced eye.
I was struck by how caring and thorough Doug and the crew were.
More than one of the guests had ‘wobbly tummy’ moments as rough seas knocked Whalesong about a fraction while we were watching the whales enjoying some play time. Of course, the crew were well prepared with peppermint oil and ginger tablets to head off the worst of the motion sickness. With calm heads, and compassionate hearts, the staff tended to each of the challenged guests, and before long they’d recovered to enjoy the remainder of their time on the water.
Just in time, too, because a glorious lunch was on its way. The impressive spread that had been brought together for the guests was most definitely a highlight. A selection of salads, cold meats and other bits and bobs were exactly what was needed after a morning of fresh air and high excitement.
As my first experience of whale watching with my own children, this adventure was spot on – safe, and hitting the sweet spot between missing out on something and having the kiddos begin to get restless.
As we sailed back in to the harbour, I felt the usual conflicting emotions that always come over me after an on-water experience. The gratitude for the truly exceptional privilege of getting time out at sea in glorious conditions is always tempered with a tinge of sadness that it’s all over.
The good news of course is that, thanks to the determined efforts of conservationists and ethical tourism operators alike, we can just climb aboard another day, and do it all again…