Going whale watching off the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia is a great way to see whales in full flight, on their journey from Antarctica to Queensland’s Hervey Bay, where the whales head each year to give birth in warmer waters. Whales hug the coast as they head north each year from June to August and going whale watching is as simple as getting out on the water.
We have found that heading due east, 5-6 nautical miles offshore, takes us out to where the ocean is somewhere between 45-50 metres deep. By going out this far we hit a steady stream of whales heading north, mostly in pairs. If you are really luck, they’ll stop and play, by rolling onto their sides and slapping the water with their flippers or breaching by propelling their bodies vertically clear of the water before crashing down and creating an amazing splash.
One of the most enjoyable things to do is to follow a pair of whales for 30-60 minutes in their northerly direction. This takes a bit of skill as they will often disappear for 2-3 minutes at a time. I have found that they move at 4-5 knots and are usually headed for the next headland, which can be several miles away. They seem to have the ability to head up the coast and aim for the right point in the distance to ensure they don’t head into a bay or into shallow areas.
The rules for following whales are very strict and you should be careful not to get to close or venture across their path. I have watch other boats cross their path, less than 100m ahead of them and this often causes them to change direction instinctively and suddenly head further inshore or offshore, clearly disturbed by the vessels that have got too close.
By following them from behind, you get used to their speed and direction, which remains remarkably consistent if no other vessels cross in front of their course.
Whale watching is incredible. Seeing these huge amazing mammals of the deep happily swimming up the coast, covering 180+ kilometres a day is hard to explain. Their size is hard to comprehend until you see them beside you. Watching them launch tonnes of body weight clear of the ocean completely is as good as it gets.
Humpback whales normally swim 5-14 kph, but can go up to 26 kph in bursts when in danger. Feeding speeds are slower, about 2-5 kph. Humpback whales can dive for up to 30 minutes, but usually last only 15 minutes. They can dive to depths of 150-210m.
Humpbacks are very acrobatic, often breaching high out of the water and then slapping the water as they come back down. Sometimes they twirl around while breaching. Breaching may be purely for play or may be used to loosen skin parasites or have some social meaning.
Spyhopping is another activity in which the whale pokes its head out of the water for up to 30 seconds to take a look around. Humpbacks also stick their tail out of the water into the air, swing it around, and then slap it on the water’s surface; this is called lobtailing. It makes a very loud sound.
The meaning or purpose of lobtailing is unknown, but may be done as a warning to the rest of the pod. Humpbacks lobtail more when the seas are rough and stormy. Slapping a fin against the surface of the water is another unexplained humpback activity.
Always assume they don’t know you are there. Wear lifejackets – you never know what the impact would be if they were to come up underneath your boat and tip it off balance.
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