A Whale of a Time

Story by ANGELA NICHOLLS and Photography by PHILL NICHOLLS

WE’D been on board the boat no more than five minutes when the radio buzzed and crackled. "Whales!", an excited voice cried. "Two of them, a mother and calf, just off the headland." The voice belonged to the skipper of another boat already at sea. It was whale-watching time on the South Coast of NSW.

otrwhale1.jpg (7537 bytes) Our boat, a sleek, 16-metre Super Sea-Cat called True Blue, was gliding through the protected waters of Merimbula Lake, heading towards a rougher sea. All the passengers, including me, had clattered on board earlier carrying armloads — warm jackets, cameras and lots of expectation.
smlArrowleft.gif (508 bytes) A whale breaches off the South Coast of NSW

As we crossed the bar the boat powered toward where the whales had been sighted. The skipper, Shane Matterson, told us the whales we were likely to see were humpbacks. These are the most common species sighted here and, he added, the most acrobatic.

Although the humpback is the most prevalent, during the whale-watching season of 1998 a rare blue whale was spotted by a passing plane. The next month a pod of seven or eight killer whales was discovered near Leonards Island. Even for hardened scientists, who put to sea as soon as they heard the incredible news, that was a thrilling event. Killer whales have not been seen in Sapphire Coast waters for more than 11 years.

The skipper told us what signs to look for while hunting for whales. The blow is usually the first indication of this imposing mammal’s presence. He explained that after a long dive the whale will resurface with a blow, a cloud of vapour escaping from the blowhole when the whale exhales which can balloon up to three metres high.

He went on to say that you could tell the difference between various species of whales by their blows. I looked to see if he was pulling our legs on this one, you know, like how the sheep in New Zealand have shorter legs on one side, but apparently this is true.

Most passengers were on both decks crowding forward on the rails, cameras at the ready. We were still well within sight of the headland when the mother whale surfaced with, as the skipper had predicted, a blow.

She had risen to the surface smoothly and quietly, yet the appearance of her dark, rounded back with her small distinctive dorsal fin caused a commotion on board. People clamoured for a better look, cameras went berserk. Our first whale! Then a smaller dorsal fin appeared beside the mother. The calf! If it was possible our excitement increased.

Both dived again with a synchronised swimming action. We all focused on a patch of sea. Would we see them again or were they on a deep dive?

"Thar she blows!", cried someone who had probably seen too many whale movies. The pair had surfaced again and True Blue moved closer. We shadowed this mother and her little offspring for about 30 minutes before the radio crackled again. This time a larger pod had been seen off the coast from Ben Boyd National Park, south of our present position.

There was more good news. Some in this pod were surface-active. I hoped in whale-speak this meant doing things like breaching, lobtailing, spyhopping and flipper slapping. More whale-speak.

True Blue surged ahead, leaving the mother and calf to their southward migration. I saw several people wave goodbye and whisper "thank yous" to the whales.

It was spring, so humpbacks were heading away from the tropical climes where they breed to their summer feeding grounds. During these warmer months polar waters abound with their favorite foods, krill and other small fish.

As we headed south a seal joined us, racing along beside the boat with unexpected speed. To my inexperienced eye it looked like an Australian fur seal with its whiskered, pointed nose and dark grey-brown color. Years ago one of this fellow’s cousins swam 20 kilometres up the Nambucca River to Macksville where he then waddled nearly five kilometres inland to sunbake in a paddock. I remember this because I used to picture him reclining on a multi-colored beach towel with cool sunnies.

This mischievous seal seemed to want to play tricks. A ten-year-old boy sitting close to the side of the boat’s bottom deck was closely watching the seal’s antics when it suddenly vanished. He leaned over the edge trying to see where it had gone when the seal reappeared. With a great splash showering his young friend, the seal had executed a terrific leap, then dived back into the water right next to the boat.

Not long after this, some bottlenose dolphins were spotted making their way towards us. When they reached us they cavorted and played in the bow wave, momentarily diverting my attention away from Sammy (well, what else do you call a seal that can do tricks).

Meanwhile the skipper had kept in radio contact with other vessels regarding the whereabouts of the active pod. We could already see a cluster of watercraft in one particular spot. A dead give away.

The big diesels were throttled back and became almost silent as we joined the group of three boats already waiting. Perhaps the whales were on a long dive. Maybe they had all gone. For the moment even the seal and dolphins had gone. We stared out, gazing at the empty sea.

Then WHAM! Forty-five tonnes of whale exploded from the water, did a slow half turn in mid-air before bombing back down with incredibly high sprays of white water. "WOW!" chorused the stunned passengers, me included. Then with an arch of his back and tail raised high, the whale disappeared below the surface. He’d gone, and once more it was all quiet.

otrwhale2.jpg (7623 bytes)

Forty-five tonnes of whale - straight up with a twist

smlArrowleft.gif (508 bytes)

Suddenly there he was again. Another eruption, like lava spurting from a volcano. It was an unbelievable sight. This huge, 12-metre mammal nearly leaping free of the water, and so effortlessly.

While he was in the air I saw his mouth. It was curved almost in a smile. Line drawings I’ve seen of the humpback show a natural curve, but to me this whale was enjoying himself. Experts say breaching, this vaulting into the air, can be signs of aggression, communication or simply emphasising some other behaviour. To me he was like a kid at the pool just showing off — diving, bombing, trying to make the biggest splash.

Other whales surfaced, and one began breaching. Another preferred to look at us, its head poked above the surface. This is called spyhopping. It then began flipper slapping, raising a long pectoral fin and smacking the water repeatedly. The skipper told us that this could be the whale’s way of letting others know of its location.

Still another whale was lobtailing, lifting its tail then crashing it down. We watched in awe, this acrobatic display showing a grace and agility unbelievable in creatures of such proportions.

Long before we were ready, it was time to head back to Merimbula. Most passengers remained at the stern for as long as the pod was visible. Incredibly we had been out to sea for almost four hours.

The return voyage was quiet. Among us, there seemed to be a sense of privilege. Privilege to have witnessed one of nature’s extraordinary exhibitions. We had acquired a new respect and even felt a reverence as nature’s ballet was performed, it seemed, just for us.

Whale Watcher Tips

  • Take binoculars.
  • Bring lots of film. Don’t be caught short because you’ll take lots of photos just to get that special shot.
  • If your camera has interchangeable lenses take the longest you have, at least 300mm.
  • Bring along warm jackets and if you don’t mind lugging extra stuff perhaps something dry as well.
  • Take seasick or motion sickness tablets. Being seasick when you’re out there for four hours is no fun (and I speak from personal experience). Take 15 - 30 minutes before boarding.
  • Use your guarantee. If you miss out on seeing whales the first day go the next. A bloke was on board during our trip after having been the previous day with his wife and had seen absolutely nothing. He used his guarantee, she decided to stay home.
  • Visit the National Parks & Wildlife Discovery Centre for information and a better appreciation of whales. Eden Killer Whale Museum will give an insight into whales as well as the now defunct whaling industry.
  • Visit Internet sights for material on cruises and whales.  Some good ones are: