By Diane Nash
The humpback whales swam freely in the clear blue waters. I was captivated by these magnificent and awesome creatures as I gazed upon by them in the picture hanging on my office wall.
I was excited at the invitation of friends to visit Harvey Bay, the whale watching capital of Australia, and view them from a whale watching boat.
It was a distance from Harvey Bay to where I lived on a property north west of northern New South Wales so it would be different to view humpback whales to seeing cattle and sheep each day grazing on undulating hills.
Two weeks later I arrived at my destination and waited with my friends for the tourist bus to pick us up from the motel and drive us to Urangan Harbour at Harvey Bay to board the small whale watching boat.
I couldn’t believe my dream was finally being realised after all these years.
It was a beautiful warm hazy October day with a slight breeze as the boat left the harbour at Harvey Bay and set out towards the open sea. The deep blue water slapped the bow of the boat. Dolphins raced with ease alongside weaving in and out as it sped through the waves.
After two hours at sea, the tourist guide pointed out two shapes not far from the boat. He suggested we wave as humpbacks are curious and will approach if we call loudly to them.
Two humpbacks approached the boat, a mother and her calf. A distinctive vapour cloud ascended from them, called a blow. The mother was covered in barnacles. The calf stayed close to its mother for protection and food.
I was filled with excitement and anticipation as I viewed this magnificent sight. Other humpback whales could be seen by their blows in the distance.
The tour guide pointed in their direction and announced, “They are male humpbacks hunting the female. The female is trying to avoid them and protect her calf. Male humpbacks can be very aggressive when they’re looking for a mate.” He continued,” Harvey Bay offers warm sheltered waters for male humpbacks looking for mates, also old juveniles and mothers with calves. They spend time here before moving on to their final summer destination, Antarctica, where they feed on fish and krill.”
Being a mother, my mind was on the mother and calf. I hope they will be safe from the aggressive males.
The mother humpback came closer to where I was leaning over the side of the boat. She was so close I could touch her. A small round eye met mine. It was a trusting, childlike look which touched me deeply. Then she was gone, with her calf, out into the depths of the ocean.
Further out to sea, male humpbacks were rising out of the water, giving a spectacular display of backward flips in the air, before they landed with a thunderous thud in the ocean.
This behaviour was unique to the humpback and is known as breaching. Are they playing? Or are they showing off and attempting to impress the female?
Gradually the male humpbacks moved over the horizon.
An atmosphere of quiet reverence settled over us on the boat as we contemplated what we had just experienced. The guide broke the silence by playing a recording of humpbacks singing. Distinctive squeaks, squeals, moans and groans sounded in a definite order, with phrases strung together. The songs had a beginning and an end and took about half an hour to complete. We were amazed at their complex communication system, which was unique to the humpback whale.
The guide explained to us how the male humpback dives to 20m to begin his eerie serenade, with each male population singing the same song, presumably to attract females.
The songs of the humpback gradually drifted away and the boat picked up speed, turned around then headed for the harbour. We passed Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island and listed as a world heritage site.
The wind was becoming stronger and the sea more choppy. This wonderful day was coming to an end.
I understood now, why some people have taken seriously the need to protect these
charismatic creatures of the sea from indiscriminate hunting.
We all left the boat with a greater awareness and respect for the humpback whale and its right to share the planet with us.
I will be back next October to visit the humpback whales because I am captivated by their magic.
Image: Georgia Merrick