Where the Whales Are: A Review

I’d always meant to go on a whale watching cruise. In my mind, it seemed like one of those relaxing, serene experiences where one could watch the majestic creatures splash and dive in the water; humbled by the grace of these peaceful giants.

It was nothing like that.

Every autumn and winter is migration season for the southern humpback whales. They spend the summer down in Antarctica, then migrate north into warmer waters near Queensland to give birth. (I wouldn’t want to be born at the South Pole either) En route, they pass the eastern waterways of the New South Wales coast, making their way past Sydney.

I’d come across a deal for a half price whale watching cruise with Captain Cook Cruises, starting in the harbour and making its way out to sea, and figured it was worth a try. They had a “whale-sighting guarantee”,so if my general unluckiness in life spread to the sea creature world, I was covered.  I’ve always liked whales; I remember “adopting”a whale as a kid. Much to my dismay, all I got was a fact sheet and a photo of a whale tail. Even if I had managed to locate my whale by his tail, I wasn’t allowed to keep him, plus I had to share him with the thousands of other kids who also had the nerve to adopt my whale.

Check them out at http://www.captaincook.com.au

So, today was my day. I’d sit back, enjoy the boat ride, get some sun, and maybe even find my whale. Being one of the first people to board the ship, I chose my seat with care, determined to get the best possible viewings pot for my life changing experience with the mighty whale.  I went for the top deck, back of the boat, right in the middle. This was I was close to the left and right sides, making for what I thought was prime whale viewing.

Unfortunately, everyone else who boarded seemed to have the same idea. Slowly, the boat began filling up. Due to the winter sun, no one wanted to sit inside (where the majority of the seats were), and my top deck quickly filled up with people standing in front of me.  This crowd seemed to mostly consist of huge groups of European backpackers with no concepts of personal space or volume control, and bored looking children eating French fries.  With my dreams of peaceful solitude with the whales crushed, we set out to sea.

Luckily it was prime season, and it didn’t take long before we found some pods of whales. Boats must keep a safe distance, but it was still amazing to scan the sea for the blow spouts, then watch the whales, some with calves, breach and play in the water, take in air, then dive back under, tails up in the air.

Unluckily, everyone else on board was as keen as I was. An overly energetic whale-spotter/tour guide would call out a location (pod sighting at two o’clock!), and everyone on board would rush to that side of the boat to try to see the whales. You could almost feel the boat’s weight shift back and forth as people comically ran from side to side.  Having placed myself squarely at the centre, I was at a disadvantage to either left or right, so I started moving around to find a better spot.

Southern humpback
Southern humpback in action

Getting frustrated by tourists with oversized cameras pushing to and fro, I decided to check out the views from inside the boat, which was less crowded. I soon discovered the interior of the boat contained two groups of people: those who were asleep, and those who were puking.

Why to either of those things? I don’t know. The cruise was only 3 hours long; why would you pay to go whale watching but instead decide to take a nap, not just in anywhere, but right near all the smelly, sea-sick vomiters? There were probably 5 or 6 groups of people passed out in their chairs- over-exerted tourists? Had they lost some sort of bet? Did they enjoy nodding off to the smell of vomit, or suffer from a marine mammal induced narcolepsy?  I don’t get it. And those who were sea-sick-surely being out in the fresh air is better than inside the stale air of the inside cabins?

My mind sizzling from trying to solve these pressing questions, I prepared for my return to the tourist mob and scouted out the least crowded of locations to sit and watch the whales, before our return to the harbour.

In contrast, several weeks later, while on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, the late afternoon sun was starting to set as we prepared to stop for the evening. We spotted a mother and calf right off the beach, playing and frolicking in the surf. We stopped to admire them, and as the orange sky turned dark, I had finally found what I had wanted: a puke free, peaceful encounter with the beautiful whales, free to just be whales and enjoy the solitude of the ocean.

Would I recommend the Sydney whale cruise? Yes, probably, if you can snag the half-price tickets- despite the crowds, this time of year is great viewing, and seeing the wildlife outside the boat  (sort of) makes up for the wildlife on the boat.  Just be prepared to share your whale with a couple hundred new friends.

(Note: All the photos I took looked like blobs of who-knows-what, so photos courtesy of “PaulSh”, flickr. )

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