The humpback whales of the Australian east coast are currently making their annual migration south.
Starting from the Great Barrier Reef, where they mate and give birth in warmer waters, they begin moving towards their summer feeding grounds off Antarctica in late July. By October and November, humpbacks are commonly sighted in the sheltered waters off Eden, on NSW’s south coast.
Off course, “sighted” is a relative term. While we were on Cape Byron, in northern NSW last month, we were alerted to the presence of whales: I managed to photograph a spec of a tail on an expanse of Pacific, a splash, and a few smudges of foam on the ocean surface. So much for my first “sighting” of the season!
So as not to miss out entirely, on Wednesday we joined a whale-watching cruise with Cat Balou Cruises in our home port of Eden. We’ve sailed with them before: back in March, we enjoyed one of their Twofold Bay Discovery Cruises. The coastline around Eden is stunning, and during the migration season, Cat Balou guarantee whale sightings, so a morning on the water is a pretty safe bet.
Of course, like other whale watching operations, Cat Balou can’t guarantee that the whales will actually do anything. We were lucky enough to see our first wild humpback whales back in July, in the Pacific Northwest off the coast of Vancouver Island – and they were almost indistinguishable from floating logs!
So, we bundled up warmly and crossed our fingers.
As we found our first humpbacks, I was reminded of the well-known Indian story of the blind men and the elephant. You know the one: six blind men try to describe an elephant after feeling only one part: one says the elephant is like a pillar after feeling only a leg; one says it is like a rope or a paintbrush after touching the tail; one says it is like a fan after touching an ear; one says the elephant is like a wall because he felt the body; etc.
I could not get a whole humpback in my mind’s eye: the whales were indeed out in our waters, but we were seeing only the small dorsal fin, or a huge tail, or a broad, barnacled back, or long pectoral fin – never the whole whale!
There is something magic about whales. The deep roaring rumble they made as they “called” to each other was amazing and it was a joy to watch the massive animals in what can only be described as play.
I admit: I was disappointed that none of them breached in the leaps that humpbacks are famous for – especially when the front cover of our local paper the next day featured a perfect jump photographed only the week before! Like a blind man, I still have only bits of the whole.
But, I feel lucky for that privilege. And, maybe next time, we’ll get even luckier!
‘Till then, safe sailing.