Whale watching and capturing their majestic beauty through the lens has always held a special place on my bucket list. It was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up during my recent journey to Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia, a renowned haven for avid whale enthusiasts.
As I said, whale watching has always been a dream of mine, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make it a reality during my recent trip to Hervey Bay. It’s famous as a whale watcher’s paradise. Hervey Bay offers an excellent experience for those seeking the awe-inspiring sight of these magnificent creatures up close. As this was my first time I did a bit of research and this will perhaps be useful to some of you too. I will take you through what to expect, where to go, when to plan your trip, and how to make the most of your whale-watching cruise in Hervey Bay.
While this article is about the amazing Humpback whales in Queensland, it could perhaps be applied to other whales in diverse locations. I’m sure it would work in many situations.
What to expect
Before embarking on your whale-watching adventure in Hervey Bay, it’s essential to understand what you can expect from this extraordinary experience. Hervey Bay is famous for its humpback whale migration, where these majestic creatures travel from Antarctica to the warm waters of Queensland to breed and calve.
- Humpback Whales: The star of the show is undoubtedly the humpback whales. These gentle giants can grow up to 16 meters in length and are known for their acrobatic displays, including breaching and tail slapping.
- Other Marine Life: While humpback whales steal the spotlight, Hervey Bay is also home to a diverse range of marine life. Keep an eye out for dolphins, turtles, seabirds, and, if you’re lucky, even some dugongs (sadly I did not see any of these myself).
- Educational Experience: Most whale-watching cruises in Hervey Bay offer an informative and educational aspect to the tour. Knowledgeable guides on board will provide you with insights into the whales’ behavior, migration patterns, and conservation efforts.
Where to go
Hervey Bay is the perfect location for whale watching in Australia, and there are a few key points you should consider when planning your trip.
- Urangan Harbour: The majority of whale-watching cruises depart from Urangan Harbour, located in Hervey Bay. This is the hub of whale-watching activities in the area, and it’s where you’ll find numerous tour operators offering a range of experiences.
- K’gari (Fraser Island): Hervey Bay is also an excellent base for exploring K’gari (formerly known as Fraser Island), the world’s largest sand island. Consider extending your stay to explore this natural wonder, known for its stunning landscapes and unique wildlife. Whale-watching tours can also be arranged from Fraser Island
- There are lots of accommodation opportunities in Hervey Bay from Motels to caravan and camping spots. Most tours will happily pick you up from your accommodation at no extra charge.
When to go
Timing is crucial when planning your whale-watching adventure in Hervey Bay.
The prime whale watching season in Hervey Bay typically runs from mid-July to late October. During this time, thousands of humpback whales migrate through the bay, making it the best period to witness their spectacular displays.
- There are three distinct different times throughout the migration pattern. The early whales are more often the young and enthusiastic young ‘bucks’ who play and show off. These include tail slapping and breaching. While spectacular, these are often the smaller adolescent whales, apparently.
- Next are the mothers and calves, while fascinating to see, often not overly energetic, although their pilot whales or accompanying males can show off and display bravado if another male comes close.
- Last, but not by any means the least are the older whales. While not as energetic as the young bucks, a full-sized whale in full breach is definitely impressive if you time it right.
While the whale season coincides with Australia’s winter months, the weather in Hervey Bay is generally mild and pleasant. It’s a good idea to bring layers, as mornings can be chilly, but the sun tends to warm things up as the day progresses. It can also get quite windy out on the bay and jackets are a great idea.
How to make the most of your whale-watching cruise
To ensure you have a memorable whale-watching experience, I suggest following these tips:
Book in advance.
Whale-watching tours in Hervey Bay are popular, so it’s advisable to book your cruise in advance, especially if you plan to visit during peak season. While you can often get last-minute cruises, even in nonpeak times they book quickly.
Choose the right tour.
There are various types of whale-watching tours available, from small boats to larger vessels. Consider your preferences and budget when selecting the right one for you. If you really want to most bang for your buck I suggest a smaller vessel, perhaps a 25-40 person catamaran. Not only do I find the service is often better, but they are not as crowded and you can easily get a spot on the deck to view the activities.
Bring essentials such as sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, your camera gear (more on that in a moment), and comfortable clothing. Sturdy shoes I find are a must while out on the ocean too. Don’t forget to carry motion sickness medication if you’re prone to seasickness.
Whale-watching is a game of patience. While the sightings are incredible, they can be unpredictable. Be prepared to spend several hours on the water, and remember that the journey itself is part of the adventure. There are often telltale signs of a whale approaching and it doesn’t take long to learn them. The telltale bubbles and blows, as well as the tail ‘footprints’. Everyone gets on whale watch duty and frequent yells of whales at 2 o’clock (or similar) will soon be heard.
Follow ethical guidelines and respect the whales and other marine life. Keep a safe distance, don’t disturb their natural behavior, and follow the instructions of your knowledgeable guides.
Enjoy the moment.
Finally, remember to savor the moment. The sight of a humpback whale breaching or a playful pod of dolphins can be a truly awe-inspiring and humbling experience. Capture the memories through your camera lens, but also take some time to put it down and simply enjoy the experience.
What gear to take?
This was the number one question I asked several photography friends I knew who had been on a whale cruise before. While the whales are quite large, they don’t necessarily always come that close, so a zoom lens is handy. On the other hand, they do sometimes come right up to and under the boat. I took two cameras, one with a Tamron 70-300mm lens and another with a 28-70mm lens. To be honest, I barely got that lens out and left it safely tucked in the hold.
My Sony A7RV was super fast with the 70-300mm on autofocus and I had animal tracking on. I set my camera to aperture priority mode and auto ISO, with a minimum shutter speed of 1/1000 second. It needed to counteract the movement of the boat, then the length of my lens and the speed of the whales. I did attempt to use a CPL (circular polarizing lens) to shoot through or under the water but found it wasn’t really working on this occasion.
Whale watching in Hervey Bay, Australia, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will leave you with lasting memories. With a deeper understanding of what to expect. Where to go. When to plan your trip, and how to make the most of your whale-watching cruise, you can embark on this incredible journey fully prepared.
So, set sail on the waters of Hervey Bay and get ready to be mesmerized by the beauty and grace of the humpback whales in their natural habitat.
I know I sure did. Thank you to FREEDOM III for such a fantastic day on the ocean. While I may not have captured anything worthy of National Geographic, I have a taste for it now and I am sure I will try again. And I am fairly pleased with my first results.