‘Thar she blows!’: Whale-watching around Sydney

Posted on Posted in Sydney

Come winter, and Australia’s coastline becomes a migratory superhighway for the whales of Antarctica. These blubberous behemoths thrive in the cold waters of the Southern Ocean, but not their calves which do not have substantial fat to insulate them. Therefore, when winter comes, the whales migrate northwards to warmer climes to calve – c’mon, everyone deserves a tropical vacation once in a while!

NSW whale migration (Source: Wild about whales)
NSW whale migration (Source: Wild about whales)

Naturally, cities like Sydney and Brisbane become hotspots for whale watching on the eastern coast, with operators diligently and enthusiastically offering cruises to get closer to these peace loving cetaceans. Having been around in Sydney for three winters now, I couldn’t resist a tete-a-tete this October. So off I went to the Darling harbor and hopped on a cruise one bright spring morning. Conditions were favorable and the air was optimistic and though I have been on these waters multiple times, one can never have enough of the beautifully dotted harbor-side of Sydney. With the sun switched on in maximum intensity, the waters turned an inviting swirl of green and blue as one by one, the icons of Sydney came and went – the Maritime museum, the triple towers of the Barangaroo business district, the yellow sandstone lined shores of Barangaroo Reserve, the mast head of HMAS Sydney, Fort Denison and of course, the un-missable duo of the Harbour bridge and the Opera House.

The coat-hanger bridge at the start of the journey
The coat-hanger bridge at the start of the journey
The quintessential cityscape without which any cruise in Sydney is incomplete
The quintessential cityscape without which any cruise in Sydney is incomplete
Fort Denison
Fort Denison
The chequered colors of Barangaroo
The chequered colors of Barangaroo
The masthead of HMAS Sydney on the way out of the Sydney Harbor
The masthead of HMAS Sydney on the way out of the Sydney Harbor
Contrasting colors near the lighthouse keeper's cottage at Watson's Bay
Contrasting colors near the lighthouse keeper’s cottage at Watson’s Bay
The brightly colored Hornby Lighthouse on Watson's Bay - once you cross this,you embrace the vastness of the Pacific
The brightly colored Hornby Lighthouse on Watson’s Bay – once you cross this,you embrace the vastness of the Pacific

Finally, as our boat moved past the towering red and white cake styled Hornby Lighthouse on Watson’s Bay, we had moved out of the sheltered waters of the harbor into the more choppier waves of the vast South Pacific Ocean. And then began our watch – slow and steady – for the black and white humpback whales. As in all wildlife watching, one requires patience for the creatures to arrive. It can be frustrating at times, but when the results come, it is extremely rewarding. We kept waiting, as the boat moved farther and farther from the city. A flurry of movement and the crowds got euphoric only to find a pod of dolphins – another beautiful and more elegant creature, but not the object of our desire for the given day.

Bottlenose dolphins - denizens of the waters around Sydney Harbor
Bottlenose dolphins – denizens of the waters around Sydney Harbor

Our cruise operators in the meanwhile kept informing us enthusiastically about whale migration, that definitely gives tourism a mighty shot in the arm every winter. And what did I learn? Well, here goes:

  • The most common whales on these waters are the Humpback and the Southern right whales. the former traverse about 5,000 km one way, making their migration one of the longest for mammal species on earth
  • Australia is quite privileged when it comes to whales – over 50% of the world’s cetaceans are found in Australian waters. New Zealand and Tonga are two neighbors that are also becoming increasingly popular as whale destinations on this side of the Pacific
  • The majority of humpbacks in Australian waters migrate north from June to August, and back towards the Southern Ocean from September to November.
  • Highly intelligent and social animals, the whales move in groups (as we were soon to see – a total of 17 whales in a pod!) Groups of young males typically lead the migration while pregnant cows and bring up the rear. Adult breeding animals form the bulk of the migration in the middle stages.
  • Remember Free Willy? well, even Orcas migrate but not on these waters – If seen, it’s actually a sign of danger as these ferocious hunters would normally seek the young calves for a kill
  • These whales were once brutally massacred for their valuable blubber and bones, almost to the point of extinction until a ban in the ’60s helped revive the whaling population of the world. The comeback is almost considered a miracle – from a critically endangered 200 humpback whales in the mid 1960s, the number has risen to a staggering 26,000 in 2016. Finally, a wildlife statistic that is not all gloom and doom!
  • Today, Japan remains one of few nations to continue hunting whales though the claims are to find a cure for Alzheimer’s. And yes, some countries in Scandinavian Europe even go to the extent of eating whale meat (and whale pizzas as well). Old habits die hard!
    Spotted!
    Spotted!
    The ribbed back of the behemoth - looks almost like some primeval monster in the waters
    The ribbed back of the behemoth – looks almost like some primeval monster in the waters

    A mini-pod in front of the colored shoreline of the city
    A mini-pod in front of the colored shoreline of the city

After a long wait, and many a fact later, finally our guests emerged from their watery hideout. And quite a spectacle it was – we counted 17 humpback whales, gliding in the waters around us, some breaching, others waving their fins at as, and most slipping up and down all around us. When it rains, it pours. Around 40 minutes of whale watching – and terabytes of photos later – interrupted with bottle nose dolphins, and shearwater birds, we were still gasping for more. One disappointment for us though was we could not see a full bodied somersault by any of the lazy laggards – there were loads of tails and dorsal fins and humps but not a super shot in the waters. Nonetheless, another aspect of wildlife watching is its unpredictability. But then, that’s where the fun lies.

Thar she blows! A humpback plunging into the blues
Thar she blows! A humpback plunging into the blues

So much for the sneak peek – maybe someday it would be great to write a sequel while actually deep sea diving with these leviathans. In New Zealand. Or maybe Tonga. If the whales can go that far, we should get inspired as well 😉

 

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