Visit the resort, tour the island & watch whales in one day
Whale watching season is here and one of the interesting options is the Tangalooma Island Resort Whale Watching Day Cruise, which combines a visit to the resort, a tour around the north of Moreton Island (Mulgumpin) and time in whale alley viewing these beautiful ocean-dwelling creatures.
Every year in winter humpback, whales, like the rest of us, get sick of the cold weather and head up north to the Great Barrier reef. Okay, so they do this to have their calves, which is probably a different reason than we go north. They head north from June to August and return from September to November. There is also a similar whale migration on the west coast of Australia as well.
A couple of whales heading north in winter. I think we can all relate.
For South East Queensland, they will generally stay on the outside of the islands in Moreton Bay, which means you will often see them from the shores of the Gold Coast, but not from Brisbane. Though they do sometimes come into the more sheltered waters.
There are about 40,000 humpback whales heading along the coast each year now, up from the less than 500 counted when whaling was still happening. Humpbacks are well known for their playful curiosity, often swimming up close to boats, waving their fins in the air, or leaping out of the water just for fun. This makes them a spectacular sight and well worth going out to see.
Overview of the whale watching tour
The tour involves more than just whale watching and is part of a total day trip. In the morning, you can choose to take the ferry across to the island at either 7:30 am which arrives by 9 am, or at 10 am arriving around 11:15 am. The first option gives you 3 hours to look around the resort and the surrounding area, even giving you enough time to join some other short tours and activities, while the latter option gives you about 30 to 45 minutes at either end to visit the resort or have a quick swim.
The ferry ride to the island includes commentary and information about the lower Brisbane River, an area few people go to see. I enjoyed the early morning industrial beauty of the area, but there are also historical and natural attractions along the river.
The early morning industrial beauty of the lower Brisbane river
The whale-watching tour starts at midday, and if you want your choice of seat, line up early. The best views are often on the bow, but it will be the part of the boat with the most movement, so avoid it if you are prone to seasickness. The middle deck has a viewing deck at the back and along the sides and is generally less crowded. The upper deck has lots of seating and views in all directions, but obviously, you are furthest from the action. Lunch is served cold, so basically try and grab your lunch as early as possible so you can then eat it at your leisure.
The first part of the tour is Moreton Island. The boat goes through the wreck's area past the townships on the northern part of the island and around North Point, so you get a great view of this part of the Island from the sea.
Why kayak, when you can visit the same area on the tour boat
Whales will mostly be on the open ocean so keep a lookout for them as you go. When spotted, the boat will go up to them slowly but is required to stay away by law. But the whales go down and up at random locations, often coming up close to the boat out of curiosity and playfulness, so there is a good chance they will come in quite close. They also can appear anywhere around the boat.
Because the whales will come up to the boat out of curiosity, you can get up close and personal with them
The boat then returns back the way it came, giving you about 45 minutes on the Island. Again, enough time for a swim, a walk up to the vantage point up the top of the island or time for a snack or beer before the boat returns to Brisbane.
Located near Tangalooma Point, this former whaling station has become the premium destination on the island, hosting over 3000 visitors a day at a large and diverse resort complex. The resort has a few features for the visitor, including 2 swimming pools, badminton, table tennis, volleyball net and an eco-centre. There is a shop, along with various restaurants and bars.
Some of the accommodation at the Tangalooma Island Resort on Moreton Island
But the main reason to visit the resort is the beach as well as their various tours, including quad bikes, 4WD tours, boat tours, SCUBA tours, glass-bottom boats and so on. They also hire out snorkels, kayaks and small sailing catamarans for people who want to do some independent activities.
With so many options and possibilities, I wanted to focus on sharing my own experience. The first thing we did was look at the weather, seeking out a day when we were free, it was sunny, warm enough during the day and also with a forecast for little wind and no big waves. Having found one we booked the 7:30 am ferry option so that we would have 3 hours to enjoy the resort before the tour.
With such an early start I packed some bakery items and fruit for breakfast. There is also a cafe at the ferry terminal, but as we couldn't be sure if we would be running late or not, we decided to bring food with us, which we ate while waiting for boarding to commence. The only people I saw using the cafe were grabbing a coffee.
The Anchorage Cafe at the Tangalooma Ferry Terminal
The early morning ferry to the island is the smaller catamaran with just a lower deck and open upper deck. If you want a window seat, get to the front of the queue. The upper deck is behind the wheelhouse, so is fairly sheltered and I spent most of my time here. There is also a small lounge up there as well, which is good for groups of people who want to sit facing each other and talk.
On the upper deck of the Tangalooma Island Resort early morning ferry as it makes its way down Brisbane River
This ride was my first one down the lower Brisbane river. While I enjoy the industrial beauty of the area, others probably will want to keep an eye out for things like historic Fort Lytton and the wildlife in the mangroves as you leave the mouth and head out into Moreton Bay.
You will see places like Redcliffe, Brisbane City, Mud Island and even the Glass House Mountains in the distance as you leave Brisbane behind. With such a sunny day, I was happy to sit on the upper deck the whole way, but I did have 3 layers of cloths on to keep warm.
Glass House Mountains seen in the distance from the Tangalooma Resort ferry
As you approach Moreton Island you can get a good view of the resort, which stretches out along the shorefront and also extends up the hill behind the beach. Over the years, it has grown into a large complex.
On arrival, the first thought is what to do? For most people who are joining a later tour they go to look around the resort. Even though it is fairly large, the main feature is the beach. In the resort itself there is the shop, restaurants, bars and picnic tables, but beyond that very little. I did talk to a few people who had spent the 3 hours waiting for the whale tour just relaxing on the beach, and enjoying some cake and coffee in the cafe. I guess if the weather had been even a little warmer, they would have gone for a swim.
Picnic table on the shorefront at Tangalooma Island Resort
We talked to the information kiosk on the jetty, and they recommended some tours, but also suggested walking down to the wrecks. This is a pleasant stroll of about 20 to 30 minutes. Again, it wasn't really warm enough to swim, and the people in the water were in kayaks, that they had hired at the spot, or wearing wetsuits that they got there or from the resort.
You can walk down to the wrecks from Tangalooma Resort or get taken by boat on a snorkeling tour
We were just mostly in a mood to chill out as well, so we relaxed, ate some of the snack food that I brought with us. Returning to the resort, I have time to catch their Pelican Feeding Eco Tour on the jetty. They have set up the jetty with seating on the side so a large group can sit, or mostly stand, to watch the feeding.
Pelican feeding eco tour at Tangalooma Island Resort
With the whale watching, you take the larger boat which has 3 decks. This is a large ocean going catamaran and is generally very stable. Inside you have seats on the lower deck and a dining lounge on middle deck. There is outdoor viewing at the lower front, rear and sides on the middle deck, and on the upper deck. We chose the upper deck because there are lots of seats and you get views in all directions.
People on the middle back viewing deck on the Tangalooma Whale Watching Tour
Lunch is served boxed up cold. It is reasonably healthy but not a highlight of the tour, but it does the job of feeding you quickly and efficiently. It is best to grab it as early as possible and then you can eat it at your leisure. I saved the apple for my afternoon snack, but then, I must confess, didn't eat it, because once back on the island I figured that I am not on the beach and it is a sunny day, and bought an ice cream instead from the shop.
The provided lunch boxes are okay & does the job of feeding you
The first part of the tour passes through the wrecks, which I had walked up to before. If I knew this, I wouldn't have walked up there earlier in the morning, and would have instead walked in the opposite direction to the desert.
Passing through the Moreton Island wrecks on the Tangalooma Whale Watching Tour
Beyond that. you pass the communities of Cowan Cowan and Bulwer, then round the northern end of the island, giving you good views of the cliffs, Champagne Pools and the historic lighthouse. This part of the tour is also very interesting as well.
The Cape Moreton Lighthouse seen from the Tangalooma Whale Watching Tour boat
It was actually a really good day for whale watching, and we saw multiple pods. So you usually see a few spouts, and then as the boat slowly approaches, these playful and curious sea creatures will approach the boat. We saw a number on the surface, often travelling in groups of 2, 3 or 4. They were all adults, but if you do the tour later in the year as the return down south, you may be lucky to see some calves as well. They will wave their flippers out of the water and sometimes their tails. They also enjoy breaching, that is, jumping out of the water. Though for us, they only popped out about halfway for us, but if you are lucky, they will leap fully out of the water.
A whale tail seen as a whale dives back down into the deep
At the end of the whale watching part of the tour we were actually surrounded by whales, and even a dolphin came to check us out as well. As boats can't approach the whales (but the whales are allowed to approach the boat), the announcer was saying "Well we were planning to head back to the resort now, but we can't move because we are surrounded." No one seemed to mind though.
A dolphin decided to join the whales in surrounding our boat
After the whales let us go, it was just a straight run back to the resort, where we had an hour before the ferry left for Brisbane. What I decided to do with my time was follow the walking path, which is a set of stairs, up to a vantage point on the hill for some views. After which I popped into the eco centre, and then just chilled on the waterfront waiting for the ferry.
You have time for a walk up hlll for a view from up top
Again, remember, if you want a window seat on the ferry, you want to queue up early. Groups head to the middle deck to the lounge area, and there was no one on the open upper deck because late afternoon it was getting a little cold and windy. I took a few photos from the back deck, and then enjoyed nice warm tea inside.
Booking the early morning ferry means you get 3 hours at the resort or on the beach.
It is a good idea to dress warmly, especially on the whale watching part of the tour, as you will be outside. Bring at least a windbreaker, and a few other layers can't hurt on a cooler day./
The resort is not that exciting, but you will have plenty of time to walk up to the wrecks or down to the desert, or if you are a really fast walker who doesn't stop to take lots of photos or go swimming, both.
There are lots of activities and tours you can book once you arrive at the resort in the morning. Look for the information kiosk, the various tour businesses or go to the tour desk next to reception.
If you want to plan you day better, call the resort tour desk before going to talk about what you can do or make a booking.
There is a shop and restaurants, but it is also good to take a few snacks with you, especially if you plan to walk along the beach past the resort.
Okay, so of course everyone has their phones out to photograph or video the whales. I managed to get a few nice photos, but it is not always easy. When a whale breaches you need to ready, pointed in the right direction and be quick enough to snap a photo. See the nice picture below of the splash made by a whale after breaching (one of many) because I was a few seconds too slow. I also have another lovely photo of a whale spout taken from the moving deck, so while I pressed the camera button with the whale in shot, the deck rolled and I just got the top of the spout in frame.
Look at this beautiful photo taken 1 second after a humpback whale splashed back into the water
On the trip back to the jetty, I compared photos with some other people, and mostly they are disappointing. You might get an okay video or even a lucky photo, which ,of course, you need to show your friends, but more fun to just watch the whales. If you do video the whales, please edit the video down to just the interesting bits.
Great light, right lens, good amount of zoom, perfect focus and taken just as whale surfaced and created a beautiful spout, and out of frame because I am standing on a rolling deck
I highly recommend the whole day experience. This gives you nearly 4 hours on the island itself plus 3 hours on the whale watching tour. Having a plan for the first 3 hours in the morning means you will get more out of it, whether it is booking another short tour or activity, walking to the wrecks for a swim or visiting the desert yourself by foot, or just relaxing on the beach for 3 hours, it makes the experience great value for money. Even those taking the 10 am ferry across had a great experience though and had plenty of time to enjoy the island and resort.
Must...resist...urge...to write..."I had a whale of a time on the tour."