May to November are the magic months for whale watching on the Gold Coast. It's an all ages winner if you are looking for a fun family trip.
We joined Whales in Paradise for a whale watching tour, during the September school holidays. Departing from the jetty at the end of Cavil Ave in the heart of Surfers Paradise, the journey begins on the waterways of the Nerang River, past the spectacular homes of the rich and famous. It continues out the seaway, between the Spit and South Stradbroke Island and into the Pacific Ocean, in search of Humpback whales on their annual migration. From the freezing waters of Antarctica, these majestic giants of the sea pass the Gold Coast on their way north.
It's a journey to give birth, as its purpose is for the whale calves to be born up in the warmer waters near the Great Barrier Reef. It is something very special to witness these creatures, on a migration which begins around 6000km to the south.
Our vessel was Whales in Paradise's beautiful new catamaran, the Kaiala. After being welcomed on board by the crew and offered complimentary tea and coffee, there is a safety brief, including life jacket demo and sea sickness tablets are available for purchase, if you think you might feel queasy out at sea. Then the informative commentary begins.
The first part of the trip is a Gold Coast Waterways Cruise, which takes us along the Nerang River to the entrance out to the ocean. Cruising past impressive waterfront properties, you will hear about some of their famous owners. The homes of Paradise Waters boast their own sandy white beach, a jetty for your boat and some have helipads. One home, which includes an indoor heated swimming pool, is on the market for $10.5 million.
The views from the boat include the high-rise buildings of Surfers with their glass glinting in the sun. Marina Mirage with its designer boutiques and the opulent 5 star Palazzo Versace waterfront hotel are next. There are luxury "boats" moored in the world-class marina, also a little chapel boat used for weddings, all easily viewed from the upper or lower decks. Within half an hour you are out on the ocean and the whale search begins in earnest.
The spout of water, which is exhaled from the blowhole, is the first clue that a whale is below the surface. Eyes scan the horizon looking for the tell tale spray which can be seen from 5 kms away. Whale watching is very much a waiting game, very similar to game viewing on an African safari. You watch, you scan the horizon, you wait and you hope. We were very lucky, as we were not far from the seaway when we discovered 3 pods of whales. Their fins curved into view and tantalizingly submerged with everyone willing them to appear, so we could enjoy more than the tip of the iceberg.
Humpback whales are enthusiastic with their above water displays and our departure was lucky to see whales tail slapping, spy hopping and mugging. When spyhopping, the whale rises and holds a vertical position partially out of the water, and this often happens during a "mugging" when the whale's attention is focused on the boat, as it seems that he is as inquisitively interested in you, as you are intent on observing him. This works well in a whale watching tour situation, as the mutual curiosity forms a lasting memory of the encounter. On a previous whale watching tour, we had a whale come right up to the boat, turn on his side and look directly at us. This eye to eye contact resulted in a feeling of a significant connection passing between you. The pectoral fin waving, feels like a genuine greeting with its cheerful wave of "over here". The views of their activity was magical and after the waves danced around them, we noticed smooth patches of water, known as a whale footprint, which stayed on the surface for up to 2 minutes after tail movements.
Watching these magnificent creatures in their natural environment, feeling their curiosity, following their movements and even listening to the sound of their breathing is an awesome experience. Their grace and their fluid movements in the water, despite their huge body size, are humbling to watch.
The sheer enormous size and weight of the whales, an adult can weigh around 40 tons, is hard to comprehend. Babies stay with their mothers for 12-18 months. The whole migration journey of the whales is all about giving birth to their babies in the warmer (around 23 degree) waters off the Great Barrier Reef. Whale calves don't have fat on them when born to survive the Antarctic freezing temps. Therefore the majority of babies are born near the reef, although some mistime and babies can be born anywhere from Byron Bay up.
Our highlight from the whales on this trip, coming after all the happy tail slaps and wonderfully cheerful pectoral fin waves, was an exuberant display of breaching near the end of our ocean voyage. A young whale repeatedly threw itself out the water, breaching enthusiastically, showing off his rolling and flipping technique. Meanwhile a larger blowhole spout showed where mum was quietly waiting close by, while junior let off a bit of steam. The humpback whale is one of the most well known jumpers and there are several theories as to why whales breach. These include trying to remove parasites from their skin and using what is both a visible and audible signal, as a way to communicate with other whales. Baby whales that have lost their mothers have been seen to breach repeatedly; breaching is very loud and sound travels very well in water. Is it then a masterclass in percussion as humpback whales are the noisiest and most imaginative whales when it comes to songs. All these theories make good sense, however the feeling that we got from our breaching showoff, was that it was pure and simply just for fun. The energy and exuberance on display were wonderful to watch. What a great finale to our whale experience, to see this young whale literally having a whale of a time. The beauty is in the leap itself, performed with the grace of a ballet dancer on an ocean stage.
We had a photographer who took group photos as we boarded and photo packs were handed out before we even returned to land. The quality of the pictures looked excellent and there was no hard sell to purchase. The pack also contained a cd of images and a shot of you and your group ready to board. It does add to the price if you purchase a pack ($25 - Sep 2015) however it is also difficult to get quality shots unless you are quick off the mark and have a good zoom on your camera. If the swell is making the boat rock and roll somewhat, as it positions itself to give you the best view of a whale, it's hard to capture that magnificent breach shot in the excitement of the moment. Also it's too easy to be trapped behind the lens so you miss seeing the action yourself and forming your own mental picture of the event.
This type of tour is working with nature so what you get on the day is unique and each voyage out will provide passengers with a different experience. The company does also have the following guarantee on it's website: "100% guaranteed Whale Sightings or get a full refund". Our cruise back to the jetty, passed a group with a jetpack and people paragliding and jet skiing. The fun just never stops on the Gold Coast.
Our group, of mixed ages and nationalities, had the following comments about what they had enjoyed most about the whale watching experience: the curiosity of the whales, the impressive backdrop of Surfers Paradise and the Gold Coast coastline, the clean new luxury catamaran, the informative commentary, the sound of the whales spouting and being surrounded by people who were genuinely excited by the whale sightings.
So if you are looking for a whale of a time (how can you not use the pun) then check out what Whales in Paradise have to offer. There are 3 departure times daily (morning, midday & afternoon).
Also, in summer months (starting 14 Novem 2015), Dolphin & Snorkeling tours will depart from Brisbane, cruising Moreton Bay. The new vessel, Kaiala, will really come into it's own for this, as it has underwater viewing windows, allowing around 8 people at a time to climb down into the hull to watch the dolphins underwater.
Whale watching is definitely a bucket list item so travel the Humpback Highway and take the opportunity to tick it off, on the Gold Coast. Thanks go to Whales in Paradise for giving our group a great whale watching experience. I came away with a lasting impression of whales out to have some fun and being happy to share it with us. The crew mentioned a few times about waiting to see what kind of show they would put on and as we finished our tour I realized that was exactly what the whales treated us to.
If you need parking I'd recommend the Bruce Bishop car park, as it's no more than an easy 5 min walk from the cruise departure point. It's open 24 hours, 7 days and the maximum daily charge is $14. It also offers an electric charge station.