Sydney: Humpback highway

By Judy Skatssoon

Whales going north along the Australian coast have one thing in mind, says Judy Skatssoon.
Captain Cook Cruises will get you right up close to migrating whales in Sydney Harbour.
Captain Cook Cruises will get you right up close to migrating whales in Sydney Harbour.

The little grey whale surfaces about 100m from our boat and blows out a waterspout before playfully diving again.

He repeats the process about six times to the delight of passengers aboard the whale-watching Captain Cook Cruises catamaran Maggie just off Sydney Harbour heads.

We're on what whale researcher Vanessa Pirotta, who provides informative commentary on all things cetacean during the trip, calls "the humpback highway".

First mate Joel Rose reckons we're seeing a juvenile humpback male, probably aged about 2 and 9-10m long.

Rose says he's seen a range of personalities in the whales he's encountered during his seven years in the whale-watching industry.

This one seems like a happy little chappy.

"The testosterone's probably kicking in and he's leading the charge to the breeding waters up north," Rose says.

"He's probably not quite sure what he's supposed to do up there yet, but he knows where he's headed. Whales are like backpackers. They go south to work and north to party."

The life of a whale consists of eating, migration and breeding, Pirotta tells us. By May they've finished gorging on Antarctic krill and start making their way up to warm Queensland waters to breed. From August they'll head back down to start the cycle again.

With an east coast population of around 14,500 humpbacks in 2010 and a 10-11 per cent increase each year, it's believed that more than 20,000 now make the annual trip. This means whale watchers are virtually guaranteed of a sighting.

Killer whales, minkes, southern right whales even the occasional blue or sperm whale are also on the move.

Captain Cook Cruises are so confident you'll see a whale on one of their tours that they'll put you on another trip for free if you don't.

Rose says on a good day there might be up to 10 sightings. These might be lone whales, a whale with a calf or what's known as a competition pod, which is a female surrounded by a group of hopeful males.

On this particular day we have to wait to see our promised whale. After two hours of scanning the horizon without any sightings we're beginning to give up hope and Pirotta has started talking about the seabirds.

But just after we've turned back, our young whale decides to make an appearance.

The sight is so delightful that it's worth the wait.

It's still early in the season and marine director David Garrett is happy with our sighting of party-boy Pat, as well as a second whale spotted spouting further off in the distance.

It's just the beginning of a busy few months on the humpback highway.


Qantas flies daily from Auckland to Sydney, with return Economy Class flights starting from $568.

Captain Cook whale-watching cruises operate from May 21-November 1. Cruises operate daily
from Circular Quay.


- NZ Herald

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