Queensland: Go where the whales are

By Anna Harrison

North Stradbroke Island is famous for its humpbacks — but a sighting proves a challenge for Anna Harrison
Watching for whales at North Stradbroke Island's Point Lookout is addictive. Photo  / Tourism and Events Queensland
Watching for whales at North Stradbroke Island's Point Lookout is addictive. Photo / Tourism and Events Queensland

If you want to see whales while on holiday, there are three things you must do. 1. Go where the whales are. 2. Go during whale-watching season. 3. Make sure your glasses prescription is up to date.

I'd nailed the first one, was a bit iffy on the second and failed miserably at the third. But I decided to take my chances anyway.

Thousands of humpback whales travel past North Stradbroke Island (Straddie, to the locals), just off Brisbane, on their way to Antarctica every year between June and November.

They're easy to spot from a cliff-top walkway at Point Lookout at the northern tip of the island.

I'm about two weeks late but am hoping a few stragglers have overstayed in the warm Queensland waters.

So as soon as I arrive, I find a good perch on the rocks and settle in for spectacular viewing.

I scan the ocean, straining my eyes, scouring white breaks. The longer I spend, the more convinced I become that any minute now, I'll see one.

It's more addictive than playing pokies: just as I'm about to give up, I catch a glimpse of something on the horizon or a shadow in the ocean and redouble my efforts, staring intently at the water.

And then I start to lose my mind. I consider calling them, making whale noises Finding Nemo-style. It's not until I mistake a diver for a duck, that I decide it's time to give up.
Luckily there is plenty of other wildlife on the island.

My eco tour starts, unofficially, at 4.30 the next morning.

I'm woken by the racket of birds outside my window - 253 species on the island, I'm later told.

It sounds like an orchestra tuning before the main event, starting with the harsh notes of the fuller-throated birds and moving to the sweeter, higher-pitched ones, punctuated with the cackling of the kookaburra.

I bury my head in my pillow - I'm not ready to meet the locals just yet.

At a more reasonable hour, I meet my tour guide for the day.

Barefoot Dave trained as an electrician and used to work on the sand mines at Stradbroke.
The mines extract mineral sands and silica but there are plans to close them to protect the island's fragile biodiversity, shifting the focus to tourism and conservation.

So now Dave offers tours, like this one, as well as kayaking, snorkelling, sand-boarding and fishing.

It turns out he's also a firefighter and a marriage celebrant - a one-stop shop.
And he seems to embody the feel of this island - adaptable, unapologetic, a bit rough around the edges, but with a heart of gold.

We drive along the beach, spotting white-bellied sea eagles and brahminy kites, and stopping to pick up balloons that have washed over from the mainland - Dave is not impressed as the turtles here choke on this rubbish and die.

Then we turn inland and head across the island. It's all Australian bush with sand tracks only suitable for a 4WD.

There are swathes of blackened trunks and spindly ghosts of trees, killed when the sap boiled from the heat of bushfires.

There was a big one in the summer of 2014, Dave tells me. It was the worst one anyone could remember and 60 per cent of the island was burned. It started from lightning, apparently - this area is prone to thunderstorms when the humidity builds up.

But the trees are resilient, they've adapted - the banksia only releases seeds once fire has been through, clearing the undergrowth - and the bush is slowly regenerating.

After a quick stop-off at Brown Lake - a beautiful swimming spot that gets its colour from the tea tree oil seeping into the water; it's wonderful for your skin - we arrive at Amity Point for a bit of morning tea.

It's damper with jam and billy tea made by swinging the teapot around a few times - a surprisingly tasty brew.

As we're sipping, Dave suddenly points up in the gum trees.

There, right above us, is a sleeping koala. Her arm is hanging down and she's oblivious to my enthusiastic picture-taking.

And she's not the only Australian treasure I find in the wild.

Later that day, I'm strolling about with an icecream when I come across three kangaroos nibbling at a clearing of grass.

They're wonderfully strange animals, a sort of mashup - the top half dainty, with a head like a deer, the bottom half like an oversized rabbit with a long thumpy tail.

One sits up on its hind legs, ears alert, when I move too quickly. Then, after scratching its chest, it goes back to nibbling grass and I go back to licking icecream.

This place is like an island zoo.

But I still haven't seen what I came here to see - the whales. So on my last day I head back up the lookout track, prepared for a final round.

I've learned a few tricks - watch for other tourists pointing and shouting, it's a dead giveaway. And soon enough it pays off.

A pod of dolphins breaks through the water, playing in the waves crashing against the cliffs.

Then I spot a shadowy manta ray gliding along and a lone turtle.

It's not quite the magnificent whale I had been hoping for but it's pretty incredible all the same.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Emirates flies direct from Auckland to Brisbane, with Economy Class return fares starting at $541. emirates.com

From Brisbane Airport it's a one-hour drive to vehicle and passenger ferries at Toondah Harbour, Cleveland. The ferry trip takes 25 minutes.

ONLINE:

queensland.com
stradbrokeisland.com

- NZ Herald

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