Having a whale of a time in Sydney Harbour

By Jess Teideman 7 November 2013
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Recently granted a rare opportunity to leave the office and go whale watching, AG’s editorial coordinator and art director took to the seas with fingers crossed and cameras at the ready.

AS THE BREEZE HURLED salty air into my face, I struggled to zip up my spray jacket and hold onto my camera – all while holding on tight to the cold steel railing. I had been lulled into a false sense of security by the gentle rocking of the boat inside the harbour (“rough seas? Who are they kidding?”).

At every break in the waves we thought we saw something, but more often than not, it turned out to be just a wave. Everyone on the boat collectively held their breath, waiting, watching.

Every year approximately 2000 humpback whales make their way north to the sub-tropical waters of the eastern and western coasts of Australia. We were trying our hardest to find just one. The epic 5000-km migratory round trip occurs in the months from May to November and while the whales’ timeline is generally set, getting a glimpse of them is still quite unpredictable. So finding one proved difficult.

Lucky for us the crew on board were expert spotters and soon one hailed “there’s one!” – to which everyone scanned the churning sea for the telltale “blow”, which for a humpback can reach up top 4 m high. We had found a whale.

According to our guides from Whale Watching Sydney, this whale was a juvenile, probably hitching a ride on the EAC (the east Australian current). The EAC runs up the eastern coast, allowing the whales – which can weigh up to 36 tonnes – to cruise along at an average of four knots, without much effort.

We followed the whale for a couple of hours. And it behaved just like a teenager – unpredictable. The whale stayed under water for odd times, coming to the surface where we least expected it – and avoiding all photo opportunities.

It appeared to be just as curious about us, and at one point it came within 80 metres of our boat before disappearing for almost ten minutes.

Then, just as we thought it had given us the slip, out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of it further out to sea, launching its massive bulk into the sky.

Whether it breached to clear itself of barnacles or parasites, was checking us out, or was simply having fun (I’m going with this option), scientists don’t know. But like most of the approximately 1.6 million people who flock to watch them each year, we were happy to catch a glimpse.