Getting ‘mugged’ by whales in Hervey Bay, Australia

A humpback whale breaches in Hervey Bay. © IFAW/M. CollisOne of the great privileges of my work is that I occasionally get to see whales in the wild. Another of the great privileges, though, is to meet the many passionate and committed people who work so hard every day to see these whales protected.

Recently, I got to do both in a wonderful trip to Hervey Bay, Australia’s whale-watching capital.

I was in town to speak at the Creating Waves lecture series, which runs as part of the Hervey Bay whale festival. My talk was on Australia’s recent success at International Court of Justice with its case against Japanese whaling and also more generally about threats facing whales here in Australia.

However, while I was there, I also took advantage of being in one of the best places in the world to go whale watching.

I spent Friday morning getting ‘mugged’ by whales.

A ‘mugging’ as the whale watchers in Hervey Bay call it, is when curious whales approach and surround the boat, and the watchers become the watched, with whales rolling on their sides and lifting their giant heads out of the water to take a look at the humans who have come to see them.

There is truly nothing quite like this experience.

One of the few places in Australia where this happens on as regular a basis is Hervey Bay, where humpback whales come to rest and socialise before heading onwards on their epic journey south from their breeding and calving grounds in the Great Barrier Reef to their feeding grounds in the Antarctic.

For an hour and a half, three playful sub-adult whales cruised around our boat before finally having their attention diverted by another whale and calf which had arrived. Like so many of the whales in Hervey Bay, this mother was a return visitor.

Because of the amazing work of Trish and Wally Franklin at the Oceania Project, who have been amassing a photo ID catalogue of the Hervey Bay humpbacks over decades now, it was possible to match the distinctive markings on this mother’s tail to a photo taken back in 1997, when she was just a year old.

And now here she was again, with a calf of her own.

It wasn’t just extraordinary whales I met on my trip. I met some extraordinary people too.

My heartfelt thanks to Lloyd and Vicki and all the crew of the Tasman Venture, for hosting my trip. Their local knowledge, expertise and years of experience elevate the tour to a level hard to find elsewhere.

I also met some extraordinary customers on the boat, who have formed their own whale watching club and come to Hervey Bay every year to see the whales.

One man was in his 26th consecutive year!

The love for these whales is truly amazing. In some cases, we perhaps risking loving the whales a bit too much. Queensland has just begun offering swim with whale experiences, including in Hervey Bay, where tourism authorities are keen to cash in quick on the potential extra tourist dollars this could bring. But my fear, as I expressed on Radio National recently, is that in seeing the dollar signs, the rush to start these activities hasn’t been thought through properly.

There has been no explanation from the Queensland Government as to how these activities will be regulated or monitored to ensure there aren’t negative impacts on the whales, on human safety or for that matter on other whale watchers watching from boats.

It is clear tourism authorities here want to compete with countries like Tonga that offer swimming with humpback whale experiences. However, as has been seen in Tonga, if not managed carefully these activities can have a negative impact.

This would be bad news not just for the whales, but also for the reputation of whale watching here in Australia that is by and large conducted very responsibly by operators.

This highlights why it is so important to get regulations right around swimming with whales, including in Australia’s whale watching capital, Hervey Bay.


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