In early October, the Antarctica-bound humpback whale migration is moving along the south Queensland coast. Their numbers continue to rise and by some estimates they are now reaching pre-whaling population levels. And while the whale-watching boat cruises do a brisk trade at this time of year, there are plenty of locations on the coast where you can get a great view of the whales from the shore. One of our favourites is Noosa National Park.
We hiked around the coastal perimeter of the park from the Sunshine Beach end, making our way to the cliffs at Hell’s Gates, the north-eastern point of the park, to see if we could spot some whales. To our great delight, we saw many whales passing by, and the view from the cliffs was clear and uninterrupted. One whale in particular was breaching close to the cliff just as we arrived. But unfortunately I didn’t have my camera at the ready, so I learned a valuable lesson for wildlife photography – be prepared.
The whale photos shown here are somewhat grainy, as I had to enlarge them quite a bit to get the whale tails into view. I use a moderately powerful zoom lens, but I have yet to master the use of a DSLR. It’s a more complex beastie than I imagined it would be. However that took nothing away from the joy of watching these magnificent animals swimming by, in such a spectacular setting on a clear spring day.
As well as the whales, there are lots of sights to see around this coastline, and my inner bird-nerd enjoyed spotting what I later identified as an Australasian Figbird. At least I’m pretty sure that’s what it was – any corrections gratefully accepted. One more to mark as “seen” in my Slater’s Guide.
As unlikely as it sounds, it is possible to go whale watching by bicycle. However, you do need to be somewhere near a whale migration route, and it helps to have a telescope. From September to November, humpback whales make their way south along the Queensland coast, returning to their Antarctic feeding grounds. So I decided to get myself a telescope and go see me some whales.
I spent two days on the Sunshine Coast, cycling back and forth between Maroochydore and Noosa, trying out various whale-spotting locations along the way and clocking up 100km riding in total. After trying my luck at Coolum and Peregian Beach, where I have seen whales before, I hit the jackpot at Sunrise Beach.
As I rolled into the little picnic shed at Sunrise Beach, I could see the spouts of two whales even before I hopped off my bike. Though I am next to useless at estimating distances, especially over water, I’m guessing they were about 500 metres offshore. I hurriedly set up the tripod and attached the telescope, trying to keep my eyes on the area where I saw the spouts. I had no idea if the whales would stay where I’d seen them, or quickly move along the coast. As it turned out, I needn’t have hurried. These whales weren’t in a hurry to go anywhere, and were in the mood for some showing off. For the next half hour or so, I watched them breach and splash the surface with their fins and tails. It was exhilarating. I had a great view with the scope and could see them in excellent detail. The surge of water from a 40 ton whale crashing down has to be seen to be believed.
I returned to the same spot on the second day, and both whales were still there. Well, I assume it was the same pair. They were less gregarious on day two. No breaching, just gently surfacing and diving. Watching them in a more placid state was still a rewarding experience.
You may notice that there are no photos of the whales in this post. That’s because while I have the equipment to see them, I don’t (yet) have the equipment to photograph them. So you’ll just have to take my word for it that they’re out there. For the brand junkies, my scope is a Celestron C70 Mini Mak Angled Spotting Scope and the tripod is a Slik F740. It’s a very good combination for my purposes. The scope has more than enough magnification for whale spotting, and the scope and tripod weigh just under a kilo each, so are easily transportable in bike panniers. Though I don’t have any whale photos, I did manage to get some shots of an osprey riding the thermals above me, and a pair of lovely yellow-tailed cockatoos.
Even aside from the prospect of seeing whales, the coastal strip is a great place for cycling. Beautiful beach vistas and some very nice bike paths through the coastal forest. And everyone was very friendly and sociable, seeing me roll up on a bicycle and rigging up a telescope. Something of a novelty I suppose. Lots of people had whale watching stories to share. It’s such a thrilling sight and clearly makes an impression on anyone who sees them.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority estimates the current humpback population to be about 15,000. It’s a strong recovery as whaling was only banned here in the 1960s. At the time, it was thought that less than 5% of the pre-whaling population was left. I’m very glad that we now share the coast peacefully with these magnificent and intelligent animals.