While the idea of going for a swim in Melbourne’s cold winter waters might seem like a nightmare for some, hundreds of others have recently flocked to our shores for a welcome winter holiday. For a few short months each year, the Victorian Coast becomes home to some of the world’s largest and most majestic creatures - whales.
The whales are migrating up to 10,000 kilometres from the colder Antarctic waters where they’ve spent the summer feeding, to the shallower, warmer waters of New South Wales and Queensland. On their way north along the eastern Australian coast, a handful visit the Bass Coast between April and November each year to calve and rest.
That’s right – they’re in our backyard, and they’re easier to see than you might think.
Last month, I went on a four-hour whale-watching cruise around Phillip Island, only an hour-and-a-half drive from Melbourne. I spend the first hour of the cruise eagerly looking out to the horizon – is that a whale? No, it’s another buoy. Finally, a promising blow in the distance indicates we’ve found what we were looking for, and the boat heads in the direction of the sighting.
The vessel approaches the whales, abiding by strict regulations under their permit – they must keep a 100-metre distance at all times. It is up to the whales if they choose to approach the vessel any closer, although often they do, in which case the engine is turned off.
Coming up for a few breaths, the Humpback Whales give us a good look before they disappear underwater for several long minutes with a flick of their tail. They leave only a ‘footprint’ – a distinct, clear patch of water that’s left on the surface - and an excited energy in the air as we wait for them to reappear.
Every year, two main species of whale – the Humpback Whale and the Southern Right Whale – are welcomed by the Bass Coast. Humpbacks have a characteristic white underside and a dorsal fin, while Southern Right Whales are generally black, and are smaller but heavier than humpbacks. Occasionally, Orcas (or Killer Whales) also come for a visit to feed on seals, but the crew tells us that on the days when Orcas are spotted, there is nothing else in the water.
Wildlife Coast Cruises, together with the Dolphin Research Institute, contribute to the Two Bays Whale Project, which relies on citizen science to build a database of whale sightings. In 2017, an estimated number of 458 individual whales were sighted in Port Phillip and Western Port Bays. These figures are promising, especially considering the dark history of industrial whaling, which saw whale numbers plummet dangerously close to extinction. But it seems that these populations have bounced back, highlighting the importance of continued research and protection of these species.
'Ten o’clock!' calls the crew, pointing to the resurfaced pair of humpbacks, as everyone huddles to one side of the boat. Watching the whales, I feel a child-like exhilaration I haven’t felt in years. Everyone else on board seems to share the same feeling – all you can hear are awestruck exclamations and camera clicks.
Commentating on the loudspeaker, the crew at Wildlife Coast Cruises are careful not to anthropomorphise, highlighting that we really don’t know much about the behaviour of these captivating yet cryptic creatures. But it’s hard not to see these animals as playful, curious beings. One of the crew members hangs off the back of the boat, slowly clapping his hands – apparently, this attracts whales.
At one point, we find ourselves surrounded by three small pods of Humpback Whales, all in different directions. Seemingly jealous that the attention is not on them, a large group of fur seals arrive, playing in the water around the boat. A minute later, there are dolphins swimming along the bow, catching a free ride. Pelicans, albatrosses and gulls fly past – I don’t know where to look, overwhelmed by the abundant wildlife.
When things calm down again, we’re watching a pod of three whales lazily swimming along. The crew tells us that they only exhibit breaching behaviour (jumping out of the water) five to ten percent of the time, and not to get our hopes up. But just as we’re about to head back in, one of the whales flings itself out of the water, landing with a huge splash; the sheer size and force is incredible. No one really knows why whales breach – it could be to clean themselves, or as an act of aggression. Or it could just be a playful leap. Either way, it makes a wonderful end to our cruise as we head back to Rhyll jetty.
The cruises at Phillip Island run between June and August, and have finished for the year. But if you’ve missed out, don’t worry – what comes up must come down, which means you can catch the whales returning through Wilsons Promontory from September to November. And Jess from Wildlife Coast Cruises promises a good show at the Prom – 'we had a 100% success rate for sightings last year with up to 50% of cruises sighting breaches.'
If you’re looking for a new way to experience our beautiful coastline, a whale-watching cruise is a great chance to get outdoors and see some of the spectacular wildlife Victoria has to offer.
Ella Loeffler studied a Bachelor of Arts and Science at Monash University, combining her love for literature and animals. She is currently completing her honours in Zoology at Deakin University, where she is researching the foraging ecology of the critically endangered Eastern Barred Bandicoot. She is passionate about wildlife conservation, and hopes to continue working in threatened species management.
This article is an honest review and has not been sponsored in any way by Wildlife Coast Cruises or affiliates.
Banner image courtesy of Wildlife Coast Cruises.