Whale Watching — Byron Bay
Whilst in Byron Bay I was lucky enough to experience one of the world’s most incredible animal migrations — that of the humpback whale. Ever since I can remember I have been fascinated with whales and dreamt of seeing one up close, so for me, whale watching was at the top of my list when visiting the area. The humpback whales migrate along the NSW coast of Australia between May and November every year, so I felt super lucky that I had made it just in time to see the last of the whales as they migrated back down south.
Of course there are numerous places to go whale watching along the spectacular NSW coast, however I chose Byron Bay due to the fact that the Humpback whales travel in very close proximity to the shoreline. This is because Cape Byron is the most easterly point in Australia, meaning you can witness the whales at close hand without having to travel far. This makes Byron Bay a premier whale watching destination via both land and sea as there are plenty of land based vantage points, including the famous Cape Byron lighthouse.
I chose to go with the company ‘Byron Bay Whale Watching’ as they are the area’s most experienced tour operator, having taken out over 10,000 customers. Also, their office (dive shop) is centrally located just off the main Byron Bay high street which was just down the road from our campsite.
We met at the dive shop around 10am and were greeted by friendly staff who gave us a briefing for the day. Unfortunately we had woken up to grey skies and choppy seas so we were feeling a little apprehensive, however the staff members assured us that they wouldn’t proceed with the tour unless they were positive the conditions were safe enough, and the boat is designed to cope well in these conditions so we would still have a safe and enjoyable ride. They also informed us that the previous tour that morning had spotted heaps of whales so even though it was a little dull it was still a great morning to go whale watching.
After our briefing and safety video we were suited and booted in the finest whale watching attire (knee length waterproofs!) and loaded onto the minibus ready for a short journey to the beach.
We were dropped off just north of the lighthouse, on the gorgeous Clarke’s beach and jumped straight onto the boat. There were around 10 customers (of all ages), plus the skipper and on board photographer/deck hand. As soon as we had sat down, our skipper told us there was no time to lose, as there were whales breaching in the foreground that we couldn’t miss. We sped over there and made it just in time to see the majestic animals as they soared out of the water and came crashing down not far from the boat, met by a chorus of ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’. It was one of the most incredible displays of raw power in the natural world and the most surreal sight. The skipper informed us that it looked like a mother a calf, and it was common for the calf to copy the behaviour of the mother by breaching just after her. We watched in awe as they tossed and turned, breached and tail slapped over and over again — it felt as if they were dancing and playing with one another and were having so much fun.
We soon noticed another whale heading south by the lighthouse, so decided to try our luck over there. This one was a little shyer and we had to wait a little longer, however when it breached it was nothing short of incredible and well worth the wait. This whale looked a lot larger than the previous two, and the breach was so powerful it caused a wake which came right up to our boat. We were told how some humpback whales reach a length of 16 metres and can weigh up to 36,000 kg — incredible.
I was curious as to why whales breach, and the skipper told me there are numerous theories. The first is that they may breach simply to look around at what is going on above the water (for instance if a boat is going by), another is that they may be trying to remove parasites from their skin, or scratch an itch. It is also thought that they may breach more in rough seas as their songs are harder for other whales to hear (which made sense on this particular day). Another is that they are trying to stun their prey, or signal their fitness, yet my favourite is that they are doing it just for fun.
Just as our larger friend had started to swim out of sight, we were lucky enough to spot a pod of dolphins frolicking by the shore — they were so close it looked as if they were within touching distance of the surfers and kayakers. According to our skipper, this was a very frequent sight, and there are ‘kayak with dolphins’ tours that operate from Clarke’s beach daily. Our skipper also told us that turtles are frequently spotted as well as a huge variety of sea birds which we were also lucky enough to encounter.
We had about three hours out on the water, so during the brief periods of time when we were waiting for the whales to reveal themselves, our skipper provided us with a lot of interesting information regarding the humpback whales and their migration period.
We learnt how each year, between the months of May and November, the whales from the Southern Hemisphere migrate from their feedings grounds in the Antarctic to the northern tropics, which is home to their breeding and birthing grounds. Up here, the whales mate and the females give birth to their calves before migrating down south again to spend their summer in the Antarctic, where they feed and prepare themselves for another northern migration the following year.
We were told how there are separate populations of humpback whales which migrate up different routes each year, including the east and west coasts of Africa, Australia, South America and towards the South Pacific Islands.
We learnt how humpback whales use the land to assist them in their navigation and this is what ties them so close to the coast. This trait made them very vulnerable to commercial whaling, and back when it was still legal, there was a dramatic decrease in the humpback whale population. According to our skipper, numbers decreased to as little as 100 humpback whales migrating along the east coast of Australia. Thankfully, since commercial whaling was ceased in the 1970s, numbers have started to rise and there are now thought to be tens of thousands migrating up and down the coast each year.
We were also informed about ‘Migaloo’ — Australia’s most famous humpback whale. This all-white albino humpback whale travels up and down the east coast of Australia each year and has been spotted in Byron Bay numerous times, wowing people as he goes. It would have been awesome to see the ‘celebrity’ of whales up close, however I felt super lucky that we had spotted so many whales ourselves throughout the duration of our trip — around 5 or 6 in total.
It was so interesting to learn in depth about this incredible species, and even more incredible to see them in their natural habitat. Each and every whale took my breath away and I can’t thank the company Byron Bay Whale Watching enough for providing me with the most amazing experience that’ll be etched in my memory forever.
The boat is launched from the beach, so it is best to wear shorts or loose fitting trousers that you can easily roll up to your knees as you will walk through water to get on to the boat.
Bring a camera with you, but be careful to keep it covered from the odd splash. A waterproof camera would be ideal. If you are nervous about damaging your camera then leave it to the professional on board who provides each tour with incredible, high quality images of the whales at an additional price. You give all your cameras and phones to a crew member who keeps them in a waterproof box until you are all safely on the boat before handing them back for you to use.
Be patient — you might be lucky enough to spot a whale at the very beginning of your tour or you may have to wait a while. The majority of tours spot whales (or it is money back guaranteed) so in the mean time enjoy the ride, listen to the friendly and informative skipper, take pictures of the beautiful Byron Bay landscape and don’t forget to look out for other wildlife including dolphins, turtles and sea birds.
For those that get sea sick, maybe go before lunch ;) Our tour was a little bumpy at times due to the weather, however if it is too choppy the tour gets cancelled/rescheduled. It is best to check the weather prior to booking if possible!