Thar She Blows! Whale-Watching in Oz

27 August 2009 By Di Thompson

It’s whale migration season in Australia. Among the world’s most spectacular marine mammals, humpback whales are sighted off New South Wales and Queensland beaches during the winter months when they undertake one leg of a 10,000-km round trip between Antarctica and the Great Barrier Reef. Their numbers are gradually recovering following severe depletion from whaling along the Australian coast in the 1950s.

Characterized by very long pectoral fins (flippers), the humpback whale takes its name from the shape of its back when breaking the surface of the water. It's the fifth largest animal on the planet, growing up to 18 meters (59 feet) in length and weighing as much as 45,000 kg (99,000 lbs). Of all the great whales, humpbacks are the favorite species of whale watchers due to their amazing acrobatic displays. They often will leap clear of the ocean or slap the surface with their huge fins and tail flukes in an awesome demonstration of grace and power.

Capt. Jack Brenac has had a lot of experience taking guests whale watching off Australia’s Gold Coast aboard the 34-meter M/Y Emerald Lady, which is based on the Gold Coast.

“Everyone loves to see a whale,” says Jack. “Since the beginning of the season in June, we have cruised out each week with the owner’s family and guests on board and every time we’ve sighted whales popping up out of the water! Sometimes we have sighted them launching themselves within metres of the yacht, then seconds later a fluke breaks the surface and begins a tail-slapping sequence to the sounds of oohs and ahs....”

“The first couple of weeks of the season, we would see them breaking the surface at five to six nautical miles offshore," he says. "Though now in the middle of the season they are displaying activity as close as two nautical miles from the coast. We have even witnessed a mother giving birth to her calf just outside the breakers here on the Gold Coast.”

It’s important to proceed with extreme caution, he says. “All viewing vessels need to take special care not to cause any distress to the whales during their migration. This means keeping a line-of-sight distance of 200 to 300 meters away from them at all times. We know and follow the rules for a safe and happy experience for our charter guests and the migrating whale pods.”

Here are some tips for whale-watching yachts – both in Australia and in other whale migration zones around the world:

- Due to the limited maneuverability of vessels over 24 metres, find your position, then cut the engines.

- Never drive your vessel in front of, behind, or at the whales.

- When you are near whales, limit using ahead to astern propulsion as underwater vibrations may alarm the pods.

- Avoid using the bow thruster as this may also scare them away.

- Auxiliary machinery vibrations can cause them to dive deep and away from your vessel.

There are strict rules laid down by the Australian government for all whale-watching vessels. Go to to view and download a copy of the Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin watching.

Should you follow these tips and a whale comes in close to your boat and begins to put on show, if will be an experience you and your guests will never forget.