Seeing whales in the wild is a special experience no level of expectation, hype or anticipation can lessen. Watching such mammoth, beautiful creatures breaching the surface, leaping through the air in the exact way something the size of a double decker bus shouldn’t, or flicking their tail before descending to the depths, is something that takes your breath away and stays with you for a long time afterwards. Or, at least, for us it did…
Our first encounter with these massive beasts was off the Eastern coast of Australia. We’d spent a few days catching up with friends on the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane. Looking for things to do in that part of the world we drove our rental car to the Gold Coast theme parks. Seaworld and their twice-daily whale watching tours had caught our eye. Interest piqued, we boarded the morning sailing and headed out to sea.
What you should know about a tour like is that, naturally, there are no guarantees. These are wild animals after all. There is no certainty that you will see a whale at all, never mind how long they will stick around or what they will do in the time they deem you worthy of sharing their ocean with. So to see a fully grown humpback whale and her infant, as we did, dive and breach (jump out of the water and crash back down) repeatedly, close to our boat, or swim slowly past within metres of the side of the vessel, was quite exceptional and so much more than we could have hoped. It was breathtaking. The first time we saw them, after racing out to where the crew had spotted the whales spray, the infant leapt out of the water ahead of us and crashed down with a huge splash. The entire boat gasped in amazement and then watched the two whales swim side by side before diving under. Watching carefully for further signs, hoping the whales would return and staring intently at where we were all convinced they would resurface as if we had any idea what to look for, everyone was caught by surprise when the infant repeated his trick in the exact opposite direction.
(photo by Krisztian Panczel)
Rinse, repeat, twice more, with the final and biggest breach the closest one of all and happening right in front of Lisa. Nearly as impressive but perhaps more special was the aforementioned “fly by” – both whales surfacing behind us and then slowly swimming past so close you could see their white underbellies, the scars along their bodies and look in to their huge, expressive eyes. I’m not going to say I shared a moment with that whale when our eyes met, two souls connected… but, well, we did! Kinda. Look, it was special, ok?
The tour itself is overshadowed by the sheer thrill of seeing the whales themselves up close, but it deserves mention all the same. The boat was plush and comfortable, the staff were excellent – friendly and helpful, especially in assisting other passengers who became ill. Spending time helping out kids and adults of varying shades of green making some fairly wretched noises isn’t a job I could ever do but they did so with a smile throughout. Rather them than me…
The whales passing by. If you look closely at the last shot you might see a black dot in the background – it’s not a great picture but I had to include it as that’s a third whale breaching in response to the infant’s own attempts
The second time we got see a whale in the wild was during an unplanned stop (why is it the unplanned ones always the best?) in the town of Kaikoura, on the East coast of the South island of New Zealand. The area around the town is famous for its marine life, with large seal colonies and a shore line teaming with visitors – dolphins, albatross and whales among them. Having “done” the boat side of the viewing experience, we opted for a different point of view this time: from above.
We went on a flight with Wings Over Whales after checking out the different offers and experiences available. For the best part of an hour we flew through the skies over Kaikoura, circling a huge sperm whale, following a school of 400+ husky dolphins and just checking out the views of the town, coast and snow-capped mountains afforded us. Lisa was the first to spot the whale in the great wide spaces of the open ocean. I know. She was as shocked as anyone else… Our pilot kept us alongside the whale as she swam leisurely southward, taking big, deep breaths, and stayed with her right up to the point she filled her lungs and dove down to the depths to feed. It’s hard to put into words how cool it is too see a whale from that perspective. You might think it looks like you are very far away or that you can’t make much out. But that’s far from the truth. You still get a sense of just how massive the whales are, you don’t feel as if you that much removed from the animal, you can see the whole body and watching them glide through the water in all their glory is a bit special.
Whale watching wasn’t something we had planned on when set out on this trip. But our encounters with the humpback and sperm whales turned out to be a definite highlight of our trip so far. Seeing one of the biggest animals that has ever lived on earth, some of the most majestic creatures on the planet… It’s not something you forget in a hurry.
(Note: Most of the pictures here are captured from videos we shot on the boat or plane – the only way we had any hope of getting shots of the whales on camera with our basic point-and-clicks but also why the quality isn’t always great. The exceptions are those noted as being reproduced with the kind permission of Krisztian Panczel – google+…. We met Krisztian on the boat tour we took with Seaworld Gold Coast. He managed to get some stunning shots of the whales, as you can see, and was generous enough to share them with us. Thank you Krisztian!)
(3 more photos by Krisztian Panczel)