We’ve done several whale tours in Hervey Bay now and spending time around these fascinating and gentle giants of the ocean is always a special day. One of our most recent trips was with Whalesong Cruises and in this review we take you along with us on the half-day morning tour.
We love the Fraser Coast for so many reasons but if there is one must-do experience here it is a whale cruise. The tour boats run from late July through to October when the humpback whales are passing through on their migration route from Antarctica to the Great Barrier Reef.
There are a lot of different whale cruises operating out of Hervey Bay and if you’ve just arrived in town it can be hard to choose between them. The pricing is quite similar across the range but the inclusions and experience can vary a lot. Knowing a bit more about the individual companies and cruises can make the decision a bit easier.
We’ve done several whale tours now both in Hervey Bay and in the wider region including northern New South Wales, the Gold Coast and Brisbane. For transparency, this review is independent, other than being a customer we have no connection with Whalesong Cruises or any of the other operators in the bay.
We took the cruise in the beginning of August, this is early in the season and we booked knowing that there will likely be less whales around now than later in the month. At the start of the season, they are pretty much all heading north, a few more weeks and you will start to get some overlap between those headed north and south. You’ll have a better chance of seeing the females with calves, the adult males will get more boisterous and be more visible from the surface.
Preparing for your whale cruise
We like to leave booking our whale cruise until a day or two before to give us the best chance of picking good weather and wind conditions out on the bay. The cruises stay in the shelter of Fraser Island but it’s a big body of water and it can definitely get a bit choppy when the wind gets up.
We booked the cruise through an online booking agent as we do for most of our tours and tickets. We find that gets us the best deal. Even if it is the same list price as booking direct there are often discount codes from a promotion or a booking reward on your next purchase. We booked the Whalesong Cruise with Get your Guide the day before and it was a perfectly smooth process providing an instant e-ticket to my phone that allowed a fully contactless check-in process.
There isn’t much you need to bring with you but I’d suggest a jacket that is much warmer than you think you’ll need. It’s usually comfortable to wear a tee-shirt during the day at this time of year on the Fraser Coast but the chill factor on a moving boat is significant. You’ll also want to wear sunscreen and a hat, the reflected UV off the water will burn faster too. Other things to consider are a camera, seasick tablets and a bottle of water.
The Whalesong tour leaves from the Great Sandy Straits Marina in Hervey Bay. You can request a complimentary pick-up when you book and they’ll collect you and return you to your accommodation or you can drive to the marina as we did. There is a huge free car park opposite with parking suitable for camper vans up to midsized motorhomes.
If you come in the main entrance to the marina you’ll walk through to the water and around to the left passing Cafe Balaena and turning into the mall, they are at the end of the right. It’s not far, only a couple of minutes walk.
The team are really friendly and will check you in here and direct you down to the boat for boarding. All up a very smooth process.
Out on the water with Whalesong Cruises
We picked a spot on the upstairs deck for the trip out, there is a cabin in the centre behind the skipper, bench seating at the back and room to stand around the railings on the rear deck and move around halfway down the sides. There is no front access from here.
Downstairs there is a large front and back deck with an inside cabin that includes the bar. You can move completely around the boat or up the stairs to the left. You can walk around the boat during the course of the day as much or little as you want to get a good view or find a comfortable spot.
The licenced bar sells snacks, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. There is also a toilet on each level.
As we headed out from the marina towards the northern end of Fraser Island the crew delivered coffee, tea and hot chocolate around the boat. It was very welcome to warm up from the inside with an 8 am departure. There was also morning tea a little later with platters of fruit and cake being brought around by the crew.
One thing we did note was that later in the cruise when we went to get a second coffee we were told no even though their marketing material says hot drinks are available complimentary throughout the cruise.
We also missed out on lunch, possibly because we were out of sight down the side upstairs. I’ll take responsibility and say maybe we were mesmerised by the whales but neither of us heard any announcement and by the time we realised others had a plate of food and we went down to get some it had been packed up.
The cruise ticket including lunch is one of the selling points for this tour over other morning tours, so you might want to either position yourself on the downstairs deck or just keep watch for signs of food from 11.30 am. From what we saw and heard, the lunch was good with cold roast chicken, rolls and a variety of fresh salads.
Whales are of course wild animals, they run to their own agenda and it’s a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack out there so we were really excited when within 45 minutes of leaving the mooring we were on our first pod of 3 young whales.
They came in close to the boat to take a look at the captive humans, doing lazy rollovers and swimming under and around the boat for 20 minutes. This is what’s called a ‘mugging’ and you consider yourself very lucky to see so much up close activity although it’s not unusual in our experience out on the bay.
Doug, our skipper gave some good commentary on their behaviour and whales in general while Rick, one of the crew, was very active as the ‘whale whisperer’ throughout the trip spotting the spouts and creating plenty of noise and movement to get the whales attention.
Although they are competitors the boats work together sharing locations giving everyone a better experience, smaller private boats also closed in fairly quickly once one of the tour boats were on a pod.
We came across several other pods throughout the morning, two adults were busy chasing each other they weren’t paying too much attention to us but it let us have a good view of behaviours such as bubble blowing which apparently is a form of communication and the ‘footprint’ left when they dive. The young whale travelling with them was more inquisitive and stayed closer to the surface.
At another point we were nearby as a small boat got mugged with a whale spying hopping right up alongside them, its eye coming up taller than they were to get a good look and then gliding past on its side just metres from them.
Why is Hervey Bay so good for whale watching?
The reason the whales migrate from Antarctica up to the tropical waters around the Great Barrier Reef each year is for the breeding season. The baby whales are born without a protective layer of blubber and could not survive those first few months in the freezing Antarctic waters so the Mums need a tropical holiday to give birth and the babies to nurse, grow and learn the skills they need for the return journey.
The gestation period for female whales is a year and they are ready to breed again within a couple of weeks of giving birth which means you’ll see plenty of the large bulls competing for their attention and demonstrating superiority over other males in the area. This is when you’ll see most of the dramatic breaching and huge splashes as they lift their full body weight clear of the water.
Whales don’t reach maturity until around 6-10 years old but the younger ones still join the migration. These young whales often seem to be the ones that show the most interest in the whale watching boats. They move around in small groups and stay with a boat for a longer period of time diving under it, spy-hopping to get a good look at what’s going on and often putting on quite the show right alongside.
It’s not fully understood why but individual humpback whales often stay in the bay for 3 to 8 days before moving on, this is one of the big differences going out to see them here. When we see them along the rest of the east coast they are focused on moving steadily either north or south, you get some great views and they’ll still check out the boats but they seem more relaxed in Hervey Bay and in no real rush.
Avoiding getting seasick on a whale tour?
If you have any tendency to get seasick and feel a bit nervous about heading out on one of the boats there are a few precautions to take and it can be well worth being prepared. As much as possible pick the day for your tour around the weather and especially the wind conditions. If you aren’t confident with reading the forecast a quick phone call to your preferred boat and they’ll be able to tell you which days over the next week are looking best.
There is a range of seasick tablets on the market including some natural options. Most need to be taken around half an hour before you get on the boat. They are inexpensive and I generally take them as a precaution. There’s also an acupressure band option that you wear on your wrist that some people swear by.
The boat you are on and where you settle yourself on the boat can also have an impact. In general the bigger the boat the less you will feel the motion and the more options you will have to find a spot towards the middle where the sway is less. For me, the big thing is staying out in the fresh air so a boat with plenty of deck space is good, even if that means wrapping up in a jacket to stay warm.
Final thoughts on our Whalesong Cruise
We had a fantastic 5 hours out on the bay with the Whalesong crew. The boat wasn’t crowded although it was a popular choice and we were able to move easily around finding a spot on the rail with a good view for most of the action throughout the day.
We got a decent number of whale sightings including close up muggings of the boat by several of them. It’s not the most active we’ve seen the waters around Hervey Bay but they are wild animals so you can’t rate a cruise by what you see or don’t see on a particular day.
As one of the smaller boats in the Hervey Bay fleet, it’s a small group experience and that leads to better interaction amongst those on board. The crew are both knowledgeable and friendly, ready to answer any whale or local questions you might have.
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