After picking up a new car for JH following his close encounter with a wallaby we headed down to Hervey Bay. We have fond memories of the place as it is from there that we spent two days exploring the magical Fraser island and flew off to the sublime Lady Elliot island but this time we were here for Hervey Bay itself, the self-titled whale watching capital of Australia. From late July to October every year thousands of humpback whales come to rest in the protected waters of the bay with their calves, building up energy for the rest of their trip south to the Antarctic waters. Of course we were two weeks too early but we had heard that some whales had been arriving early and we decided to book ourselves on a dolphin watching cruise, hoping to spot some whales on the sly; boy were we in for a treat.

Unfortunately our bad luck continued to haunt us. It turns out that on the day we were arriving in Hervey Bay the town was playing host to a massive touch football tournament, the Junior State Cup. Given that the town is relatively small at 50000 inhabitants, every single hotel, motel and even campground was solidly booked out. After some serious hotel calling, begging and a lucky cancellation we managed to steal ourselves a family room at the friendly and pretty Susan River Homestead. As we arrived tired from our long drive my phone decided to die and refused to turn on. Bearing in mind that the phone is how we communicate between cars, make hotel and activity bookings and, more importantly, how we normally connect to the internet, I was pretty pissed off. After an hour of frustration as the ladies prepared dinner I finally resigned myself to a factory reset, which meant that I lost all my texts, contacts etc but luckily I was able to later restore from a backup. That night, after a delicious meal, I made an internet booking for a dolphin watching cruise the next day before climbing up the ladder to my bed. That’s right, it was time for our first bunk bed of the trip and I felt like I was 12 again having to scamper up vertical monkey bars above my wife – it didn’t help that Anne was looking on with amusement!

The next day we ignored the lingering clouds, parked by the marina and made our way to the platform, trying to locate the cruise boat we had booked on. The boat’s berth appeared empty and when the lady in the boat opposite told us it had left half an hour ago our collective hearts sank. It turns out that the day before a pod of killer whales had been spotted in the Great Sandy Strait between Hervey Bay and Fraser Island. Because the skipper of our cruise used to be a marine trainer at Seaworld he decided to cancel the cruise and take Seaworld staff and researchers out to search for the killers. Because our reservation was made so late at night he hadn’t thought to check his reservation system and didn’t let us know. Thank god the lady offered to take us out on her dolphin cruise, Whalesong, which turned out to be even better! The cruise was 2 hours longer and included a full lunch spread which the other didn’t and because there was a mixup, the original cruise operator, Blue Dolphin, paid the difference. We were super happy and made our way up into the comfortable catamaran confident that our luck had finally turned. It had, the briefing by the ship’s captain was friendly and the boat had plenty of space and wasn’t overpacked. As we left the marina we came across some jumping bottlenose dolphin – a great start to the day. The captain then filled us in on the orca situation, which was a sad one: a pod of killer whales had become stranded in the sandy straits between the coast and Fraser Island. The whole area has a lot of sand banks that are tricky to negotiate, especially with a quickly changing tide, and several members of the pod got beached. Despite the marine parks staff’s best efforts, two adult females and a calf died whilst the rest of the pod managed to escape back into the water. On our way to the orcas we had another special encounter, a friendly pod of indo-pacific humpback dolphins, the same type as we had handfed at Tin Can Bay. These dolphins are normally very timid so we were lucky to have them come so close to the boat as well as perform a few acrobatics.

As we approached the pod of stranded killer whales the captain again briefed us on the situation. The orcas were still in the Great Sandy Strait because every time that the family of 11 tried to make a move towards the open ocean a juvenile remained behind in the shallow waters. He appeared to be searching for his mother, one of the females that had been beached and died the day before. As we approached, the first thing we saw was a line of massive dorsal fins protruding from the glass-like waters. A large male’s in particular was visible from well away and sent a chill running through our spines. Male fins are larger than females’ and can reach 1.8m, they make shark fins look puny. How crazy was it that we were approaching a large family of killer whales here off the eastern coast of Australia – orcas had never been spotted here before and the crew was as excited as we were. The closer we got, the more amazing the spectacle became, people normally have to travel to Canada, Alaska or the Arctic to have these kind of encounters! The captain came to a stop amongst a few other boats around 300 metres from the pod and cut the engine; the marine parks had advised people not to come any closer so as to not cut the orcas off or cause them any undue stress. As we watched on, the small marine parks boat came close to the pod, trying to guide them towards the open sea. Unfortunately the young orca continued to break away from the others. This is when the captain slipped a hydrophone (underwater microphone) into the water and eerie cries and clicks coursed through our ears. The pod seemed to be calling out to the young orca to rejoin them as the sounds stopped whenever it came back. It was as striking as it was sad, the poor child searching for his dead mother as the rest of his family called him back. Apparently each pod has distinctive noises, they use echolocation both to communicate and hunt and they’re very intelligent. Orcas have the second heaviest brains in sea mammals after the Sperm whale and they have a very strong social structure. Mothers are very protective of their young and other females in a pod will also help the mother take care of a calf. Although they are considered to be apex predators they are actually dolphins, not whales, the name killer whale coming from the fact that they sometimes hunt whales. They also feed on fish, birds, seals and even sharks! Of course they are the largest dolphins in the world measuring in at between 7 to 10 metres.

As we were watching the orcas with our engines cut off we suddenly spotted two to three fins turn in our direction. Suddenly all the fins were making their way straight towards our boat and everyone scrambled onto the front and side of the boat: the orcas were about to perform the marine equivalent of a flyby. It was absolutely amazing, unfortunately I had my big zoom lens on so the photos aren’t great but all 11 killers passed within a metre or two of the boat. As we followed their fins continue on past us it was hard to tell who was more pumped up: the crew or the customers! A few minutes later the whales decided to do it again and pass close by the stern of the ship. Seeing the details of their patterns and watching water vapour rush out their blowholes from a few metres away was indescribable. We hadn’t seen humpback whales but we had seen something even more special. As we made our way back to the marina the captain apologised for leaving but explained he had another cruise he was already late for, it’s a real shame as if they didn’t I’m sure we could have all stayed there for another few hours. Then, as we approached the breakwalls of the marina, we were given another treat: one after another sea turtles came up to breath on either side of the ship. They mixed it up with some fin slaps and soon some dolphins were also joining in the fun… it was the perfect end to an unforgettable cruise.

We later learnt that the marine park people had continued to try different tactics in an effort to get the orcas out of the shallow water, going so far as to drag the dead mother’s corpse behind their boat. This didn’t work and actually seems pretty crude and cruel but at least they were trying. The story has a nice ending as we later learnt that the killer whales all made it out safely. I guess I must be turning into a conservationist as after begging any readers to support efforts to stop the heinous practices of shark finning and whale hunting for ‘scientific’ purposes I am now imploring you not to visit marine parks that hold and train captive killer whales. We’ve seen (and heard) firsthand how intelligent and tied to their family structures orcas are and keeping them alone in small pens seems unnecessarily cruel. Orcas in captivity only live about half as long on average as they would in the wild and mothers have been known to shriek when their calves are taken from them and sent to other parks. Symbolically, most orcas in captivity suffer from a collapse of their dorsal fin, which does not normally occur in the wild; although it is not known exactly why the collagen-filled fins collapse it does take away from the majesty of these animals, as if they were under stress. You may remember stories in the papers of captive killer whales killing their trainers, well there are no known human fatalities in the wild. To learn more about the dark side of killer whales in captivity check out this website.