21 Aug 2019

Heavy congestion on Qld's humpback highway

I had always imagined that watching the giants of the sea migrating from the chilly waters of Antarctica to their northern breeding grounds would be a serene experience.

But the truth of the matter is humpback whales are a rowdy bunch.

The sound of their enormous pectoral fins slapping at the warm waters off Brisbane is akin to the crack of a stockman's whip.

The beat of their meaty tails produces a similar wave of sound.

And when amorous males propel their enormous bodies out of the sea, in a bid to impress the ladies, their landings are positively thunderous.

They are sounds that never get old for Josh Halloran, who leads whale watching tours from Tangalooma Island Resort on Moreton Island, about an hour from Brisbane by ferry.

"I'm very lucky to have this job, I've always been so passionate about conservation and about the ocean," the former park ranger says.

"Whales are inquisitive, and they are intelligent, and it's about letting people see that for themselves."

The traffic on Queensland's humpback highway is humming at the moment, as thousands of whales make their way north, mating as they go or birthing calves conceived during last year's migration.

On a good day, guests can spot dozens of whales during the island's whale watching season from June to October. And even on quiet days, guests should still spot half a dozen or so.

For us the headcount was 22, and half of those came very close to the boat. One playful "teenage" male even seemed to eyeball me, returning my fascinated stare as he lazily lolled about in the swell 10 metres off the bow.

Minutes earlier he'd thrilled onlookers by repeatedly launching himself out of the water. I'd always believed whales breached to rid their bodies of bothersome barnacles.

But Josh says it's the whale equivalent of a bloke cutting up the dance floor to catch the attention of the girls.

"The other day we watched three males pursuing one female and it was just non-stop breaching for about half an hour," he says.

On the half-hour trip out to the highway, visitors learn that Moreton Island, now famous for its whale watching tours, was a place that almost brought the eastern population of humpbacks to the brink.

The island was once home to the largest land-based whaling station in the southern hemisphere. The first two humpback whales were killed for commercial use in 1952, two years after the Australian Company Whale Products Pty Ltd was formed.

During that first season, and in the years to come, the station's flensing deck was awash with blood.

Workers processed the carcasses of 600 whales every year, harvesting valuable whale oil for cosmetics and pharmaceuticals and meat for human consumption, pet food, and fertiliser.

For ten years, crews hunted down and killed an average of five whales a day and by the time the station closed, the east coast's population of humpback whales had been decimated.

The station had taken 6277 humpback whales from the sea and the removal of so many mature breeding animals saw the population plunge from an estimated 15,000 to fewer than 500.

Crews even managed to catch and kill the largest animal known to have ever existed, the blue whale.

Those dark days for the species are now a distant memory, and it's estimated the whale population has been recovering at a rate of about 10 per cent a year since the east coast industry ceased in 1963.

"We say that Tangalooma has turned full circle, going from a whaling station to a place people come to watch shales and appreciate just how beautiful they are," Josh says.

Waters that were once hunting grounds now serve as birthing suites.

"We've been seeing lots of calves recently, some only a day or two old. And people get really excited about that. The waters here are warm, and the whales feel safe," Josh says.

Tangalooma Island Resort runs daily whale watching cruises from June 1 to October, for resort guests and visitors day tripping from the mainland.


GETTING THERE: Tangalooma Island Resort, on Moreton Island, is about an hour off Brisbane by ferry. The ferry leaves from the Holt Street Wharf at Pinkenba, about 10km from the Brisbane airport.

WHALE WATCHING: Cruises last three hours and include lunch, tea and coffee. For day-trippers the price includes access to the resort and transfers to and from the mainland. Early bird bookings at least two weeks in advance: $89 for adults, $62 for kids. Standard price: $129 for adults, $89 for kids, or family pass for two adults and two kids $395.

STAYING THERE: Guest accommodation ranges from budget rooms and hotel-style accommodation to holiday home rentals and elegant, modern deluxe apartments with 180-degree beach views.

PLAYING THERE: Other visitor experiences include hand feeding the island's famous pod of wild dolphins off the beach, underwater tours of the island's shipwrecks, water sports, helicopter tours, sand dune adventures and quad biking, night paddles in transparent kayaks, scuba diving, fishing, and touring the Blue Lagoon.

SOURCE ; https://thewest.com.au/travel/heavy-congestion-on-qlds-humpback-highway-ng-s-1961691

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