I think it says a lot for Australian conservationists that, when a rare white humpback whale was spotted off the coast of Queensland, they didn’t immediately christen it Moby Dick. Instead, they called it ‘Migaloo’ … which, in the language of the Aborigines of the area, simply means ‘White One’.
Every Southern winter, that is, from June to November, the whales migrate along the eastern coast of Australia from their feeding grounds in Antarctica to their breeding grounds further north.
When we’re talking about whales, we tend not to measure them in metres, or even feet and inches. After a certain size, these are just meaningless figures. So, to use a unit with which anyone can identify, the usual unit of measurement (in Britain, anyway) is London buses; weight is measured in African elephants … an adult humpback whale weighs as much as eleven elephants.
We didn’t see Migaloo when we visited the area, but his name is carried by the boat we cruised on. ‘Spirit of Migaloo’. She’s just one of the boats that set out from various spots in Queensland to take people out to see the whales. She's a modern, luxurious catamaran fitted with the latest instrumentation.
'But we don't use radar or sonar' they said 'It would disturb the whales too much'
So, they rely on experience and know-how … and, probably, messages from a friendly helicopter pilot … to find them, and so confident are they that they offer a refund in the event of not seeing any. However, they do use audio equipment, so that passengers can hear the haunting whale song.
And, to give a better idea of the size of these ocean giants, without the use of elephants or London buses, there’s a triangular sun-shade above the upper deck, which is about the size and shape of the tail of the average blue whale.
Spirit of Migaloo belongs to Seaworld, a marine theme park, on Queensland’s Gold Coast. You can, if you wish, buy a deeply discounted combination ticket, which allows a cruise and entry to the park, which is situated just on the other side of the car park from the dock.
In one of two places, it’s possible to spot whales from the land. You get a better view of them from the boat, but we didn’t need to cruise too far out to see some. On the way out, we sat in the comfortable lounge, while the crew showed us video of the whales, and told us a little bit about them. And, only about 20 minutes had passed before we saw our first ones. I was expecting to see just a series of splashes and spouts some distance away from the boat, but some of the whales got close enough to enable some really good photos or video to be taken … IF you were quick enough.
One came very close to the stern of the boat; so close, I thought of the scene in ‘Jaws’, where Roy Scheider sat grumbling in the back of the boat, while the shark reared up behind him.
Here, digital photography really comes into its own. You can take a 'machine gun' approach. Admittedly, this results in quite a few shots of blank sea, but these can easily be discarded, in a way that was never possible with film … unless you were VERY rich! And, you MIGHT get some good photos.
If you don’t manage any decent images, though, there is a professional photographer on board, armed with state of the art equipment who, as well as taking your picture will also get pictures of any whales seen, copies of which she’ll be only too happy to sell to you.
Of course, you don’t have to voyage to Australia in order to spot whales. They frequent just about any sea you care to name, although I don’t recall ever hearing of any in the Mediterranean Sea.
They’ve even been seen in British waters. On one occasion, I wasn’t on a special whale cruise, but an everyday Scottish island ferry. We’d called in the harbour on the island of Coll, and my friend excitedly called me over to witness the ‘giant dolphin’ cruising off the side of the boat. It was no dolphin, though, but a minke whale … which, by the time I’d hurried to get my camera, was gone.
But, no matter how many whales you spot; no matter how close you got or how successful your pictures were, you won’t be satisfied. You’ll want more; you’ll want a better view of more whales; you’ll want to improve on your pictures or videos. And, I can almost guarantee that, within a very short while, you’ll be thumbing through brochures, planning yet another whale cruise.