The number of whales swimming up and down the coast between Antarctica and Queensland has tripled to 30,000 since a whaling ban in 1979, turning us into a nation of whale-watching fanatics. Now tourists are flooding to join us.
There's a piercing scream and then the thunder of footfall towards its source. Everyone arrives just in time to see a gleaming body break the surface, lift up languidly out of the water and then dive back down to the depths. One woman bursts into tears and from others there's a collective sigh of satisfaction. The sight of a juvenile humpback whale coming over to check us out, just ten metres from our boat just outside the Heads of Sydney Harbour, is simply astonishing.
"That's so awesome!" says 14-year-old Jake Ling, who's spending three weeks in Australia from his home in Malaysia and has, like me, taken a 2½ hour whale-watching trip with Fantasea Cruising. "Wow! This is the best!"
Forget falling iron ore prices, softening property prices and slower export revenues from China; all eyes are now on an Australian whale-led tourism economic recovery. With the number of whales swimming up and down the coastline between Antarctica and Queensland having tripled to about 30,000 since whaling was banned in 1979, we're fast turning into a nation of whale-watching and communing fanatics – with overseas visitors flooding in to join us.
And it's a pursuit that's netting us big bucks. The first ever academic study of the obsession, specifically of swimming with humpback whales on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, has revealed an estimated $1.7 million in economic benefit to that region alone last year.
The University of the Sunshine Coast research into Sunreef Mooloolaba's program found that more than 55 per cent of bookings came from visitors to the area, from the USA, UK and Europe, as well as the rest of Australia, with the average spend nearly $880 a person. Of those tourists, 65 per cent said they travelled there specially to swim with whales.
"We were delighted to see those figures," says Sunreef Mooloolaba's director Philip Hart. "We started after a visit to Tonga and seeing how swimming with whales seems to be the lifeblood of that country, so we thought, why not in Australia? We also know we could fill nearly triple our current capacity, so hopefully in the future that industry here will bring in $5 million to $6 million."
A similar economic windfall is blowing over the whole of Australia, with Tourism Australia reporting research that found 62 per cent of all international visitors and 72 per cent of all expenditure comes from travellers who include an aquatic and coastal activity in their trip here.
In Sydney alone, there are five operators with large vessels conducting whale-watching on the harbour, and another five with smaller craft. Fantasea Cruising, with marine biologists aboard its boats and a hydrophone dropped into the water to allow passengers to listen to whale calls, has been doubling the number of outings it conducts during weekdays to cope with demand, with another boat operating from Palm Beach. On our trip, we sighted eight whales.
"We're definitely seeing a big increase in interest in getting up close with whales," says head of sales and marketing Wendy Harch. "It's been something we've been happy to invest in heavily with such a broad mix of customers, locals and tourists of all age groups."
When whale-watching first started with a private operator in 1994, it was rare to see whales, says David James, ecological consultant and marine commentator with Captain Cook Cruises. Now, with a success rate of more than 95 per cent, they offer passengers a guarantee that if a whale isn't seen, they can cruise again for free.
"Both our boats and those of the competition are full every day now," says James. "It's such a fantastic wildlife spectacle and word is getting out about how they're breaching and come in so close to the boats now. I don't see why we couldn't have a whale-led recovery!"
On NSW's south coast there's plenty of whale action too, sometimes delivered with the bonus of an Aboriginal perspective. Ngaran Ngaran Culture Awareness conducts beach whale ceremonies, and often whales appear at the same time for customers. "The whale is a totem of the Yuin people and runs through everything we do," says company managing director Dwayne Bannon-Harrison.
There's also been a steady increase in the number of visitors to the Eden Killer Whale Museum every year since 2010, reports business manager Bob Sykes, along with other relics of the old whaling days, Boyds Tower and the ruins of Davidson Whaling Station.
"We see numbers increasing hugely into the future too," says Sykes. "We're now getting a lot of visitors from the cruise ships that stop here and while there were 12 ships this season, there's 15 next and up to 50 a year planned for the coming years."
In Western Australia, at Ningaloo, they're into the second year of a pilot swimming-with-humpbacks program which is operating alongside their traditional swimming-with-whale sharks that's been going on now for 30 years. Vice-chairman of the Ningaloo Whaleshark Festival Darren Cossill opened the area's first four-and-a-half-star hotel in 2006, then a Novotel now rebranded as Mantarays, as a gesture of faith in the industry.
"It's going extremely well with a number of different operators and people find it an incredibly exhilarating experience," he says. "Our whale population in WA is now almost back to its pre-whaling days."
It's heartening that after earning so much from harvesting whales in the old days, Australia is now benefiting from treating them as precious friends.
"They endured so much when we were predators," says Sea World's marine sciences director Trevor Long, "so it's wonderful they've come back, with the population building at 10 per cent a year.
"I think we just love to see such huge creatures with beautiful hydrodynamics throwing themselves up out of the water, looking after their calves so well and being so curious about our boats, which gives us such amazing vision."
THE TOP TEN PLACES TO SEE WHALES IN THE WILD IN AUSTRALIA
Trips leave from Circular Quay, Darling Harbour and Palm Beach.
Fantasea Cruising, Ph 1800 362 822. See fantasea.com.au
Captain Cook Cruises, Ph (02) 9206 1111. See captaincook.com.au
PORT STEPHENS, NSW NORTH COAST
Moonshadow Cruises, Ph (02) 4984 9388. See moonshadow.com.au
BYRON BAY, NSW
Whale Watching Byron Bay, Ph 1800 243 483. See byronbaywhalewatching.com.au
EDEN, NSW SOUTH COAST
The annual Eden Whale Festival runs this year November 2-4 and celebrates all things whale. Cruises from Freedom Charters, Ph 02 6496 1209. See freedomcharters.com.au
SUNSHINE COAST, QUEENSLAND
Sunreef Mooloolaba also offers the chance to swim with humpback whales, Ph (07) 5444 5656. See sunreef.com.au
HERVEY BAY, QUEENSLAND
A huge range of cruises available. Ph 1800 088 511. See whalefree.com.au
GOLD COAST, QUEENSLAND
Whales in Paradise, Ph (07) 5538 2111. See whalesinparadise.com.au
PHILLIP ISLAND, VICTORIA
Wildlife Coast Cruises, Ph 1300 763 739. See wildlifecoastcruises.com.au
Here you can swim with either humpback whales or the giant whale sharks. Ph 1800 339 766. See ningaloowhalesharks.com
HEAD OF BIGHT, SOUTH AUSTRALIA
Whale Watching Centre and platforms for viewing whales from the cliffs on land, Ph (08) 8625 6201. See headofbight.com.au
Sue Williams went whale watching on Sydney Harbour courtesy of Fantasea.