An odd calm has settled over the boat. For the past 20 minutes or so a pod of whales have been gambolling like puppies beside us, but suddenly they have disappeared and now there is no sound. Everyone is watchful, cameras poised. Where will they pop up next? Eighty or so people – even the children – do not make a sound.
A couple of cameras beep. A seagull wails.
Then, without warning, the waters part and a massive humpback soars vertically from the depths, its giant frame towering next to the boat. It's like a skyscraper has just launched itself from the sea and is threatening to topple on top of us. There are screams, the man next to me drops his camera and a woman beside him starts clapping, her eyes full of tears. And then, in an instant, it has gone, sliding back into the water, the boat rising in its wake, as if it, too, is gasping.
Our tour guide splutters that he has seen this sort of thing very occasionally and it is usually a sign that the whale had been spooked by something. A shark maybe, I ponder. But then a shark big enough scare something that size would have to be … I decide not to think about it.
This spectacular scene was the high point of a breathtaking afternoon aboard the Tasman Venture catamaran, which operates off Hervey Bay on Queensland's Fraser Coast. For someone who has never seen a whale up close before, the experience is overwhelming. It takes 90 minutes or so to get to the waters well past Fraser Island where several pods have been sighted. There was one excited cry after the other as the mammals were spotted in the distance. All of a sudden, the boat stops and the whales are surrounding us. Then it's a case of rushing from one side to the other, cameras in hand, as the whales breach or poke their heads out of the water or produce massive tail thumps, all to the accompaniment of our informative captain's narration. We learn that humpback numbers are increasing by about 10 per cent each year, and that, far from being shy, they seem incredibly interested in what's going on on top of the water. This inquisitiveness is one of the reasons they became such easy prey last century. The Tasman Venture also offers an underwater viewing room, but we are so mesmerised by the scenes on deck we don't move.
This has not been our first introduction to the whales. The day before we fly in a light plane from Hervey Bay to Lady Elliot Island, and spot pods cavorting in the brilliant blue waters. We are given a bird's eye view of the massive Fraser Island before we begin to descend onto a white rock, which, thankfully, grows more island-sized the closer we draw near.
Lady Elliot Island was named after the ship captained by Thomas Stewart, who discovered the tiny atoll in 1816. With a family of mad snorkellers, I can't believe I haven't been here before and it soon rates in my top two snorkelling havens (tied with Western Australia's Ningaloo reef.) It is perfect for families and for divers. Its coral is still in good health and there are more than 1200 marine species in its waters. But the big advantage Lady Elliot has over other Queensland islands is that it is stinger free, so you can swim and snorkel here all year round, though visibility is particularly good in May and June.
As one French guest said to me after emerging from the water: "Why aren't you people here all the time!" And she had a point. There were few Australians there during our visit, with most guests travelling from Britain Ireland or France.
Once deposited on the grassy runway that dissects the island, we are given a rundown by our frindly host on where things are, what to look out for – such as, don't walk across the grassy runway when the light is flashing. We are impressed when we are asked to eat all of our smorgasbord lunch because the island is careful about wastage disposal. After being told where to find reef shoes and snorkels, we are left to our own devices, free to choose whether to join in a reef walk-and-talk in the morning, or a snorkel off a glass-bottomed boat. We choose the latter and are so glad we did. I see some small sharks, manta rays, and myriad schools of rainbow and other fish.
But it turns out that this was but a teaser.
We head back for lunch, and there is no threat of leaving anything behind on our plates. Then it's a half-hour snooze by the pool before we head for a spectacular 2pm snorkel in the main lagoon area, which is now ripe for sightseeing at high tide.
This is truly amazing. Giant clams, sea cucumbers, bulbous brain and other corals, small rays, those myriad fish again. And then I am floating above a turtle. I follow him for a few metres and then, concerned that I might be freaking him out, I stop, only to watch as he turns and swims back towards me. What is it with the friendly sealife here? Part of the reason may be that the island is a conservation success story. In 1863 it began being mined for guano – hundreds of years worth of bird droppings – and it was basically left treeless. In fact, early reports of it last century refer to it as being "desert like". Then stepped in conservationalist and pilot Don Adams in the 1960s who made it his personal mission to rehabilitate the island with plantings. It worked and, combined with fisheries protection and careful management, it is now full of plant and birdlife as well as abundant sea life.
Qantas and Virgin operate regular fights to Hervey Bay via Brisbane. Regular lights are also offered to Lady Elliot Island from Hervey Bay.
Oceans Resort Hervey Bay www.choicehotels.com.au is in the best location in town, close to restaurants, the pier and weekend markets. Rooms from $169 a night. At Lady Elliot Island, the resort's Eco Cabins are safari-style tents with bunk beds and shared bathrooms. Rates from $173 a person per night twin share, including breakfast and dinner. The Reef Units sleep four, with en suites and balconies. From $298 a person per night twin share, including breakfast and dinner.
Island beachfront suites have two bedrooms. From $355 a person a night twin share, including breakfast and dinner.
We hear about The Vinyard (thevinyard.com.au) before we eat there and we can see why in one bite. This restaurant has brought excellent wines and produce together in the one place where such a marriage has been sadly lacking. These people know their wine, their food and their service. Some highlights? Hervey Bay scallops ceviche, citrus cured with chilli and fennel, and rack of lamb with pistachio crumble. Worth travelling for. Salt Cafe is an excellent choice for breakfast (saltcafe.com.au).
THINGS TO SEE + DO
Hervey Bay is known for the outstanding unique experiences on its doorstep, but it has its own charms. The weekend markets opposite the historic 868-metre pier, are full of well-made goods and fresh produce. We are also lucky enough to attend the annual Blessing of the Fleet celebrations at the wharf and the annual Seafood Festival, a highlight on the Fraser Coast calendar. The Fraser Coast has been flying under the radar for far too long.
Jane Richards travelled to Hervey Bay and Lady Elliot island courtesy of Choice Hotels, Oceans Resort, Tasman Venture Cruises and Lady Elliot Island.