Whale watching in Flinders Bay, Augusta

It was only minutes after leaving the mooring when Mal boomed, ‘There she blows.’

Our experienced tour guide pointed out yonder to the blow of the first of many Humpback Whales sighted that morning.

We were in Flinders Bay, a magnificent, pristine bay in Augusta, Western Australia. A whale-watching hot spot over the Winter months. A spot where thousands of migrating Humpbacks and Southern Right Whales come to each year to escape the freezing waters of the Antarctic.

It was my first whale watching cruise.

I’d chosen a chilly but glorious day in early July to venture out on Naturaliste Charters’ purpose-built whale-watching vessel which guaranteed the best whale viewing with its huge foredeck, spacious lounge and large upper deck providing elevated 360° views. On board was an interesting mix of local, national & international tourists and of course our two very entertaining and knowledgeable hosts; Paul Cross the owner-operator of Naturaliste Charters and his skipper Mal.

I was excited and confident. Confident of some up-close whale encounters. I’d been told by the locals that the whales were everywhere.

Of course, I was longing to see a whale breach. I knew the Humpback Whales were renowned for their breaching and acrobatics.

Whale breaching has to be in the top 10 most spectacular natural phenomena on earth. I’d seen breaching via video but knew it would be another thing to witness in reality. To witness without warning a 40 plus tonne Humpback Whale surge vertically out of the ocean, twirl in the air with awesome acrobatic agility before crashing back into the ocean and disappearing below.

The odds of seeing a breach seemed pretty good given Paul’s recount of the previous day’s cruise where a juvenile whale stunned passengers with a spontaneous full breach within 20 metres of the bow of the boat, accompanied by a 360° swivel in the air. It happened so suddenly, as breaches often do, that none of the whale watchers caught it on camera.

It wasn’t long before Mal was spotting other Humpbacks blowing and humping in the bay that morning.

With a few handy spotting tips, others on board soon followed Mal’s lead. Before long, excited voices in assorted accents were announcing whale sightings.

‘Three whales at 11 o’clock,’ hollered one man from the flybridge.

A little later on ...

‘A big one and small one at 3 o’clock, about 30 metres or so away,’ bellowed another man clinging to the lower deck rail.

Then it was open slather as other animated voices rang out with more whale sightings.

It then became a question of choice. A choice as to where to look next. The whales were everywhere.

Excitement escalated, cameras started clicking, binoculars were grabbed and Mal slowed the boat down to a crawl.

Time stood still as we became mesmerised watching the behaviour of these magnificent, graceful, marine giants in Flinders Bay that morning. All whilst Mal with his marine science qualifications and extensive knowledge accumulated from years of skippering whale watching vessels provided expert commentary on all the interesting aspects of both the Humpback and Southern Right Whales which congregate in this bay over the Winter season – their features, life cycles, behavioural and migratory habits, gender differences and so much more.

According to Paul, the season is made more interesting by the staggered arrival of different groups based on sex and reproductive status flowing in and out of the bay over the season. In respect to the Humpbacks, Paul & Mal have noticed that the mothers, calves and pregnant females tend to lead the migration, arriving earlier in the bay. They are followed by the immature males and females, known as the ‘teenagers’ which are extremely popular with the crowds with all their youthful energy, curiosity and impressive acrobatic tricks. The mature males and unattached female Humpbacks tend to arrive late in the season.

As the Humpbacks drew even closer, Mal switched the boat to neutral in accordance with national whale watching guidelines for ‘rules of engagement’. What followed was an amazing performance of blowing, humping, fluking, flipper lifts, some even diving under the boat leaving us all guessing as to where they would emerge next.

Observing a Humpback’s flukes
Observing a pair of Humpbacks ‘humping

Just brilliant viewing.

As well, it was a highly educational and interactive experience with Mal instructing us on how to search for their ocean footprints - the smooth, circular look alike ‘oil slick’ patches remaining on the water’s surface as a result of the up and down movement of their tail flukes as they dive down. Armed with this knowledge and other tips, we were all then predicting where the whales were most likely to surface next.

The more we learnt, the more we observed, the more engaged we became. Questions were fired at both Mal and Paul who encouraged interaction: How do you know she’s pregnant? How can you tell them apart? Where do they breed? All questions answered with expert skill.

To everyone’s delight, this utterly engrossing whale-watching experience just got better with….…some BREACHING!!

It all happened so suddenly. Out of nowhere, a massive female Humpback rocketed itself out of the water with such awesome power. And then from the other end of the boat, only a short time later, it happened again. With another whale showing its incredible agility with a surprise breach. OMGs, Wows, Ooohs and Aahhs were exclaimed from all of us. Wildlife watching doesn’t get much more exciting than this! It is incredible occurrences such as this that makes whale watching cruises well worth the money.

Pity I didn’t catch the breaching on camera!!! On my next cruise in the bay, I’ll be better prepared with a video camera set to continuous play now that I appreciate how it’s near impossible to predict when these incredible creatures are going to breach.

According to Paul, it requires considerable energy for a whale to breach. When Paul and Mal observe lots of these Humpbacks breaching, it is one indication that they are in peak condition for their northerly migration up the West Australian coast. The teenage whales particularly love to breach.

Pair of Humpbacks having a 'whale of a time'

Oh and don’t let a wild, windy day deter you from heading out on a whale watching cruise in the bay – if the whale charter boats are going out then hop on board as the whales love to breach in more choppy, turbulent conditions. This was the case with my sister’s cruise a week later when she and her friend clung to the rails of the upper deck being rocked in strong swell but they were well and truly compensated with a massive Humpback breaching seven times in succession only 20 metres from the bow of the boat. The belief that these Humpbacks are even more likely to successively breach in wilder, windier conditions is reinforced in this spectacular photo sent to Naturaliste Charters by one of their delighted guests in gratitude for having such a wonderful time on board.

If you are somewhat wary of a whale landing on the deck after a breach, then Mal reassured us that no incidents have occurred in the bay. Apart from being extremely adept in their ocean environment, these intelligent whales are highly conscious of the whale charter boats. Plus, skippers like Mal are very mindful and respectful in not approaching the whales too closely.

Mind you, there are tales from Augusta locals who fish from much smaller boats in the bay who have had a nervous moment or two when a whale has nudged their boat or dived underneath it causing some unsettling motion.

Through unique markings in their flukes and body colour patterns, Paul and Mal have come to identify individuals in amongst the whale groups coming to the bay. Mal amusingly referred to the thirty girlfriends he had personally named who frequented the bay. Later on in the year, from their whale watching cruises in Dunsborough, Mal is fortunate enough to sometimes renew acquaintance with his girlfriends during their stop-over visit in Geographe Bay on their southbound journey back to Antarctica.

This cruise was so much more than just whale watching.

It was a total eco-wilderness experience with magnificent bird and marine life intercepting the performances by various groups of Humpback Whales.

A pod of Common Dolphins followed our boat through the bay. Leaping through the water, in perfect synchronisation, bow riding the waves of the boat.

Different kinds of albatross were identified including the Shy and the Yellow-nosed Albatross soaring in the sky above us. Best of all, were the dive-bombing stunts of the Gannets, amazing large hunting birds diving from incredible heights at speeds close to hundred kilometres per hour into the sea as they pursued their prey under the ocean’s surface. Imagine the impact at the water’s surface. It was incredible to witness.

Then there were the history lessons.

Fascinating history on Flinders Bay and the surrounding region was gleaned through our skipper’s yarns; from the early visits by various European mariners to that of the American and British whalers who ruthlessly hunted the defenceless Southern Rights in the bay at a time when whale oil and whalebone were valuable commodities.

Connections were made between the names of significant landmarks and islands in the area to the early mariners who visited the region in their tiny sailing ships; notably Cape Leeuwin in honour of the Dutch’s first sighting of the region in 1622, Saint Alouarn Islands after mariner Louis de St Alouarn as part of his 1772 French expedition and of course, Point Matthew & Flinders Island after English Explorer

Matthew Flinders who began his circumnavigation and mapping of the Australian coastline from Cape Leeuwin in 1801.

We journeyed on to the south-west end of Flinders Bay to where the Saint Alouarn Islands are situated. Essentially a group of small islands and exposed rocky outcrops which form effective barriers to the large ocean waves of the Southern Ocean. There we honed in on a colony of New Zealand Fur Seals that have inhabited Flinders Island since the 1980’s. These eared seals with a prominent snout were almost unrecognisable until we ventured much closer - their dark grey/brown coats camouflaged perfectly against the background rocks. There they lay lazily basking on the sun-warmed rocks, simply hauling-out.

New Zealand Fur Seals basking in the sun on Flinders Island

After almost 3 hours out in the bay, it was time to head back to shore. Time had slipped by. Whale and wildlife watching is an exhilarating, all encompassing activity that easily allows you to lose track of time.

From my perspective, this first whale watching cruise had been pretty amazing. Leaving unforgettable memories. Plus an interest in the whales that visit our West Australian shores.

Every whale-watching cruise is unique, with different sightings and experiences. There is that element of unpredictability where the boys can never guarantee what will be seen. Or when there is going to be an extraordinary encounter. Like a pair of whales simultaneously breaching in succession. Whales just don’t perform on cue.

There is also the realisation that you can’t ‘see-it-all’ on one cruise. Sooooo, I’m looking forward to my next whale-watch cruise in the bay. There’s still so much more to see. The checklist includes sighting some of the rarer Southern Right Whales, getting to see some of that amazing spy-hopping behaviour where whales just pop their heads out of the water to check out their surroundings and using Naturaliste Charter’s underwater hydrophone to eavesdrop on the amazingly complex and haunting sounds of Humpback bulls singing out and serenading their cows. Then of course, there’s the temptation to join one of Naturaliste Charter’s Dunsborough based whale watching cruises in November given Mal’s sightings there of the gargantuan Blue Whales.

More exhilarating adventures to come !!!

Written by Verona, July 2012.

© 2012 Seine Bay Apartments.

Naturaliste Charters Whale Watching Cruises – A Whale of an Adventure