The waters off the coast of Sydney fall on the route of an epic journey. I go on a cruise to see humpback whales as they make their annual migration to the Pacific, and finds a sea of surprises waiting. By Sumeet Keswani
From the moment I set foot in New South Wales this June, my desire to see migrating whales off its coast appeared cursed. First, the timings of a domestic flight from Newcastle Airport to Sydney got in the way, thus canning my plans to go on a whale-spotting cruise from d’Albora Marina in Port Stephens. Next, a storm hit Sydney, bringing ample downpour and rough seas and cancelling my scheduled cruise from Sydney’s Circular Quay—an improvisation on the earlier plan. Determined to overcome both, natural and man-made obstacles, I tried again, this time booking a bigger vessel of Whale Watching Sydney that could withstand choppy waters. The storm abated just in time for my early morning departure from Darling Harbour, and I could tell that something truly remarkable was on the cards.
Around 45 species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises are found in Australian waters. The most common whale here and the one my cruise intended to find was the humpback. While it’d always been one of my favourite marine mammals, I’d never seen one in real life. Humpback whales spend their summers in Antarctica feeding on mostly krill (also, plankton and small fish), and migrate to the warmer tropical waters of the Pacific in late autumn to breed and rear their calves. This is a necessity as the calves are born without the abundant blubber that adults possess under their skin for thermal insulation. The whales return south in spring, ravenous from months of fasting.
On an average, the humpback whale ends up journeying 5,000 kilometres across the world’s oceans. “It is the longest walk from the bedroom to the kitchen,” jokes the skipper of our boat, as we wait for a pod to surface. The eagle-eyed crew has spotted bushy spouts of water vapour, typically the first thing to watch out for when whale-spotting. But the whales seem to have dived deep again, and we must wait for them to resurface. It is common for adult humpbacks to surface every few minutes—this period can span anywhere between five and 15 minutes, during which they might change directions drastically. (As far as extremes go, a whale can dive for as long as 45 minutes on a single breath!) “This is why I call it ‘whale-waiting’,” the skipper quips with practised inflection. Soon, a spray is spotted at a distance, followed by a dark-grey giant’s back arching just above the waterline with the peculiar dorsal fin that identifies the humpback. And then another.
Directions are announced on the speaker in terms of clock hand positions. We have found our pod just off the harbour, so close in fact that the city’s skyline still floats on the horizon. Once we strike gold, a gold rush follows. One by one, three pods come into view. Each of them dives for different periods of time and heads in different directions, encircling our idling boat with possibilities. Every time a magnificent tail fin rises up from the water, the crowd oohs and aahs and camera shutters go wild, but the tail also indicates the start of a deep dive and a long, uncertain wait. The skipper does the math, comparing the dive times of the pods, and decides to track two that need air more frequently than the third. All the time, we maintain a respectable distance, allowing the humpbacks to approach us if they want. Humpback whales are typically solitary creatures but sometimes work together in pods of two to three individuals to catch a meal or during migration. They also have one of the most complex songs in the animal world. While scientists still can’t determine with complete certainty what purpose these melodies serve, they’re so unique to individual whales and pods that they are akin to local dialects of a language. As I watch the whales surface to breathe, spraying water and air (and mucus, the Internet tells me) out of their blowholes, it feels like seeing the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Most of their fascinating behaviour, including their unique songs, can only be experienced under the waterline.
My fellow whale-watchers battle the pendulum swings of the rocking boat to get a view of every whale in the water; they come from all over the world, but delight speaks the same language. It is hard to imagine that we belong to the same species that almost wiped whales off the planet not so long ago. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, commercial whaling brought them to the brink of extinction before the International Whaling Commission (IWC) members agreed to a hunting moratorium in 1986. Over 30 years later, Japan has begun commercial whaling again, allowing 277 whales to be killed in this season alone. Two hundred and seventy-seven songs silenced forever.
While I never expected to see a whale breaching, even the slightest of hopes is quashed by the weather—the stormy sea has exhausted the whales over the last two days. They’re in no mood of playing around, the skipper laments and decides to embark on “an adventure into the sea.” As I wonder why we’re leaving behind sure sightings, a movement beneath the water catches my eyes. There’s no blowhole spray but something is right in front of the boat, and it’s leaving behind a trail of flukeprints—patches of glassy, calm water on an otherwise rippling ocean typically made by the tail fin (fluke) of a whale. In the Iñupiaq language, this mark is called qala and was traditionally used by hunters to track a whale. We follow the old wisdom of the Iñupiaq and follow the qala. But this creature does not share the idyllic pace and friendly indifference of the humpback. It races ahead of us, surfacing barely, if at all. Even the experienced crew have a hard time figuring out what they’re seeing (or missing) under the surface.
In the distance, someone spots a suspiciously large flock of birds congregating with purpose. In the water, surely, is a bait ball—small fish that swarm together in mind-boggling numbers to overwhelm predators. But their defence is about to be broken—and how! The creature heads directly to the bait ball. As it goes on a feeding frenzy, turning 180° in the water to keep pace with the fleeing fish, the skipper has his suspicions confirmed. It’s a Bryde’s whale!
Bryde’s (pronounced broo-duhz) whales are rorquals; their bodies are long, slender, and streamlined to attain high speeds. No wonder it gave us such a sprint! Like other baleen whales, they have rows of baleen plates (made of keratin, the same protein that makes our fingernails and hair) instead of teeth to filter small prey from the water. And they’re a rare sight in this part of the world.
The news about the meal on offer seems to have spread in the Australian waters. The foraging albatrosses and the hungry Bryde’s whale are joined by a megapod of around 100 Indo-Pacific dolphins, who swamp the area like an invading army. They were no doubt led here by their superlative echolocation clicks—the bio-sonar zeroing in on the feast with pinpoint accuracy. While the whale retains the right of way, the dolphins catch the fish that scurry out of the way of the bigger predator. The fish flushed out towards the surface become the sea birds’ brunch. This is nature at its wildest.
After a few moments spent in awe, we quietly and cautiously drift away from the scene. It is high time man lets nature be.
The Langham Sydney offers 96 delightful rooms in the heart of The Rocks district, with Circular Quay and Darling Harbour at walking distance.
The whale-watching season in NSW, Australia, spans May to November. The Discovery Cruise of Whale Watching Sydney is their longest at three hours and costs INR 4,123 for an adult and INR 2,668 for a child (4-15 years). It runs twice a day, seven days a week (subject to weather conditions).