It was a crisp July morning and the Japanese whale spotters stood huddled together on deck, scanning the frothing blue ocean for any sign of their prey. Their devices ready, they stood poised for the critical moment, knowing they had just seconds to execute the command. The trick they knew was to catch the beast in one quick strike, preferably in mid-flight when the enormous mammal leapt above the waves, exposing a great part of it’s mass before splashing down again into the ocean’s chilly depths. It could take our Japanese friends all day to get a perfect photograph.

We were two hours from shore, directly east from Sydney and we didn’t have all day. The tour was just four hours in duration and everywhere on deck stood scattered groups, cameras poised, anxiously awaiting the promised leap of the magnificent humpback whale.

Known for their acrobatics in and out of the ocean, humpbacks can live for up to 50 years. Their haunting songs and breathtaking leaps have fired the imagination of millions of people around the world but sadly, they are now on the official Red List of Threatened Species. Their numbers fell to dangerously low levels in the mid-1900s, before the International Whaling Commission placed a ban on humpback hunting in 1963. Currently it is estimated there are just 15,000 left in the world.

Humpback in Vogue

Given that Japan has narrowly won a recent vote to hunt the endangered humpback as part of “scientific research”, it was heartening to note that this group of Japanese vigilantes at least were interested in more than just whale meat. In fact, the tour was full with all nationalities, proving that the recent international debate on the issue was good publicity. Humpbacks are back in vogue.

But two hours into the cruise and we were restless. One by one, expectant faces turned to our captain. Will we really see humpbacks today, we asked? The small print on my ticket guaranteed another free trip if they failed to show – but when you’re ready to see a humpback, you’re ready.

The captain assured us they would make an appearance, explaining that humpbacks prefer warmer waters in which to breed, and that winter is their peak northward migration time.

During the winter months of May to July, humpbacks travel north to their subtropical breeding grounds off the Queensland coast. They can be seen again around Sydney’s coast during the months from September to November when their southward migration takes them back down to the Antarctic. There they stay and feed for the hotter months of November through to May. And where there’s one there is always more, said the captain.

Humpbacks travel in large, loose groups known as pods. A pod is a social group of whales whose members hunt together and protect one another. Most associations last only a few days, with the exception of mothers and calves, which experience a strong and lasting bond.

Breach the Peace

Suddenly, piercing shrieks and squeals of delight came ringing through the chilly morning air. The Japanese vigilantes had seen some action and the rest of the passengers rushed to their vantage point at the bow of the boat.

Frantic hands pointed and eyes searched the ocean… nothing for a moment. And then there, just 10 metres from the boat, an enormous humpback came leaping through the water in a spectacular arc known as ‘breaching’.

There are various theories as to why whales breach. Scientists believe they may be communicating to other whales across vast distances, trying to attract other whales (including a mate), attempting to warn off vessels or other mates, or just simply cooling off, or removing parasites. Observing them there, so close to the boat, it seemed to me something quite different. They were responding to the shrieks and delighted squeals with a brief appearance. Were they performing?

For the next half hour the great creatures leapt and fell back into the ocean, thrashed their tales and spouted water in great bursts as they swam about the boat. It was awkward trying to catch anything on camera, especially a digital camera which has the annoying trait of actioning a shot three seconds after you hit the button. But that was just my experience.

Back on shore the Japanese had returned with a satisfying hoard from the day’s voyage – ample images worth screeching about. I hope they take them home and show their Prime Minister.

The experience: True Blue Cruises, Ph: (02) 9518 8600.