The Best Places in Australia to Encounter Whales

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Jul 25, 2016

Spot whales from land, sea and sky – or swim alongside them – during their annual migration. By Sarah Reid.

Australia is one of the best places in the world to see whales, often right from the beach. A whopping 30 species of whale call Australia home, and never have there been more opportunities to spot and interact with them responsibly, from the first-ever humpback whale swimming trial being rolled out in Western Australia this year, to a new tour in South Australia that offers the chance to observe southern right whales from all angles.

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Swim with humpback whales on Western Australia’s Coral Coast

This year, in a first for Western Australia, tourists will have the opportunity to snorkel with humpback whales between August and October. Operators spread between Exmouth, Coral Bay and Ningaloo Reef (which all use spotter planes) offer various packages, from full-day swimming tours with Ocean Eco Adventures in Exmouth ($350) to three nights’ all-inclusive luxury camping including a whale swimming excursion at Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef ($2,750). Whale sharks generally ply the same waters from April to July, but it’s entirely possible there’ll still be a few hanging around during humpback season. Yep, this means some lucky folk will get the chance to swim with both marine beauties in the same session.

Kayak with humpback whales in Byron Bay

Cape Byron, Australia’s most easterly point, sees humpback whales swim very close to shore on their annual migration up to their sup-tropical birthing grounds and back down again between May and November. Jump in a kayak to get a closer look; the experienced guides at Cape Byron Kayaks ($69) will try to help you spot a ‘trifecta’ (whales, dolphins and turtles) on a two-hour paddle around the Cape Byron Marine Park. If you don’t spot at least one of the three, you can go again for free. If it’s the whales you miss, head up to the Cape Byron Lighthouse, which offers a brilliant vantage point for spotting cetaceans, or sign up for a 2.5hr boat trip with Cape Byron Whale Watching ($89).

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Spot southern right whales from all angles in South Australia

Every year from mid-May to September, southern right whales make their way to the Head of Bight Marine Park to mate and play before returning to their Antarctic feeding grounds for the summer. Whales are spotted by the dozen from the Bunda Cliffs on the edge of the Nullarbor, but it’s possible to see up to 150 individuals from the air when numbers peak in August. Take in this spectacular sight on Adelaide-based Chinta Tours’ new two-day ‘wheels and whales’ tour, which includes whale-spotting from land-based viewing platforms, a traditional whale-watching boat cruise from Fowler’s Bay, and a 30-minute scenic whale-spotting flight ($1970). 

Take a humpback whale-watching cruise in Hervey Bay

The whale-watching capital of Queensland – if not Australia – Harvey Bay’s sheltered waters tempt humpback whales to hang out to rest and play, often with their young, for an extended period from mid-July to November. Whale Watching Harvey Bay is a handy resource for booking boat tours; expect to pay around $100 for a half-day whale-watching cruise. All operators guarantee sightings.

Dive with minke whales on the Great Barrier Reef

If you’re keen to spend some quality time underwater with whales, you’re in luck: it’s possible to scuba with dwarf minke whales when they migrate to the Ribbon Reefs, south of Lizard Island, in June and July. For the best chances of an encounter, sign up for a three-day live-aboard trip with Cairns-based operators Spirit of Freedom (from $1720) or Mike Ball Expeditions (from $1827). Between May and September, it’s also possible to dive (or snorkel) with minke whales around the Agincourt Reefs on a day trip with Port Douglas-based Poseidon Cruises (from $238.50), but you’ll need luck on your side.

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