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Image credit: NSW Tourism

High on Humpbacks

The spectacular sight of whales making their way to and from Antarctica is a family wildlife experience like no other, as Joanna Tovia discovers on the NSW South Coast.

We’ve just started a game of ‘I Spy’ when an impossibly huge humpback whale around the same size as our 18-metre boat emerges out of the vast blue ocean. We’re on the Humpback Highway, where up to 20,000 whales head north on their annual migration from Antarctica to the warmer waters of northern NSW and Queensland to feed, breed and birth their calves before making the return journey.

Whales have been protected since 1965, bouncing back from near extinction to a thriving population growing by about 10 per cent a year. Seeing these black-and-white beauties breach off Jervis Bay is enough to make jaws drop and hearts sing. I’m with 11-year-old Bianca and five-year-old Jarrah aboard the Jervis Bay Wild Whale Eco Cruise and they gasp and point in delight, not just at the whales we see launching themselves out of the water and landing with a mighty splash, but the broad, shiny backs of others gliding by and sending up spouts of water as they go.

The great migration
We keep our eyes glued to the ocean; a slick on the water means there are likely to be whales swimming below. It gets choppy as we head further out to sea and we have to hang on to the railings. We see more and more whales, some close up and some a few hundred metres away, showing off their grooved white bellies and powerful flippers. Humpbacks can swim at speeds of up to 8km/h but during their long migration they swim slowly, resting and socialising along the way.

Still on a high, we head off to Depot Beach in Murramarang National Park, a 90-minute drive south near Batemans Bay. We’re staying in a neat and comfortable cabin with views of the ocean. An orchestra of birds greets our arrival and there’s a kangaroo by the front door. There’s no Wi-Fi, mobile reception or TV here but we’ve come prepared with puzzles, games and books, and I’m relishing the novelty of switching off and slowing down. The kids are thrilled with their room; there are two bunk beds so they both get to sleep up top.

A 50-metre track leads to a stunning expanse of sand framing a sheltered bay. The kids walk, skip and cartwheel their way from one end of the beach to the other, drawing in the sand and splashing in the shallows until the sun turns golden and sinks below the horizon. The rock platforms we explore are scrawled with sandy squiggles as tiny shellfish go about their day and we realise that when life slows down, the details become more noticeable.

Image credit: Joanna Tovia

Magic under the Milky Way
There’s another adventure in store before the day is out. As night falls we take a guided ranger tour through the rainforest in search of possums and other nocturnal wildlife. We spot the red eyes of a brushtail possum, but the real excitement lies in rugging up and tramping along the pitch-black track with the Milky Way glittering above us through the treetops.
We’re eager for more whale watching so as the sun rises the next day we drive 30 minutes to one of the best vantage points in NSW, North Head Lookout. After an easy half-hour walk we gaze out left and right over the big blue. Today the whales remain out of sight, but the beautiful scenery we encounter on the walk is undeniably a reward in itself.
There are great walks closer to home too, if you don’t feel like driving. While we’ve been gone, we’ve missed whales breaching right off Depot Beach! The rainforest walk we explored the night before is glorious by day, and the headland walk just near the cabins will reward you with panoramic vistas over the ocean.

Image credit: Joanna Tovia

Top five whale watching spots in NSW
During June, July and August, whales are most visible on the coast stretching from Sydney to Byron Bay. Between September and November, your best bet is the South Coast between Sydney and Eden. The following national park hot spots provide some of the best vantage points for whale watching.

1. Captain Cook lookout
Cape Byron

2. Angourie walking track
Yuraygir National Park

3. Cape Hawke lookout
Booti Booti National Park

4. Arabanoo lookout
Harbour National Park, Sydney

5. North Head lookout
Murramarang National Park

Image credit: Joanna Tovia

Island adventures
We’re up early again on day three to drive 90 minutes to Narooma where we cross by boat to the stunning Montague Island. We spot more whales spouting and, as we edge closer to shore, marvel at slug-like seals piled on craggy rocks in the sun.
The wildlife on this picturesque island has been protected for more than 50 years and with goats and rabbits now eradicated, native Little Penguins, Australian and New Zealand fur seals, and bird species are bouncing back. It’s a perfect place for a picnic and groups can rent the lighthouse keeper’s cottage and stay for a few days; it sleeps 12. We climb the stairs on a guided tour to the top of the lighthouse and see yet another whale. These magical marine mammals are so astounding in size and grace that watching them just never gets old.

Image credit: Joanna Tovia

Image credit: Tourism Australia & Andrew Smith

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