Stay alongside the whales in Hervey Bay playground
EYEBALL-to-eyeball, I was face to face with a 30 tonne creature of the deep.
Do I run? Do I hide?
It sounds like the stuff of nightmares. But this intimate encounter was in fact a dream come true.
This ocean dweller wasn't a monster, but the most gentle giant of the deep blue.
Instead of screaming in fear and scrambling to the highest point of the boat, I smiled and embraced the experience of a lifetime.
Nudging towards the Tasman Venture whale watching vessel like a curious puppy, two humpback whales glided through the water.
I feel water on my face. The humpback had surfaced and was close enough to spray the boatload of tourists with mist from its blowhole.
Then the acrobatic show began.
Splash. One of the humpbacks performs a tail slap before plunging back into the water.
Splash. A pectoral fin pops out of the water and dives back into the ocean leaving behind a swirl of bubbles.
Then nothing. Everything is quiet on the water and aboard the Tasman Venture. He's gone...Or so we thought.
The whales plunge deep before resurfacing seconds later on the starboard side of the vessel.
Dashing from side to side like a dog to a ball, we peered into the crystalline water to catch a glimpse of the whale's white belly.
Ten whale watching operators in Hervey Bay - many with more than two decades' experience - ferry up to 50,000 visitors between August and October into Fraser's Platypus Bay and surrounding Great Sandy Marine Park for guaranteed up-close encounters with the whales.
The one-hour journey to the whales is an experience in itself, with spectacular view of the seemingly never-ending 120km white sands of Fraser Island. The 868m Urangan Pier fades into the distance as we set off in search of the whales.
While I was making the tedious journey up the Bruce Highway, charismatic gentle giants of the sea were making their own voyage on the humpback highway. And they had the best pit stop of all in mind.
What makes Hervey Bay trips truly unique is the whales are not travelling.
They've already been up north and given birth and they are travelling south in their mass migration. They choose to stop in Hervey Bay every year to nurture their calves and teach them essential survival skills.
Sure, some people say "well I can see the whales going past sometimes near my house", but a pair of binoculars or a speck in an iPhone photo could never compare to the true whale watching encounters of Hervey Bay.
Under law operators are required to stay 300m away, but the inquisitive whales almost always have other ideas, circling or as the operators call it "mugging" the boat.
I couldn't believe it.
These whales had every opportunity to leave. To say "no thanks" to the hordes of tourists waving their hands in the air and cooing with excitement.
But they didn't. Instead these two whales circled the boat for more than an hour, lapping up the attention.
If the whales are the true stars of Hervey Bay, their stage is the azure ocean, lapping at the white shores of the world's biggest sand island, Fraser Island.
And it's simply magnificent.
To take a look at the aquatic playground that surrounds Hervey Bay, we step off a whale watching boat and on to a jetski to explore the hidden gems of the Great Sandy Straits.
The first glimpse starts on the Hervey Bay esplanade. Spanning 12km from Point Vernon to Urangan, the esplanade offers complete ocean views with plenty to do along the way.
The strip is dotted with exercise equipment, barbecues, bench seats and grassed areas to take in the beauty of the calm waters of Hervey Bay.
We stop at Enzo's by the Beach oceanfront cafe for breakfast at Scarness.
It's early and the morning sun beams on the glassy, still water. A tiny ripple flattens out on to the sand as the small pier reflects in the water.
It's a great view as we enjoy poached eggs atop of bagels with generously spiced chai lattes. We spot the beanbags by the sand, it's a tempting invitation, but we don't have much time to spare before our jetski adventure.
We head a short drive up the road to Aquavue Cafe and
Watersports and it's here we meet the owner, Larry Burch. He is super welcoming, telling us all about his big expansion plans for the popular venue at Torquay.
A complete character he soon calmed my nerves before my firsts ever jetski ride.
We are strapped into a lifejacket and after a quick how-to lesson, we're off exploring the Great Sandy Straits.
I turn the accelerator just a little to 15kmh. It's enough, I thought. Surely that will do.
I quickly learnt the faster the better, to allow the jetski to glide over the surface of the water and not become bogged down in the open ocean waves.
Okay, here goes nothing. I turn the accelerator and I'm off. The wind breezes through my hair as we set off to explore.
We zip past Big Woody and Round islands and make our way towards Fraser Island.
As a school student in Hervey Bay I had visited and learnt all about Fraser Island, but it was what was sitting between the bay and the island that I never knew about that had me blown away.
Millions of specks of pure white sand had formed into a mound over time to create what is known as Pelican Banks. A tuft of grass had started to grow just left of centre, but besides that the sand bank-cum-island is pure white sand, undisturbed other than the tiny creases of pelicans' footprints. The water turns from navy to clear as it nears the bank, in a beleyage of blues.
Little did I know as I was growing up in Hervey Bay, gazing out to the ocean, this beautiful natural wonder was also growing.
We slide off our jetskis to take a closer look. It's simply wonderful.
We turn around and we can see Moon Point on the western side of Fraser Island with equally stunning landscapes.
We return to the Ramada near the Hervey Bay Marina for a rest on our balcony overlooking the 42-metre pool, before checking out how the seafood goes from ocean to plate.
We were lucky enough to be visiting Hervey Bay during the annual seafood festival, where we had the pleasure of wandering under the canopy of trees, checking out the array of local seafood and other delicious treats.
Back on dry land, Hervey Bay in itself is really coming of age as a destination.
The days of a sleepy fishing village are no more and Hervey Bay is buzzing as a cafe culture grows.
It's a real treat to visit my hometown and spot the newest restaurant, cafe or shop that's popped up.
It's the best place to stay, play and have fun. I think the humpback whales are on to something.
Did you know?
- Humpback whales are the fifth-largest of all the whales, growing up to 15 metres long and weighing up to 40 tonnes.
- About 20,000 whales make the big 10,000km migration each year from Antarctica to warmer waters.
- After a summer of feeding on krill in Antarctic waters, humpback whales migrate north to sub-tropical waters where they mate and give birth.
- Humpback Whales are now protected from commercial whaling in Australia. However, off the coast of South-East Queensland in the early Fifties and Sixties, about 40,000 whales were slaughtered for their blubber and meat which was turned into stock feed for Australian farmers. The numbers of whales in the area became severely depleted.
10 things to do in Hervey Bay
1.Head to the Discovery Sphere on Old Maryborough Rd, Pialba, to learn about the humpback whales, the legend of Fraser Island, learn about sealife with the touch tank, browse the art gallery and chat with the friendly volunteers to plan your stay in Hervey Bay.
2.Cycle or walk the Esplanade.
3.Go whale watching. Choose from 10 different operators with a range of vessels on offer with waterline viewing, buffet lunches and underwater viewing decks. Book on 1800811728.
4.Take the kids for a splash at the WetSide Water Education Park on the corner of Main St and The Esplanade at Pialba
5.Swim with sharks at Reefworld Aquarium at Urangan
6. Hire a stand up paddleboard and glide across the still, glassy waters of Hervey Bay
7. Book a tour aboard the Krystal Klear, the glass bottom boat for a nature tour, coral viewing and snorkelling
8. Go shopping at the newly renovated Stocklands Shopping Centre in Boat Harbour Drive, Hervey Bay
9. Head to the Hervey Bay marina for a meal as well as a stroll to check out the boats and great views
10. Take a drive to Point Vernon and watch the sun set at the Gattakers Bay
Hervey Bay is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive north from the Sunshine Coast and a four-hour drive from Brisbane.
QantasLink has daily flights from Brisbane to Hervey Bay, while Virgin Australia has direct daily flights from Sydney with connection from most capitals (not Brisbane).
Queensland Rail operates regular services from Brisbane, Rockhampton and Cairns to Maryborough West, with coach transfers to Hervey Bay.
Where to stay:
Ramada Resort: Located opposite the Hervey Bay Marina, this resort is a few minutes' walk to the whale watching departure point.
The resort includes 91 studio and one-bedroom suites with private balconies overlooking the 42-metre pool.
Enjoy the convenience of on-site restaurant Smoky Joe's, open daily for breakfast, and enjoy live music with dinner Friday and Saturday nights.
Where to eat:
Coast Restaurant and Bar Hervey Bay is the city's premier restaurant of choice on the Esplanade at Urangan. Dubbed "fine food dressed down", Coast offers a delicious menu of local produce including Hervey Bay scallops.
Owners say they offer a Michelin-star menu experience without the pretence. Sit on the deck and enjoy a cocktail while tucking into the share-style food. Visit www.coastherveybay.com.au