For many decades, Fraser Island’s main attraction has been its 123km-long stretch of white-sanded beach. It is globally renowned not just because it is the world’s largest sand island but also because the beach is a highway you can take on in a 4WD – wind in your hair, with the beach on one side and thick bushland on the other.
Fast-forward to 2015 and it appears that some gentle giants of the sea – humpback whales – are stealing the thunder from Fraser Island’s bucket-list beach-cruising experience. Skipper Brian Perry is an old hand at whale-watching, having pioneered the exhilarating experience from Queensland’s Hervey Bay in the late 1980s.
In August 2014, he upped the ante, introducing whale-watching boat trips where guests can slip into the water and swim with humpbacks that use the Great Sandy Strait as a passage during their migration to Antarctica from July to October.
Hervey Bay Whale Watch operators are working with Queensland Parks and Wildlife to ensure the experience is safe and respectful for humpbacks and humans. Conditions aren’t always ideal for swimming with creatures so large they can unwittingly kill a person with a flick of their tail, so the swims are under extremely controlled conditions and the heavens need to be aligned for the go-ahead. Waters have to be calm, good visibility is needed, and the whales (which are incredibly curious) also have to be in a relaxed state. If they are breaching and tail slapping, diving with them can be dangerous.
Some of the lucky people who recently took a dip with humpbacks said that they were so close they could make eye contact with them, see remora fish feeding on their skin, and pick out the minute details of their many barnacles.
“You can’t pre-package nature – it doesn’t work to a human timetable – but we were curious and excited to see how they’d interact with us,” said Hervey Bay pharmacist and seasoned scuba diver Darren Nicholls. “They swam side on and gazed at us straight in the eye. It’s not like birdwatching; they actually wanted to come up and say hello to us,” he said.