You truly get an idea of how small a 155-centimetre person is when they’re dwarfed by an 18-metre-long humpback. That’s 12 times the size. Of me.

And they make quite the splash when they crash down just metres from a boat that isn’t all that much larger than they are.

Along Australia’s east coast, it’s whale watching season, which runs from April to November. I boarded a Sunday afternoon cruise from Sydney to see how many I could spot in 2.5 hours.

Departing Darling Harbour, the Go Whale Watching boat took the scenic route from under the Sydney Harbour Bridge out to sea between the Manly and Watsons Bay headlands.

It was a chilly, windy, wet and rocky ride. But the chance to see whales didn’t stop me or the dozens of other passengers from lining the 24-metre boat’s outdoor decks, all in hope of seeing the majestic humpbacks make their way toward the tropical waters of the Great Barrier Reef.

Each year, the whales make the 10,000-kilometre return journey north from Antarctica to warmer, equatorial waters and treat us to views of them breaching like acrobats, waving their fins and flapping their tails all along the way.

Most boat-based companies offer guaranteed whale sightings, too. If you don’t see a whale, you can sail again another day, completely free. But it was evident to us that it’s very rare that it actually happens. I lost count of the number we saw during my afternoon at sea.

When is whale watching season?

The best time to see whales in Australia is between April and November. 

The further south you are, the more likely you are to see them at the tail ends of the season, and the further north, you’re more likely to see them toward the middle of the season. If you’re further north than the Ballina-Byron Bay area, or into Queensland, it’s likely you won’t see whales until early June.

I went whale watching in Sydney the first weekend in June, and the boat’s staff said the first few weeks in June are usually the best time to spot them in the area.

Underwater view of the gentle giant

Where can you see whales in Australia?

Just about everywhere along the east coast. While there are whale watching tours available in many destinations on the east coast, you can also spot them from the shore if you’ve got a keen eye or a decent pair of binoculars.

Eden, New South Wales: Dubbed the ‘Humpback Highway’ for a reason, this is a prime location to watch the migration. It’s not just humpbacks you’ll see though. The town is also home to the Eden Killer Whale Museum. Every October, you can even join in on The Eden Whale Festival (this year it’s October 7-9), complete with a street parade, music and entertainment.

Where to see them: From the shores of Twofold Bay and along the coast of Ben Boyd National Park. Cat Balou is the only boat tour operator leaving from Eden.

Sydney, New South Wales: When it comes to tour options, you’ll find the widest range in Sydney. Plus, you’ll also get scenic views of glistening Sydney Harbour on your way to and from the sea. A bonus is, if you’re going during the Vivid Festival, you can opt for an afternoon tour that sees a killer sunset over the coastline followed by the brilliant light displays in the harbour on your return.

Where to see them: Many of the coastal walks on headlands near Sydney offer view points from which you can spot breaching humpbacks. Cape Solander in Kamay Botany Bay National Park has a dedicated whale watching platform, but other spots include the Royal National Park and along North Head Walk in Manly. Captain Cook, Fantasea, Sydney Princess Cruises and Go Whale Watching, who I cruised with, are just some of the boat-based options.

Newcastle/Port Stephens, New South Wales: Take the chance to join a smaller, inflatable (but sturdy) boat tour with Coast XP. It offers 360-degree views, so you can spot the whales no matter what side of the boat they approach from.

Where to see them: Fort Scratchley and the Newcastle Memorial Walk, which is partly wheelchair friendly, offer some of the best land-based spots in the area. If you’re up for a hike, Tomaree Head Summit offers stunning views of Port Stephens and you just may spot a whale or two offshore. Nova Cruises and Coast XP (for the smaller boats) both offer boat tours from Newcastle. You can also depart from Port Stephens with Moonshadow or Imagine Cruises.

Ballina and Byron Bay, New South Wales: Moving north, the season does shorten a bit and whales can be spotted from Australia’s most easterly points in Ballina and Byron between June and October. If you’re after a more educational experience, Byron Bay Whale Watching is associated with Southern Cross University’s Whale Research Centre and offers personalised eco-tours.

Where to see them: Take the breathtaking walk up to the Cape Byron Headland Reserve where you’ll find the iconic lighthouse shining over the city. Out of the Blue Adventures, Wild Byron and Byron Bay Whale Watching are some of the boat-based tours you can join.

Brisbane/Gold Coast, Queensland: When the waters of the Gold Coast get a bit too chilly for swimming, they’re perfect for whale watching. With a similar season to the Gold Coast area, Brisbane’s whale watching season starts in mid-June. Whales swim through the clear, blue waters of Moreton Bay 

Where to see them: For those on the Gold Coast, depart from Sea World on the theme park’s boats or take up a whale watching season pass with Spirit Whale Watching. Brisbane Whale Watching cruises depart from Redcliffe.

Hervey Bay, Queensland: The season may be shorter along the Fraser Coast than down south, but it’s certainly one of the best places in the country to see whales. Hervey Bay, about 3.5 hours’ drive north of Brisbane, is Australia’s first Whale Heritage Site, which is the gold standard for responsible whale watching destinations. Your best chance to see humpbacks here is between July and September.

Where to see them: For a truly unique experience, grab a mask and snorkel and hop in the water with Hervey Bay Dive Centre or Hervey Bay Whale Watch. Freedom Whale Watch, Tasman Venture and Spirit of Hervey Bay also offer boat tours.

Wildlife right in the harbour

How much does it cost to go whale watching?

Believe it or not, you can go whale watching for free. Most coastal areas with view points that aren’t at sea level, like cliffs or hillsides near the sea, are ideal for whale watching. National parks in the Sydney area, such as Kamay Botany Bay National Park, are well known as land-based spots for whale watching.

If you’re keen on a cruise, you can find them in Sydney or the Gold Coast for about $50-60 for a basic cruise. Sailings that include lunch or are longer than two or three hours are more expensive.

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