Watching whales, dolphins and penguins

MONTAGUE ISLAND, Australia ‘Oh, there’s a lot more to see than just whales” the tall, smiling man behind the counter explained…

MONTAGUE ISLAND, Australia

‘Oh, there’s a lot more to see than just whales” the tall, smiling man behind the counter explained enthusiastically.

“This is the best time of year to be out there”.

The peak months for whale watching along the eastern coast of Australia are September through November.

Humpbacks are most common, though Orcas and Southern Rights are sometimes spotted.

Some 300 kilometres south of Sydney, Montague Island sits just 10 kilometres off shore, halfway between the mainland and the Continental Shelf.  Ocean currents laden with krill tempt the migrating whales to remain in the area for a week or two.

The skipper welcomed everyone on board and bellowed out safety procedures, Diana, the National Parks and Wildlife guide, explained the way to spot whales was to look for the white puff of vapour from their blow holes as they surface.

As the catamaran motored to the open ocean, the captain encouraged passengers to station themselves throughout the boat, ensuring that at least one pair of eyes was scanning the water in every direction.

Binoculars flashed in the sun.

 “Over there!” the woman in the orange windbreaker yelled 20 minutes later, pointing.

All heads turned.

Yes, there was the back of a whale. In fact, two whales.

The captain switched off the motor.

A mother humpback and her calf swam close together in the near distance.

Mother’s larger back, then baby’s smaller one, rose and fell at the surface.

Mother’s big vapour blow, then baby’s little one.

Binoculars followed their progress until the puffs disappeared. The awed silence became excited chatter.

Starting the motor, the captain turned towards the island.

Dolphins, much smaller members of the whale family, flashed along the bow waves, darting back and forth across the small wake. Several more followed behind, playfully escorting the boat.

Montague Island is a “haul out” site for an estimated 800 Australian and New Zealand fur seals.

As the boat neared the foreshore, a few raised themselves up on their flippers, grunting, and a few swam out to investigate, but most of them continued to doze, ignoring the intrusion.

Skirting the island, the catamaran pulled up at the dock. Thousands of nesting silver gulls and crested terns squawked and complained, fussing over their eggs and young chicks as the group approached the lighthouse.

Built in 1881 of granite blocks cut from the island itself, the metalwork imported from England, it took three years to complete.

Now fully automated, it remains in operation.

As the sun rested on the horizon, everyone took a seat on long wooden benches.

Once again binoculars glinted, and a hushed anticipation rose and fell with each wave lapping the shore.

“There they are!” announced a loud whisper. A dozen Fairy Penguins scrambled onto the rocks, riding in on the push of a wave.

The smallest of the penguins, they stand less than two feet tall. Landing on shore they hesitated, congregating and grooming, waiting for the waves to bring in other groups.

After fishing all day they come ashore at dusk for safety.

Their tiny webbed feet slap along as they jump from rock to rock, balancing with their flippers, always returning to the same den.

Perhaps it was a young one that had become disoriented, for on the way back to the boat one tiny penguin stood in the middle of the boardwalk, halting everyone in their tracks.

No one moved for minutes.

At last the brave penguin rushed past our legs, clattering along the boardwalk before disappearing into the rocks.

“OK,” sighed Diana. “Let’s head home ourselves. ”

Catherine Miller is a Whitehorse-based writer on a months-long tour of far-flung places. Her chronicle appears here every Monday.

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