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Whale watching – a quick guide from our man in the know

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Wild About Whales
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Light to Light Walking Track, Green Cape Lightstation Keeper's Cottages, Ben Boyd National Park. Photo: Michael Van Ewijk/OEH

There’s no doubt that seeing a whale close-up at sea or even from the shore can be a thrilling and sometimes even a life changing experience.

As NSW National Parks’ Coordinator of Marine Fauna Programs I’ve enjoyed whale watching in NSW for the past 20 years. I can honestly say it’s always an exciting experience – there’s nothing else quite like witnessing these magnificent leviathons as they play and cavort.

Whale watching from land can be a wonderful experience – and it can be made even better if you’re prepared. Here are my top ten tips for whale watching:

1. Check the whale sightings map on the Wild About Whales website
It’s the best way to find where whales are being seen and is a great reference for NSW whale watching.

2. Head to one of our coastal national parks
They provide some of the best vantage points from which to see whales. There are some whale watching “hot spots” in our national parks from Byron Bay in the north, to Eden in the south. The website provides good details about the parks and the facilities we offer.

3. Download the Wild About Whales mobile app
A must-have mobile app for Apple and Android for any avid whale watcher, it has a detailed whale watching guide and you can submit whale sightings of your own for others to see.

4. Check the weather and pack the essentials
Some of the best vantage points are along the coastal tracks and cliff tops of NSW national parks which can often be windy and rocky, so wear warm protective clothing and sturdy shoes. Take binoculars for better viewing and your camera/phone to capture your whale sightings – you never know how close they may come to the shoreline. Don’t forget food and drink, I love to take a warm thermos flask of hot chocolate with me into the field. If you’re planning on watching a while, take a camping chair for comfort. At the end of the day, don’t forget to take your rubbish away with you.

5. Research your species
The iconic humpback and southern right whales are the most common species you’ll see, but it’s possible you may also see minke, blue, sperm and orcas (Killer Whales) amongst others. Brushing up on your whale identification can make all the difference and the wild about whales app can help here too.

6. Know typical whale behavior
Part of the fun is working out what our whales are trying to tell us or each other. The acrobatics are awesome to watch and usually mean the whale is trying to message other animals. When you know what breaching, tail slapping, spy-hopping and blowing means it may help you understand what’s going on below the surface.

7. Keep an eye out for other wildlife
Dolphin sightings are more prevalent at this time of year, especially in areas like Port Stephens and Jervis Bay. Seals too can be seen anywhere on the NSW Coast, they’re usually just lulling about on their backs with their flippers in the air! Gannets, albatross and other seabirds can be seen from coastal vantages and keep an eye out for forest birds. Honey Eaters and wrens are commonly seen in the flowering heathlands, the coastal banksia are particularly beautiful at this time of year and provide a rich food source for honeyeaters.

8. Share the experience and get involved
Share your experience on the Wild About Whales Facebook page. It’s a great way to show friends what you’ve seen from our headlands. And if you want to get more involved you can volunteer as a ‘whale counter’ to track the numbers and species spotted for this season, or take part in our Discovery tours.

9. Pick the best times
Generally whales head north throughout May, June and July, and return southwards from September to November. If you really want to see the whales passing visit our NSW national parks from 1 May until 30 November. There’s no “best time of day” so get comfortable and be patient.

10. Appreciate the beauty in what you’re seeing
These whales were pushed to the verge of extinction and have rebounded tremendously in our waters as a result of their protected status. They really are ‘our whales’. They’re coming home after feeding in the southern oceans and we’re privileged to be able to see them daily from some of the most scenic spots within our NSW national parks.

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