Behind the scenes with Whale Watch Western Australia

September in the Margaret River region is an exciting time to be there as the mothers and calves are passing through Geographe Bay on their migration to the Antarctic. You can experience seeing these majestic creatures breaching, spy hopping, tail diving, tail splashing, and more, on a whale watching tour and with an estimated 35, 000 passing through the region, a sighting of not just one but many on a tour is extremely likely. We caught up with Gemma, from Whale Watch Western Australia about what it’s like to be involved in running one of these tours and what their guests can expect from the experience:

In WA: How long have you been working with Whale Watch Western Australia and what is your role within the company?

We are a family owned and operated company with 2016 being our second season. We work together as a team and our roles vary greatly during the course of a day! Every aspect of our business we are involved in which includes many different facets from the day to day running of our business.

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In WA: Can you talk us through a typical day for you?

The alarm is set early and each morning we usually get to have our coffee with one of the wildlife locals in the marina. While in Augusta this is Romeo, a tiny Willie Wagtail who will sing his morning song on our back deck and during our time in Busselton we have Sheila the Darter (a similar species to the Cormorant) who spends each morning preening herself and preparing for the days fishing ahead. The outside windows are cleaned each morning and a thorough check over of our vessel is done to make sure everything is immaculately clean for the arrival of our guests.

Each tour we will greet our guests at our check-in desk and escort them to our vessel where they can relax with a cup of coffee or tea in our warm saloon lounge while we go through our safety procedures before leaving the marina. My sister and I quickly transition from hosts to deckhands and organise all of the ropes on our departure and we set out to begin our date with the giants! I will begin our live commentary as we make our way into the bay and explain to our guests what they should be looking for and also advising when we have our very first sighting which is always a very exciting moment!

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Jade specialises in taking photos throughout the tour and will capture all of the important moments so that our guests can relax and simply enjoy viewing the whales and receive Jade’s images on their return by the link found on our Daily Report page. Every tour we focus on teaching all of our guests about The Language of Our Whales and explaining the reasons why a Humpback whale will breach or why they are watching a certain type of whale behaviour and the meaning behind it. By the end of each tour our guests can speak The Language Of Our Whales fluently!

Once we have arrived back in the marina and the boat has been secured we will disembark and Jade will have a special gift and sweet for our guests to take away with them which is a favourite for everyone but especially our younger guests! The boat will then be washed down with fresh water and prepared so she is immaculately clean for our next tour.

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In WA: Do you have favourite and least favourite parts of the day and what are they?

The wonderful thing about our business is that every day for us is completely different and we have the opportunity to meet wonderful people who come from every corner of our globe. Just the other day we had an incredible experience on a perfectly calm and sunny afternoon as one of our guests began to sing opera on our bow and serenade our whales! There are many parts of our day that we love, but I think one of my favourites is that moment when our guests see the whales for the very first time. The complete joy and excitement that you see from every age group always puts a smile on my face and absolutely makes our day. The only least favourite part of our day is when we have to leave our whales, they have an incredible energy and after you have spent a little bit of time with a pod you get to know the individuals well and have a strong want to continue following them and their journey as they continue their migration north!

In WA: How do you prepare for your guests?

Our main priority for our guests is their safety and comfort. With this in mind we make sure to create a relaxed atmosphere for them when boarding with heated saloon, gentle boarding music, warm drinks and answers to any questions they may have about our vessel. Every single tour we will go through our safety procedures before departure which will teach everyone what to do in an emergency situation and important features of our vessel such as the location of the male and females restrooms and the best way to move around the vessel. Aboard our vessel we have a toy box for the entertainment of our younger guests and throughout each season we have many celebrations which could be a birthday, anniversary and we even had a very special proposal last season! On these special occasions we can send a congratulation message over our sound system or organise a small birthday cake surprise when advised at the time of our guests booking.

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In WA: How have you become so knowledgeable about whale watching, is it just from experience?

Our family has been involved in many different aspects of our magnificent Australian coastline and waters. Our Captain (and dad!) was a Pearl Diver for over 30 years and his depth of knowledge and experience is absolutely incredible. Our family has also been involved with the setup and running of our world class Fairy Penguin tour in Melbourne and also Whale Watching on our East Coastline. I have also studied extensively about our whales and the incredible story of their lives and migration and had wonderful information and knowledge shared with me from local and international researchers. Each tour we learn more and more about our whales and I truly believe the best way to understand more about these magnificent creatures is to simply spend time with them, studying them and learning their Language.

In WA: Can you talk us through what it’s like for you when you see your guests react when they see the whales?

I think we are almost as excited as them! For many of our guests this is the very first time they have ever seen a whale and for many it is also a once in a lifetime opportunity as they may live in a part of the world miles from any ocean. Each tour as we make our way out of the marina excitement levels are at fever pitch and it makes for an incredibly fun atmosphere on-board. Sometimes the first sighting of our whales can be that beautiful dark back of the Humpback as it breaks the water’s surface or an incredible breach and the resulting splash. Either way that very first moment you see these magnificent creatures will stay with you for the rest of your life. I still remember my moment, it was a picture perfect day and the massive tail fluke dive of a Humpback whale caught the sun, one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen! It is this same emotion and feeling we see on the faces of our guests each tour and many times we have had happy tears of joy on-board from our guests. In a day and age where most of our lives are spent on computers and living a very fast paced life it is a true privilege to be a part of a very real and happy moment in the lives of our guests.

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In WA: What can your guests expect from a tour with you and what would you recommend your guests bring with them/do to prepare?

Our main priority is the safety and comfort of our guest and our vessel has been specifically designed to provide this as well as our operating procedures. The next part of our guest’s experience is their education about The Language Of Our Whales and by the end of their tour we hope to have every guest fluent! You will learn why our whales behave the way they do and the reasons behind this behaviour, they are simply incredible and without them our oceans eco systems would not be able to survive. Depending on your date of travel and the weather that is expected we suggest it is always best to bring

  • a warm and waterproof jacket
  • sunglasses and a hat on sunny days
  • binoculars (if you are travelling with a pair)
  • and, of course your camera but please keep in mind that Jade will be taking photos of your tour so you can collect these on our Daily Report page if you would prefer to just enjoy your date with the giants!
  • It is advisable passengers to take medicinal precaution (motion sickness tablets) if you are not an avid seafarer. Please seek advice from the pharmacy when purchasing.
  • It is very important to please arrive at departure point at least 15 minutes prior to scheduled departure time

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In WA: You guarantee 100% chance of a sighting, without giving away too many of your secrets, how do you do that?

We are very fortunate to have the largest Humpback population in the world with an estimated 35,000 Humpback whales on our Western Australia coastline. We research and study our whales on each of our tours, logging each of our sightings and over time this creates a story of where the majority of our whales will move through our bay or spend time resting. They certainly are creatures of habit with many of our well-known whales being sighted in almost the exact same location each year. Every day is different and although they often come within meters of our boat and interact with us we must always remember that they are wild animals and that is why the educational experience of our tour is vitally important to teach our guests why we see the behaviours we do and how by researching their patterns of behaviour we can guarantee sightings throughout our season.

In WA: How many whales have you been seeing on this seasons outings?

As our whales migrate along our coastline they move in a similar pattern to traffic on a highway. Not all migrating at once, we will see an influx of whales in our bay as a main group visit and plenty of competition and social activity during these times (peak hour traffic!) When that first group of traffic moves through and continues on their migration we have the next group visit our bay usually containing different types of individuals (school run traffic!) and behaviour from this second group of whales is understandably different. The very last of the whales to migrate north are the heavily pregnant female Humpbacks and they will also be the last to migrate south now with their new-born accompanying them on this journey. With such a large population of Humpbacks we see many whales visiting our bay each year but season 2016 has been fantastic so far with over 40 Humpbacks surrounding our vessel on one tour during those peak our traffic days!

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In WA: How close have they gotten in the past?

They have touched our boat! Our whales are wild animals so like to keep a reactionary distance but they are also incredibly curious creatures. We have specific rules and regulations in place to protect the natural behaviour of our whales and cannot approach any closer than 100 meters, it is then up to the whales if they would like to come over and say hello. More often than not they certainly do come over to introduce themselves and on this particular day we had a young male humpback who gently moved towards our vessel and lifted his head just above the surface and placed the very tip of his rostrum (upper & lower jaw) onto the side of our vessel and gently moved down until his very sensitive rostrum touched the rough surface of the hull of our vessel before pulling away. It was also this same individual who came up to the back deck of our boat which is at water level and as we waved at him he moved straight up into the air in a behaviour known as a spy hop and was only centimetres away from my waving hand! An incredible moment indeed!

In WA: Is there one tour/experience that really sticks out in your mind?

This is a very difficult question as we have been very fortunate to have so many special and unique experiences that stay with you forever. From a wedding proposal on our bow with whales interacting behind the couple to one of our guests who was in tears as two incredible Humpbacks (the same one who touched our boat) stayed with our vessel for over two hours interacting and looking at us. I think one of the main stories we love to share with our guests is of the vessel in distress and the two Humpbacks who wouldn’t leave its side. Last season we responded to a distress signal sent out by a very small boat who could not start their motors and were in a very dangerous place amongst big swell and a reef line. The situation was not a very good one and as we waited for the rescue boat to arrive we stood off to keep an eye on the boat and to everyone’s amazement on-board two large Humpbacks surfaced either side of this small vessel. Thinking they were just being a bit curious we expected them to continue on their way but five minutes later they surfaced again in the exact spot! This continued for over 45 minutes and at no time did they leave the side of this vessel, it was not until the rescue boat arrived and took the small boat in tow that these two incredible Humpbacks quietly moved away.

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This reminded our Captain of the time many years ago when he was swimming with a mother Humpback and her calf up north. Unbeknown to him the Captain of the vessel that he was with slowly started moving away from the area (he did not wish to disturb the whales) and when he surfaced at water level the boat was completely out of sight! It was right on sunset and as it started to very quickly grow dark understandably he was anxious. Incredibly the Humpback and her calf moved in only meters away from him and they stayed like this for over 30 minutes until the boat came back. The feeling he had was one of protection from the female Humpback and now years down the track when we witnessed the vessel in distress and those two Humpbacks “guarding” it makes you wonder how these incredible creatures knew that both of these were anxious situations and protected the ones in danger.

In WA: if your guests wanted to do some research, are there any books/websites you’d recommend?

As our Australian Humpback populations grow there is more and more research being done and it is a very exciting time. We absolutely recommend watching our favourite Humpback documentary which is called The Birthplace of The Giants. This documentary is purely focused on the migration of the West Australian Humpback whale population where the brilliant Curt and Micheline Jenner who have been studying the West Australian Humpback for over 25 years will lead you on a visual masterpiece of our whales migrational journey along our coastline.

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In WA: You have the Trust the Tick accreditation, what does that mean for you and for your guests?

The Tourism Accreditation ‘tick’ signifies quality assurance and the delivery of quality tourism experiences. Receiving the Australian Tourism Accreditation last season was a very exciting achievement for our business and we are also now Marine Accredited as well as China Ready. Always looking to improve ourselves and continue growing these accreditations provide a quality insurance to our guests and allows them to have trust in our business and operating procedures.

In WA: On a last note, how do you wind down after a day whale watching?

We will always clean and prepare our vessel first so she is ready for the next day. Once this is all done we will download all of the photos that have been taken and have some fun looking through these before logging in our whale report data the unique individuals that were sighted. A nice cup of tea is usually enjoyed while dinner is prepared and we enjoy some family relax time together often chatting about the special experiences of that day. David Attenborough Documentaries is a family favourite that is always watched when televised and because we stay aboard our vessel some nights we have our local mother and calf dolphin pod who visit the marina for a late night snack. We must be crazy but no matter how long a day (or how cold outside!) my sister and I will always run out to watch them hunting and feeding together and often they come right up to the jetty to check us out and it’s at these moments and when you look up and see the billions of stars on these crystal clear winter nights in our beautiful South West Region we certainly feel incredibly blessed to live the life we do!

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Whale Watch Western Australia depart daily at 10am and 2pm from Port Geographe Marina, in Busselton between 1st September and 1st November. There are 3 tours offered:  VIP Captains Lounge, Premier Reserve Tour and Pelagic Eco Tour. Because guest numbers are capped at 75 (the vessel has a capacity of 100), you can be ensured of having ample viewing space on one of 5 viewing decks over 3 floors aboard the purpose built 25-meter vessel, Steep Point (this also means that tours can be booked out in advance). The VIP Captains Lounge has a very unique and exclusive tasting plate that includes:

  • Rare Pearl Meat, Abalone, Prawns, Venison,
  • WA Cheeses & Wafers
  • Complimentary Margaret River Wines & local Beers
  • Delicious Deserts with Schnapps, Tea Coffee & Chocolates

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You can book your date with a giant and learn the language of the whales from the website http://www.whalewatchwesternaustralia.com/ and you can download the brochure here (http://media.wix.com/ugd/822d7a_e1a7983dce964c5a95075d0d1df5e391.pdf)

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