Cruise the Humpback Highway; best whale watching Sydney

Humpback Whale raises head above water in the ocean off Sydney coastline

Every year, between the months of May and November, Humpback Whales undertake their migration along the eastern coastline of Australia. Eagle-eyed Sydneysiders may spot the whales from a number of vantage points along the coast. But if you want the chance to get a little bit closer there is only one way you’re going to do it, and that’s being out on the water! Sydney is one of the best places in Australia to observe whales.

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Seagull floats over open ocean keeping eye out for fish

 

Best time to see whales

The annual migration of Humpback whales takes place between the months of May and November.

During May, June and July they are traveling north from the cold waters of Antarctica to the warmer waters of Queensland for their winter breeding and calving. During August the whales may be traveling either north or south and from September to November they are traveling south to return to Antarctica.

According to Wild About Whales, Humpback whales migrate on average approximately 5000km, which is one of the longest migratory journeys of any mammal.

Regarding time of day, I have done both a morning and afternoon session of the Go Whale Watching cruise, and the morning was significantly better for Humpback whale watching.

According to ORRCA during the Southern migration whales will tend to travel closer to the coastline to allow the calves to feed and rest and numbers will peak in October. Mothers and calves will often be accompanied by males to protect from predators.

Sunset over the coastline as seen from the ocean off Sydney
There are some benefits to taking the afternoon cruise

Humpback Whale Migration Route

The eastern stretch of coastline of Australia has become fondly known as the Humpback Highway due to the volume of whales that travel it. It is one of multiple Humpback whale migration routes in the world. Humpback whales do not generally cross the equator, the southern population all migrate to the nutrient rich waters of Antarctica in Summer, and the warmer waters alongside South America, Africa and Australia for the Winter.

Numbers have been increasing every year since the end of commercial whaling, researchers from the Organisation for the Rescue and Research of Cetaceans predict over 35,000 Humpbacks will travel the Humpback Highway in 2020.

 

A Sydney Harbour Cruise with Go Whale Watching

It’s rare to see Humpback whales in Sydney Harbour, so expect to have to go out past the heads to the Humpback Highway where you have a good chance to see them. The plus side of course is you’ll get some great photo opportunities on your way! And while cloudy days may not always bode so well for weather and water conditions, they definitely make for good photos!

Sydney Opera House as seen from boat on Sydney Harbour
There’s nowhere else in Sydney to get this view!
The Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House as seen heading out of Sydney Harbour
Or with two Sydney icons in one!

Approaching the heads of the Sydney coastline to head out to open sea

Go Whale Watching is a family owned and operated business with a number of boats. While I was on two different boats each cruise, they were both clean and comfortable, and the company had ensured the number of people on board were strictly within state legislated requirements.

For the more adventurous you can also take an Extreme Whale Watching Safari on an inflatable speed boat which departs from Circular Quay. We saw this tour group a number of times from my boat.

Dorsal fin and back of Humpback whale emerging from the ocean off Sydney with Extreme Whale Watching tour boat behind

 

Cruising the Humpback Highway

Once out past the heads onto the open sea, the crew are positioned around the boat keeping watch for the telltale signs of the Humpback’s presence, a burst of water against the sky as they surface for air. They tell all the passengers to keep watch too, but it is the practiced eyes of the crew that inevitably spot them first.

Two Humpback Whales with backs surfaced in the waters off the Sydney coast, one blowing water from blowhole

Once spotted the crew will travel as close as they can to where the whale was spotted, and wait. Humpback whales need to come up for air regularly so eventually they will surface again, though there is no guarantee it will be in the same location. All boats are only permitted to go 100m from the whales. Anything closer than that is up to the whales.

Fortunately for the eager onlookers, Humpback whales are curious creatures so sometimes a cruise gets lucky. Once the whale surfaces the crew tells passengers to make lots of noise, to try and hold the whale’s attention and pique its curiosity.

 

Whale Behaviours

You may be lucky to see some of these exhibited by whales on the cruise. It took me three trips to capture all of these so don’t be disappointed if you don’t see some of them on your first attempt.

 

Breaching

We’ve all seen those epic shots of a whale leaping out of the water, it’s the crown jewel everyone wants to see.

Unfortunately, the one time it did happen on my second cruise I was on the other side of the boat and all I ended up capturing was the splashy aftermath!

Splash made by a Humpback after breaching in the waters off Sydney
When you’re a fraction too late for the big moment

On my third attempt though, luck was with us as the captain of the boat spotted the holy grail, a repeatedly breaching calf in the distance, and hot-tailed it over. This calf was having a grand old time putting on a spectacle for the surrounding boats and we got to watch him for at least 30 minutes. Mum didn’t join in the fun but made herself known from time to time.

Beginning of a breach by a Humpback Whale calf in the ocean off the coast of Sydney. Whale is leaping straight up from the water with belly towards the camera

a Humpback Whale calf leaping out of the ocean off the coast of Sydney. the Whale's back is shown parallel to the water

Humpback Whale calf breaching from the ocean off the coast of Sydney. Side is towards the camera with back, flippers and some of belly visible.

Humpback Whale calf breaching from the ocean off teh coast of Sydney. Calf is parallel to water with belly and flippers towards the sky

 

 

Tail slapping

Also known as lobtailing, dolphins are also known to do this. The whale lifts its tail out of the water and slaps it down to make a loud noise. They may also slap the water with their flippers.

Humpack Whale bringing tail down on water off the Sydney coastline

This is known as a Fluke Up Dive, when the tail lifts as the whale dives back down after surfacing.

The underside of Humpback Whales tail as it dives in the waters off Sydney coastline
The underside of the Humpbacks tail is called a Fluke and it is as unique as our fingerprints

 

Spy-hopping

This is where the whale pokes it’s head straight up out of the water to take a look around.

Humpback whales head emerging from the ocean, known as spyhopping

Humpback Whale head emerging from the ocean off the Sydney coastline

Check out this calf poking its head up for a look in between leaping out of the water. If you look closely you can see its eye.

A Humpback Whale calf poking its heap out of the water off the Sydney coastline

Mugging

We were lucky enough to have a number of whales engage in this behaviour, which is when the whale approaches the boat and swims around it.

Humpback whale circling boat just under the water surface, off the Sydney coastline
Circling our boat just below the surface of the water

Several were curious enough to poke their heads up to check us out, right near where I stood!

Humpback Whale raises head above water in the ocean off Sydney coastline

Humpback Whlae head emerging from the ocean waters off the coast of Sydney

This behaviour is potentially less likely to be observed when it is a mother and calf, as mum will actively put herself between the calf and the boat.

Mother and calf Humpback Whale in the waters off the Sydney Coastline. Calf is pokeing head out of water while mum is displaying Pectoral fin
Mum and Calf

Tips for having a great Whale Watching experience

1. The whales are more active earlier in the day. While the experience of being out on the ocean when the sun sets and the nighttime vista of Sydney coming back into the Harbour is pretty special in its own right, the timing means that the light is likely to be poor by the time you get out far enough out.

2. Check the weather. While cloudy days make for great photo lighting, it would be a bit miserable being poured upon.

3. Check the wind. You might not think about this one but it’s critical to a good experience, trust me on this one. According to the Bureau of Meteorology winds of 26 knots or more will indicate rough conditions for small boats. That’s 48km per hour.

4. If you’re a bit funny on the motion sickness thing, even if you aren’t expecting rough seas, it’s just a good idea all round to take a tablet 30mins before.

5. Wear a spray jacket. It will provide some warmth as well as protection from an errant wave. It’s not much fun sitting in wet clothes for a few hours.

Darling Harbour by night

Tips for photographing the Whales

While I am no professional, there are a few things that improved my chances of getting great shots.

1. Fast shutter speed. These are wild animals and they aren’t going to be still for you while you line up that great shot. Have a fast shutter speed set ready to go.

2. Don’t shoot full manual. Again, they aren’t going to say cheese and smile for you while you fiddle with your settings. I shot on Shutter Priority mode and let the camera set the rest.

3. Continuous shooting. Auto focus between shots takes precious moments, I figured out pretty quickly I was going to do better by having my camera set to take a burst of shots if I held the button down. It’s easy enough to delete the excess later and better than lamenting that moment you missed.

4. Put a zoom lens on. I was shooting with my 40-150mm lens, which is equivalent to a 300mm on a full frame camera. I was lucky to have the whales come in nice and close for some head shots but its completely up to the whales how close they come. Chances are you’ll be shooting from a little way off.

Humpback whale tail emerging from waters surface as it dives

 

Book your Whale Watching cruise

Book through Adrenalin for a great price on your cruise!

Go Whale Watching cruises depart from Pier 7 of King Street Wharf Darling harbour and run 2 – 3 sessions a day during whale season. Cruises run for a little under 3 hours.

Parking is available nearby at Darling Quarter, approximately 10 minutes walk from Pier 7.

 

My Photography Equipment

If you are interested in what photography equipment I use and recommend, check out some of the results in my Photography Equipment List.

 

As always, if you loved this please share!

From May to November, Humpback Whales migrate along the coast of Sydney. Check out the best way to get close Whale watching in Sydney, on the water!

From May to November, Humpback Whales migrate along the coast of Sydney. Check out the best way to get close Whale watching in Sydney, on the water!

From May to November, Humpback Whales migrate along the coast of Sydney. Check out the best way to get close Whale watching in Sydney, on the water!

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11 thoughts on “Cruise the Humpback Highway; best whale watching Sydney”

  1. I have been twice to Harvey Bay in Queensland to see the whales. Stunning creatures and both times we had a “whale of a time”….The first time the water was like glass not a ripple until we saw the majestic creatures. Second time. well everyone on our boat apart from me, my daughter, the captain and one deck hand wasnt sick. When we got back to shore we learnt ours was the only boat to have gone out in the water. it was rough (to make up for the first time a sea of glass) Even fishing boats had stayed in.

  2. I am SO envious!!! Whales are absolutely majestic. I was fortunate to see some on my ferry from Perth to Rottnest Island – and they were breaching RIGHT beside our ferry! I’d love to come back and explore the other side of Australia and will definitely include whale watching if we can time it right!

  3. What an amazing experience. I’ve seen Orcas in Canada where I live but I’d love to see humpbacks too. They’re amazing creatures, I will have to check out a tour like this if I make it to that part of the world again

  4. Oh wow! This truly is such a bucket list experience, Ive never seen whales before, and probably the closest I’ll get to it now living in Asia is seeing Whale sharks. This is truly such a magical experience. They have such interesting behaviours too! Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. I’ve seen many humpback whales of the coast of Massachusetts and in Alaska too. I would love to see them down under. They are such amazing animals with such unique behaviors. Thanks for explaining the behaviors.

  6. Whale watching always sounds so amazing! I’ve heard hits and misses about those tours, but this area seems like a big hit!

  7. This must have been amaaaaazing! I would love to do this kind of trip. You may have missed the shot when the whale was jumping out of the water, but I adore that splashy photo too! 😀

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