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Whale watching on the Gold Coast

The Gold Coast gets so many whales that the coastline is known as the Humpback Highway. The Gold Coast also has Australia’s longest whale watching season which runs from June to November. It was the promise of more whales than we could poke a camera at that tempted us to give whale watching with Whales in Paradise on the Gold Coast a try.

After a less than spectacular whale watching trip in Hervey Bay about 10 years ago, we hadn’t been on a whale boat since. It was the very, very end of whale season in Hervey Bay, the seas were rough and we were on one of the last tours of the year. Definitely not the best timing for seeing whales. The captain cruised around for ages trying to find a whale and we did eventually spot a juvenile in the distance so it wasn’t a wasted trip, but it certainly wasn’t the amazing experience my friends had raved about.

Previously, we had been happy to the watch the Gold Coast whales from the many whale watching vantage points along the coast. However, after seeing so many leaping out of the water from our hotel balcony we decided to give a whale watching cruise another go. While it’s great seeing the whales from shore, we figured it would be nothing like the thrill of seeing them up close on a boat.

Tail slapping
You don’t need a telephoto lense on the GC

Part of the thrill of going on a cruise is you never know what’s in store when you head out. While the Hervey Bay trip was less than spectacular, our Gold Coast whale watching experience turned out to be the exact opposite. We pre-booked our Gold Coast whale watching trip with Whales in Paradise as we only had one day free. However, if you are down the Gold Coast for a while, it can be a good idea to hold off booking until a day or two beforehand so you know what the weather is going to be like.

Whales in Paradise leave from a pontoon at the end of Cavill Avenue so the departure point is easy to get to either by car or public transport and there are often specials available like ‘adults at kids prices’. Even if you’ve booked online, you still need to drop into the Whales in Paradise office at the end of Cavill Avenue to check in for your cruise. The office is a one minute walk from the pontoon where the trip leaves from so it’s easy to do on the way to the boat. If you are prone to seasickness, now is a good time to take a tablet. Tablets are also offered onboard the Whales in Paradise boat for $3 each at the beginning of the trip. If in doubt, take the tablet!

While you never know exactly what you’ll see on a whale watching cruise, the time in the season you go whale watching can influence what the whales are doing. Our captain explained that earlier in the season the whales are heading north to breed in the waters around Hervey Bay so they’re quite active. On their way up the coast, the male whales are in a hurry and feeling frisky as they play around and compete for the females’ attention. This is one of the best times to see male humpbacks leaping high into the air and putting on a show.

Big splashes from several big whales
Big splashes from frisky whales

Females who are travelling with young ones also leap into the air, usually to draw attention away from the youngster swimming alongside them. Later in the season, as the whales travel back from Hervey Bay, you’ll often see mothers and calves. Adult whales do not feed on the return trip so they’re slower and can be more inclined to cruise over to the boat to check it out. This is a good time of year to see the whales up close.

Whales cruising alongside the boat
Whales cruising alongside the boat

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No matter what you see when you’re on a Gold Coast whale watching tour, one thing is guaranteed. The thrill and excitement of seeing that first whale will stay with you long after you return home. Just remember not to open your mouth if you’re near a whale spurting water into the air as the blow is a mix of seawater and mucus (eeuuww!).

The Whales in Paradise boat doesn’t take loads of passengers, so there is no jostling for position with other tourists to get a good spot to see the whales. It was a beautiful winter’s day for our trip, so we sat up the top in the open air. If you are prone to seasickness, it’s worth knowing that the higher you go on the boat, the more you will feel the movement of the boat in the open water. We felt fine but if you don’t like the ‘motion of the ocean’ staying down on the bottom level is probably a better idea. When the boat stops, the captain opens the bow viewing area which offers excellent uninterrupted views of the ‘whale action’ around the boat.

Whales in Paradise tour boat
Whales in Paradise tour boat

After a scenic cruise up the river with commentary about the posh houses and local wildlife, we entered the open sea at Southport and went in search of whales. A pod of dolphins escorting us out to sea got the trip off to a great start and it wasn’t long before we saw our first whale. Off in the distance, a humpback launched its entire body out of the water sending a massive plume of water into the air. The whale’s body was silhouetted by the sunlight streaming behind it and there was a huge splash. We couldn’t get closer because the whale was in a protected marine area which is off limits to whale watching boats, but it was a magnificent sight. The captain said it was probably a mother protecting her calf.

Scenic cruise on the way to Southport
Scenic cruise on the way to Southport

There are several whale watching boats operating on the Gold Coast. Rather than competing with each other, the captains share information so all the passengers get to enjoy the best possible trip. We spotted a few more breaching whales and went to check them out but they did a deep dive and didn’t make another appearance. We left those whales to another boat that had just arrived and didn’t mind waiting a little longer and set off to investigate some big splashes further out to sea. Everyone kept their eyes out for a ‘blow’ which indicated a whale was nearby. It wasn’t long before we saw one.

Whale blow
There’s the whale blow!
Whale watching
It didn’t take long before we spotted even more whales

We saw breaching whales on the left and right and a pod enjoying a leisurely swim close to the boat along the way. Whale watching boats are not permitted to directly approach whales. However, the whales don’t know the rules about keeping their distance and often swim right up to the boats. After watching the whales swimming around, we set off in search of what turned out to be the grand finale of our trip. It was the Humpback Splashdown Show!

Whale splashes
Whale watching on the Gold Coast

Suddenly a pod of huge humpbacks launched themselves into the air almost directly in front of our boat. Even the crew were excited as all the passengers scrambled for their cameras and tried to count whether there were two, three or four humpbacks. There was so much jumping and splashing that we never did work it out, not that we minded. Trying to photograph the whales jumping into the air wasn’t an issue in Hervey Bay because there weren’t any whales to photograph. However, this trip proved to be more challenging. You never know where the whales are going to breach so photographing them is much harder than it looks. 

Whales in Paradise
Whale jumping

My shots from the top deck of a rocking whale watching boat really don’t do justice to the many beautiful whales that we saw on the trip. Whale watching on the Gold Coast: 10/10.  My whale photography skills: 3/10. While it’s hard to resist trying to capture this incredible experience to show your friends, the best advice I can give you is to put away your camera and immerse yourself in the moment. Whale watching on the Gold Coast is an incredible experience and you don’t want to miss a minute.  

Disclosure: The writer travelled as a guest of Destination Gold Coast.

Looking for some Gold Coast accommodation? Read our reviews of the Hilton Surfers Paradise, Oaks Calypso Plaza, Surfers Paradise Marriott, The Star Gold Coast, voco Gold Coast, AVANI Broadbeach Gold Coast Residences, Oaks Gold Coast Hotel and the retro La Costa Motel. If you’re heading to the Gold Coast sometime soon, don’t miss our Ultimate Guide to the Gold Coast.

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Dr Tiana Templeman is an award-winning food and travel journalist, travel author and media industry academic. She is the creator of The Travel Temple, writes for Australian and international media outlets and appears on radio talking about where to go, what to see and travel industry trends.