As we tuck into a spread of cold chicken and salad, our whale-watching skipper and ex-dolphin trainer, Peter Lynch, yells: 'There's a pod coming towards us!' From a distance, three humpback whales swim towards the boat. They stop within a metre of it, cautiously stick their heads into the air for a few seconds then blow and dive, their giant dark shapes disappearing underneath the vessel. Lunch forgotten, everyone runs around in excitement peering into the water after them.
'They're coming up again behind us,' warns Lynch. We rush to position ourselves at the stern and for a moment the tension is palpable as we wait for them to reappear. Sure enough, three large, knobbly heads bob up simultaneously, so close the yellow crusty barnacles on the whales' skin can be clearly seen. It is a surreal atmosphere. Apparently sensing us with their tubercles, the fleshy knobs along their upper and lower jaws, they drift lazily next to the boat.
'They're just checking out what you're eating for lunch,' says Lynch to the man standing at the edge of the boat with his plate still in hand - all agog, food untouched. It is difficult to say what attracts the whales: sometimes waving and yelling piques their curiosity while at other times it might simply be the hum of a boat's engine. The rest of us are madly waving our arms and calling out to them.
A dark shape under the water releases a flurry of bubbles, then lifts one pectoral fin and rolls over, displaying the white markings on its body distinct to each individual. There is a loud trumpeting noise and one whale swims around the boat, rolls and flips its tail. It sticks its head up and lifts its pectoral fins (modified forelimbs with a bone structure similar to that of the human hand and arm) as if waving while another slaps the ocean playfully. Lynch is certain he's seen people waving their arms and whales waving back in return.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) and Qantas (www.qantas.com) fly from Hong Kong to Brisbane. Hervey Bay is a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Brisbane; daily flight connections are available with Sunshine Express (see www.sunshineexpress.com.au). Full- and half-day tours are available on whale-watching boats of various sizes. See www.frasercoastholidays.info; www.whalesherveybay.com.au or www.bluedolphintours.com.au.
Whales may be found all over the world but the waters off Hervey Bay, in Queensland, Australia, are among the best places for personal interaction. Because they are not touched or fed, it is logical to assume these mammals must have a basic level of curiosity that leads them into contact with humans.
'You can't get any closer than this!' yells Lynch, almost jumping out of his skin with excitement. One of the whales leaps from the water as a second one blows. Synchronised heads pop up for a good long look at us again before disappearing into the water, then one whale flips upside down before popping up close to a woman, who reaches out and almost touches it.
According to a Pacific Whale Foundation research associate who travels the world researching the habits of humpback whales, Hervey Bay is the best place on the planet to watch whales. 'The whales just behave differently when they're here. It's almost as if they switch into a playful, relaxed holiday mode when they arrive in Hervey Bay,' she said.
Meanwhile, on dry land and a 30-minute drive away, is the town of Maryborough, one of Australia's main 19th-century immigration centres. When operating as such, it received more than 22,000 immigrants from Germany, Scandinavia, Scotland, Ireland and England. Hervey Bay is also the gateway to two World Heritage areas, Fraser Island and the Great Barrier Reef. A 35-minute flight from Hervey Bay will take you to Lady Elliot Island, the southernmost rock of the Great Barrier Reef. It is a pristine diving and snorkelling spot unspoiled by the heavy tourist traffic received by some of its
A 45-minute ferry trip from Hervey Bay finishes at Fraser Island, where you can spend several days exploring pristine beaches and sparkling lakes. A drive along the island's eastern beach, which is a gazetted highway with an 80kmh speed limit, can be a thrilling experience. Cliff and shoreline attractions around the island have names such as The Pinnacles, Eli Creek and Coloured Sands, none of which concerns the magnificent beasts we have come to ogle.
Broadly, and unscientifically, there are three types of whale: active creatures that splash around, roll and jump; quiet ones that just want to relax; and friendly, curious ones.
Lynch's 10.5-metre catamaran, the Blue Dolphin, is the smallest commercial whale-watching boat among a flotilla that takes eager observers out to sea from this southeast Queensland neighbourhood. He usually takes groups of up to 20 people on what he calls a fun day of sailing with a good dollop of whale watching thrown in.
However, it is difficult to know which whales to pursue. Sometimes highly active animals can fall quiet for no obvious reason while previously quiet whales can put on a good show. Lynch works hard to find the best spots in the bay and the best whales to follow, communicating on his two-way radio with the skippers of other boats.
Growing worldwide interest means whale-watching seasons have been growing longer and now run from late July to early November in this part of the world. In April or May, humpbacks migrate from the Antarctic to the warmer waters around the Whitsunday Islands of north Queensland to calve, arriving in Hervey Bay in July on their return journey. September and October see mothers appear with their calves before swimming south again in November. Researchers believe humpbacks, which can live to be 60 years old, zero in on their breeding and feeding grounds by responding to current and temperature changes and fluctuations in the Earth's magnetic field.
In the midst of our whale-watching experience, a large boat pulls up and its passengers begin to chant the Dory song from the movie Finding Nemo, hoping to lure our new friends to their boat. Instead, our whales decide they have had enough and swim towards the horizon.