Forty pairs of eyes squint into the mid-morning sun, scanning the water for telltale signs of movement. The sleek white catamaran is travelling north, directly into the glare, and the light is dazzling. Albatrosses bob up and down on the waves, while gannets and cormorants swoop overhead. Suddenly there is a shout and everyone turns to the left. A spout of water, resembling a puff of smoke, has been sighted several hundred metres away. The first whale of the day. Not just one whale, in fact, but two - a pair of humpbacks, rolling and diving their way north, away from the icy seas of the Antarctic, towards their traditional calving grounds off the coast of Queensland. The tourists on the boat are spellbound - not least because this whale-watching trip started in Sydney's Rose Bay, and the humpbacks are within sight of the city's office blocks and famous Harbour Bridge. 'They could end up anywhere between Byron Bay and the Whitsunday Islands,' said skipper Hal Epstein. 'The young males come first, followed by the females and their calves. It's a round trip of nearly 5,000km.' Human interaction with whales in Australia was not always so benign. Killing whales for their oil was the country's first industry, and hundreds of thousands were slaughtered in the 19th and 20th centuries. Australia's last whaling station, at Albany in Western Australia, only closed in 1978, by which time many species had been pushed to the brink of extinction. Only now are they beginning to bounce back. And they are returning in spectacular style. Each year, more and more southern right and humpback whales are spotted cruising up the coast of New South Wales on their way to Queensland. At Sydney's famous Bondi Beach, they come almost within touching distance of delighted surfers and kayakers. Some of the more inquisitive animals swim into Sydney Harbour itself, jostling with container ships and tugs, and providing an unforgettable sight for office workers commuting by ferry. At this time of year, the whole city goes into whale-watching mode. Sightings are reported to phone-in radio stations, and photographs of whales breaching and slapping their enormous tail fins are plastered across local newspapers. A couple of years ago, thousands of locals watched as a pair of southern right whales swam past the Opera House and beneath the Harbour Bridge - a testament to how much cleaner the harbour is compared with a decade ago. Sydney is unfairly blessed in climate, food and lifestyle. To have whales in our midst is surely the icing on the cake.