Whale ho, or not another bloody whale

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October 13th 2016
Published: February 13th 2017
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Townsville to Gladstone - with a bit of whale watching in between.

Capt’n’s Log

A voyage of 728 nautical miles over 16 days.

During this leg we travelled from Townsville to Gladstone, though we did nearly twice the standard distance of 440 nautical miles. This was, almost entirely, due to chasing whales, but I am getting ahead of the story.

The leg starts in Townsville, with a new spray dodger, a couple of new tarpaulins, a working anchor winch and new crew. As with most of these voyages, one of the crew came via the Internet. That crewmember was Steve d’Yank, who had contacted me about coming sailing just after he had completed a Competent Crew Course in Hobart. It is very unfair to call him a yank as he is from Texas and thereby definitely not a Yankee, so of course I continued to refer to him as Steve d’Yank.

As I have said before the most important feature for a new crewmember is keenness. Steve displayed this by phoning me and then flying up to Townsville from Hobart. This certainly put him well in front of the other possible crew who had either emailed and then did not call or said they would visit and the started to tell me that I could take an extra if they wanted me to. Steve provided to be an excellent crew and travelled with me all the way to Whangarei NZ, a distance of nearly 3000 nautical miles over two months.

The third crewmember was my mate Alastair, a recently retired lecture from James Cook University. Alastair has been studying dwarf minke whales off northern Queensland for the past 20 to 30 years and he wished to see if we could find any of them on the way down.

I will draw a picture of Alastair and his gear. Imagine one of those naturalist scientists you have seen on TV. He has greying hair and a beard. Round his neck he has a camera with a large telephoto lens, a pair of binoculars, and a sighting compass. There might also be a handheld GPS though this might be in one of the many pockets. He usually wears a khaki vest with multiply pockets full of notebooks, pencils and other bits and pieces. When a whale is sighted, “Thar she blows” being the correct term to use,
Prof AlastairProf AlastairProf Alastair

A Whale Biologist in his natural habitat
Alastair stands up to locate the whale and start taking photos. Whoever spotted the whale is supposed to say in which direction and how far off, and if at all possible, how many whales. As the trip progressed we did also include whether or not it was a mother and calf combination.

As I said, he has been studying whales for mote than the past twenty years and has got very proficient in terms of his gear, taking notes and staying on his feet. I should note that most of the vessels Alastair has whale watched on have been largish chart boats, not a little yacht. As I said, Alastair stands up and used both hands to take photos and make notes. This caused me some concern, as I wanted him to hold on to Hakura as well. As we will see nobody fell over board so all ended well.

The voyage plan was to quickly head south through the Whitsunday Islands and get down to an area off Port Clinton, in the Yeppoon Area. To this end we left Townsville on Friday at 15:30 with lots of food and way too
Our first whaleOur first whaleOur first whale

A flipper slap
much gear. It was a good smooth sail into a light headwind towards Cape Cleveland and then onto Cape Bowling Green, which is about another 10 miles to the southeast.

Once we rounded Cape Bowling Green the wind began to increase slightly and was definitely on the nose, making it a tight reach toward the Whitsundays. It was an interesting sail for all of us. Steve and Alastair were new to Hakura and me and for Steve at least, this was their first night sail. This was actually the only night sail on the wind we did; the other night sail was down wind and 14 days later.

The only issue was when some of Alastair’s gear fell of the forward bunk. I had used too thin a line to secure it. Not a big problem really, except it fell behind the door and stopped the door opening. After a few choice words from me, followed by far more effective effort in the form of lots of pushing and reaching around I managed to clear sufficient gear to get in and re tie it all down.

This leg was also the longest one we made being 120 miles and took 29 hours. We arrived in Stonehaven, on the western side of Hook Island at 8 pm. Luckily I had spent quite a lot of time around this area so I was happy to do a night arrival. It was very good to drop anchor and get some much-needed sleep.

The third day had us sailing south off the east coast of Whitsunday Island and onto a new anchorage at Neck Bay Shaw Island. The major event of the day was the discovery that the handheld GPS was again flooded, though this time with lots of seawater, such that when I picked it up the water seemed to poured out for hours. I was convinced it was dead this time. Alastair, however, stepped up to the mark and pulled out the batteries then washed the whole thing in several rinses of freshwater. We then undid all the screws we could and pulled it apart and placed it in the container of rice to dry over the next few days. I held very little hope of it coming back to live. PS Alastair was right and I was wrong, it is still working 5 months later.

A more pleasing aspect of this day’s sail was that the crew noticed that I was able to tack Hakura in the light winds by myself easier and faster than with their help. Well I have been doing this for the past 8 years and I already knew what the skipper wanted and when he wanted it done by. Well most of the time anyway.

During the run through the Whitsunday Islands we had seen an occasional whale, most 0f them were well away from Hakura, though a couple surfaced nearby. As I was pushing to make as much southing as possible we stayed on course and Alastair had to make do with just noting down the details and location. This would change when we made it to the Percy Group, which we arrived at on the evening of 14 September after a sold day’s sail.

Our first morning in the Percy Group was marked by the arrival of a large humpback whale and her calf among the anchored vessels in West Bay on Middle Percy Island. They swam among the fifteen anchored vessels in less than 10 metres and seemed to have no difficulty manoeuvring around. The crews on a couple of yachts appeared to be woken up by the whales as they swam slowly by.

With this magnificent introduction, and as the weather was good and we had a few days up our collective sleeves we decided to look around the Percy Group and see if it was used by humpbacks on their southern migration.

In short, the waters around, and channels between, the island are used heaps, especially by mother calf combinations. Over the next 3 days we would motor around the islands and through the passages between the five islands looking for whales. In fact we usually saw the whales before we left the anchorage. One night we did not see any whales but we could clearly hear at least one whale breaching and splashing in the channel just off from where we were anchored.

Now, when a whale was sighted, remembering to yell “Thar she blows”, we would take a convergent course so as to run alongside the whales. Under Australia law we could not get closer that 100 metres, or 300 metres to a mother calf combination, so we needed to determine whether or not the group contained a calf. If, as occasionally happened, the whales approached us we could either maintain a steady speed and course or stop, and then it was up to the whales to decide how close they would come and for how long. Our observations clearly showed that these whales used the Percy Group, including mother calf combinations.

There were a lot of other wildlife in the area. Most noticeable were the sea eagles. One morning we happened to watch the aerial displays of several sea eagles, including a possible conflict between two birds. They would swoop on each other and the lower bird would spin onto its back with its talons aimed at the swopping bird. A couple of times the birds made contact with each other, however, they did not become locked together. This could happen when each bird closes its talons on the talons of the other and neither bird will let go. In such cases the pair fall from the sky, sometimes to their deaths. There were a few occasions when we thought the birds had locked together, however, they managed to let go before hitting the land or sea. A third eagle occasionally joined in while a fourth sea eagle roasted in a tree watching.

We think the birds where fighting over a mate and or territory, with the bird watching being the price. This was supported by this bird taking wing after the fight was over to fly around and swoop on the victorious bird. These swooping flights were different as they were slower and more coordinated than the fight flights.

After some very pleasant wildlife filled days around the Percy Group we headed off to our next anchorage at High Top Island. A great anchorage in the light airs with it’s own collection of sea birds and, again, whales. From here we headed southwest back to the Queensland coast. As was becoming commonplace now we saw lots of whales including several mother calf pairs. One such pair displayed a new behaviour for Alastair, though I had seen it in Tonga. The mother would hang vertical in the water with her tail sticking up. The whale was able to maintain this position for at least 10 minutes without appearing to move at all. The calf usually stayed close to the mum.

The next anchorage was in Island Head Creek on the northeastern end of the Shoalwater Bay Military Training Area. The anchorages in this area are usually open to passing vessels though the land and shoreline are strictly closed. This is an area where the Australian military conducts live fire activities. While we were in the area there was a warning to all boats about an area just of a section of coast being closed due to live fire, which thankfully were some miles away. Island Head Creek was a great place to stop though it did get a bit shallow as we entered. Didn’t touch so no problem really, honestly.

The next stop was back in Port Clinton, still within the training area. I had stopped there on the way north back in May. This time we arrived during the afternoon and again it struck me this area would have been similar to lots of the Australian coastline before Europeans arrived. We sat in the cockpit enjoying our afternoon tea we watched lots of sea birds feeding on the exposed tidal flats. Alastair was describing that this was good habitat for both dugong and Australian humpback dolphins. Next moment we had a small humpback dolphin feeding nearby, followed by several sightings of a dugong. Just another day on Hakura’s wildlife tours.

The next day was again sunny with very light winds so we continued to head south. As with the pervious days we say whales plus this time several humpback dolphins and a pod of bottlenose dolphins. One of the whales we saw was doing the standing on her head behaviour, but we were not able to get close enough to get pictures with which to identify if it was the same whale as before. The colour pattern under each whales tail flukes are set early in life and individual, so like human finger prints they can be used to identify individual whales.

Now came one of the weirdest events in my cursing history. Late in the afternoon Alastair was on the helm and reported seeing a small runabout some distance off steaming around looking like they were looking for something. They then appeared to see us and raced back inshore. We were about 20 miles off the coast and about 50 miles off Yeppoon. We all joked about them looking for a drugs drop.

Shortly afterwards we spotted a pod of dolphins hunting a school of fish. We circled a couple of times then, having not caught any fish, we started to head south again. I was on the helm by now and noticed a couple of seabirds standing on something off to port, so over we go. Now we are all remembering our comments about the boat looking for drugs.

Yep there is a collection of manmade objects floating in the water, some of which are tided together. Oh hell, maybe they were looking for this. Alastair was for stopping and collecting the objects, I, on the other hand, was all for recording its location, taking photos and reporting it. As the skipper I won.

I called the Police, who then called the Coast Guard who called us. I explained it was not some flotsam or jetsam from a vessel but looked deliberate, so they called Board Force, i.e. the new name for Customs. Board Force called us back. Each time we repeated the same information including lat and longs. As we were planning to visit the Yeppoon Marina the next day, we agreed to meet Board Force officers there.

The rest of this run was very memorable as we passed through some amazing bioluminescence. It included lots of big and small flashes, from very shallow down to the depths. It was not the usual glow at the surface caused by the passage of the vessel and the disturbance from the propeller. This time it was due to some of the larger plankton as they were going about their nightly activities. I love seeing this stuff and it took me back to my first ocean passage on Rebels Riser in 1979 from Auckland to Brisbane.

After a smooth night entrance to the southern anchorage on Great Keppel Island we dropped anchor. Another great day of fantastic wildlife, great sailing and international intrigue, all part of a cruise on Hakura.

Next morning we started late and slowly made our way into the Keppel Bay Marina. On arrival I asked the office lady if there were any Boarder Force people around and she pointed to three guys in the black overalls about to eat their lunch. I did explain that their visit was related to the objects we had discovered the day before. She seems to be much happy about our visit after that.

I went over and invited them down to the boat when they had finished. Shortly afterwards, they came on down and we again provided the information. The big win out of this was that these guys were from Gladstone where I was planning on checking out soon and we found out that they did not collect the departure tax, nice one lads.

Our next big adventure was when we hired a small car to go shopping. A very small car, I must say. With a great deal of luck the shopping and all three of us managed to fit in. Yeppoon was a good stop over and after fooding, watering and fuelling up we were off again, back out to the Keppel Group.

Again we went whale spotting and saw lots of whales, some very close. Alastair estimated that at this stage we had
The Crews' favourite sandwichThe Crews' favourite sandwichThe Crews' favourite sandwich

Peanut butter, Vegemite and hot hot chilli sauce
seen about 200 humpback whales, including 30 odd mother calf pairs.

In the waters between North and Great Keppel Islands we had our closest encounter with a large whale swimming under Hakura’s keel, and I would say it was within 5 metres of Hakura. This encounter was also one of the strangest for two reasons besides its closeness. It started with a group of three whales, two large and one small. The smaller one was not a calf, more likely a young of last year or the year before that. This whale was very active, doing lots of breaches and tail slaps. Many of these tail slaps were done while the animal was on its back. It was also the second closest encounter by coming within 10 metres. The behaviour of this smaller whale was one of the strange aspects. The other was that in a slight sea with good visibility we lost first one of the big whales and then both the other two whales. They were last seen near by. One minute they where blowing and splashing then nothing. We did not managed to make contact with these animals again. The explanation that had the most support among the crew was that they had teleported back to their mother ship.

On Friday 24 September we anchored for the night in a bay off the southern end of North Keppel in clam conditions. This evening Alastair and I enjoyed something that took us back to our childhoods. We listened to the live broadcast of a rugby match. In this case the first semi-final of the NRL (Australian National Rugby League completion). It was on the local Queensland edition of the ABC and was between the local North Queensland Cowboys (the winners of last year’s completion) and Cronulla Sharks. I’m not sure Steve shared our enjoyment, I am not sure he had ever listen to a game rather than watched it.

We enjoyed it even though for Alastair his team lost, largely because the commentators did a great job of describing the game and the tension involved. They used a pleasant mixture of Australia colloquial expressions that added to our enjoyment and to Steve’s confusion. We enjoyed it so much we tuned into the second semi-final on the next evening.

On Saturday morning, as the weather was forecast to be fine for the next 24 hours with increasing winds after that, we decided to head out to the area north of the Bunker-Capricorn Group where the 50 meter depth contour was. Previous tracking from Alastair’s minke whales had indicated that the whales used this area.

We did not see any minke whales though we did see quit a few humpbacks including several mother calf pairs. An important observation about this area was that we noticed a significant increase in the numbers of seabirds and the number and size of fish schools seen. We thought that this could indicate an area of increased biological activity, which could be why the minke whales had also spent time in the area.

Just after circling an active fish school without catching any fish we noticed a very active mother calf pair a short way off. Alastair was on the helm and we headed over there. As it was heading to dusk, I decided to bring in the trolling line. It was at this stage that I discovered that we had actually caught a fish, a good size blue mackerel. While I was bringing in the fish Alastair was on the helm, and taking notes and photos of the mother calf pair. I do remember him saying they were in their tenth or fifteenth breach and about 300 metres off. I stopped listening and concentrated on landing and killing the fish. Steve must have been torn between watching the whales and the fish. This was the only fish we caught and he was beginning to think there were no fish left.

Eventually I looked up and noticed that the pair were breaching very close to us. It turns out that their course had converged with ours. Alastair had been telling me this but I had been not listening.

As the wind was still light but due to increase over the next few days we began a very slow sail south towards Northwest Island, one of the northern islands of the Bunker Group. The idea was to sail over night and check out the islands, weather permitting, after sunrise on Sunday. We managed the slow sail, sometimes as slow as 2 or 3 knots, which was not bad, as the wind could have pushed us along at 5 or 6 knots. With sunrise we headed in the northern part of the Bunker Group but the wind was just sufficient to prevent any close approaches to the islands. In the end we spent a few hours in the lee of Erskine Island before heading into Gladstone. We were still 50 miles off the harbour and it took over 13 hours to finally reach the still waters of the Gladstone Marina.

As noted in other blogs Gladstone is a major shipping port with 20 plus bulk carries waiting for loading in the anchorage offshore. I suspect that each vessel spends many days, if not weeks, waiting. When any vessel over 10 metres enters the harbour you are supposed to notify port control. As we are 11 metres I called up the Ports Traffic Control. They told us about some large vessel movements over the next few hours and requested us to maintain a listening watch. No problems there. The Harbour is very large and would take us 3 hours to make it all the way in.

This was our first experience of such large vessels in confined waters, so we turned on the radar, the handheld GPS and the navigation programme on the tablet. As I had not cooked for several days I offered to do breadcrumbed fish, thus leaving Steve and Alastair to bring us up the channel. I was just in the galley and could quickly come up if needed. The crew did a great job, and I was needed on only three occasions. A couple were to settle issues when they had differences of opinion about the course or what light that was. One in particular brought me up, not because they were having a lengthy discussion, rather it was that they did not come to any settlement.

We arrived in the Marina just before 23:00 and settled down for a good sleep in a very safe anchorage. Gladstone was where our cruse came to an end with Alastair needing to head back to Townsville on Monday night. After a very Aussie pub meal, Steve and I saw him down to the station where he would catch the overnight train back to Townsville.

So ended one of the best every cruises I have had. The weather was great, the wildlife, especially the whales, were fantastic, and the company were excellent. By the end we had seen about 250 whales and 40 mother calf pairs, plus many pods of dolphins of at least three species. I would have them both back again in a heart beat together or separately. Actually Steve was not getting off and would stay with me to Whangarei.

This was the end of my nearly two years cruising along the east coast of Australia. It has been fun. I was not looking forward to heading further south out of the tropics and into the cool waters around northern New Zealand, but that is the subject of the next two blogs.

Enjoy and just do it.

Additional photos below
Photos: 29, Displayed: 29


15th February 2017

I always enjoy reading your blogs...
what a great way to complete your two year cruise off of eastern Australia. I look forward to reading about New Zealand!
18th February 2017

and enjoy what you are doing.
5th November 2017
The Crews' favourite sandwich

The joys of cooking at sea
I've discovered your blogs today and I'm really enjoying your sailing adventures.

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