If you happen to visit Ballina or Byron Bay this winter or spring, watching migrating whales is a must. The waters in this part of Australia are frequented by humpbacks, killer whales, and southern right whales. The whale season in Australia runs from June to November, and the southern right whales are the easiest to see from shore—humpbacks, while more identifiable, stay farther offshore on their way north. They get closer to shore on their return trip to the Antarctic feeding grounds, in October to November.
Whale watching from shore
You can watch whales from a few good spots on shore, or on a local tour boat. Some of the most popular viewpoints in Ballina and Byron are the Ballina North Wall (at the end of the beach there), the Ballina Lighthouse Hill car park, Angels Beach viewing platform, Flat Rock viewing platform, Skennars Head, Boulders Beach headland or Rocky Point, Pat Moreton Lookout at Lennox Headland, Broken Head, and the Cape Byron Lighthouse. A good pair of binoculars or a telescope will help you see the dorsal fins and tails, which let you identify the whale species.
There are a few ways to identify whale species, and nothing too complicated. Southern right whales are 13 to 18 metres in length and have no dorsal fin. They’re mostly black, some have white patches. These whales are slow swimmers and like to calve or rest with young calves in shallow water just beyond the surf line.
Humpback whales are longer—are 14 to 19 metres in length—and have a small dorsal fin, often sitting on their hump. These whales are black on the back and white underneath and sometimes on the sides, and, like all whales, every tail is different. Their tails are like our fingerprints. Humpbacks usually raise their tail flukes before diving, and they perform the wonderful perform aerial leaps during the breeding season.
Killer whales are the shortest whales you’ll see in the Byron and Ballina waters, ranging from 8 to 9.5 metres in length. The males are larger than the females, and the dorsal fin of females is not as tall and is slightly hooked. Their flukes are white underneath, their bodies have a black and white pattern. An adult male has a tall, erect dorsal fin up to 1.8 metres high.
Whale watching boat tours
If you decide to take a whale watching charter boat, a good option is the local company Whale Watching Byron Bay, Ph 1800 243 483. This operation guarantees whale sightings on your tour or you can come back without charge for another trip. Their boats leave right from Cape Byron, so it’s a shorter ride out to sea. Their eco-friendly boats feature 360º viewing and maximum stability, so you’ll have a good view and a gentle ride. Whale Watching Byron Bay has trained marine biologists on board who comment on whale behaviour and answer questions. Their boats also have hydrophones for listening to live humpback whale songs.
Whale Watching Byron Bay has a skilled skipper and will only take 12 passengers on one trip, so your tour will be professional, personalized and friendly. Besides seeing different whale species, you may encounter dolphins and sea turtles, like loggerheads, from the boat. You’ll also see the Cape Byron Lighthouse from the sea (a beautiful view) and the dramatic cliffs, headlands, and beaches of the Cape coastline.
Whale Watching Byron Bay offers several whale watching tours each day to suit your schedule. The company employs a photographer on board, so you’ll go home with plenty of photos. The price of your fare contribution to whale research and most of their tours take along a researcher from Southern Cross University’s Marine Ecology Research Centre. One more plus about Whale Watching Byron Bay: they serve delicious snacks.
Another whale watching operation with reasonable rates is Out of the Blue Adventures, Ph +61 407 522 422, which departs from Ballina’s Richmond River and enters Cape Byron Marine Park. This company also has a specialised underwater hydrophone onboard so you can listen to live Humpback Whale song as you take in the scenery. And they have a Marine Biologist aboard who will share in-depth knowledge of the area and Humpback Whale encounters within Byron’s Marine Park.
A third option is Blue Bay Whale Watching, Ph 1 800 858 155, which departs from a private jetty in the Brunswick Heads Boat Harbour and travels into Cape Byron Marine Park. Like all of the local operations, they offer a money back guarantee (or another trip) if you don’t see a whale. The cabins on the “Bay Warrior” are large with big glass windows for equally great viewing from inside. The boat has a stable back deck is completely sheltered from the sun and the rain and an elevated front deck. Groups are capped at 12 passengers per trip.
Want to experience a luxury beach holiday?
Ocean Blue holiday rental is only a 5-minute walk from the beach and has gorgeous river and coastal views. Located just a short drive from Ballina Airport and 30 minutes from Byron Bay, this is the perfect location for your next beach holiday. Visit our contact page to make an inquiry or booking.
Photo credit: Flickr creative commons