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Hot on the tails of Humpbacks in Jervis Bay

by Bernard O'Shea

The sheltered waters of Jervis Bay are perfect for spotting dolphins all year round and whales during their migration season. The scenery’s great too.

If you were a whale on your annual migration up and down the east coast of Australia, where would you pull in for a pit stop, a nice break from the ardours of your long and energy-sapping journey? If I were a whale (and I rather resemble one, haha) I’d choose Jervis Bay, on the New South Wales south coast. It’s twice the size of Sydney harbour, the water’s clean, calm and well sheltered, boat traffic is minimal, noise levels are low and the scenery’s stunning. Yes, Jervis Bay is five-star accommodation for whales!

Dolphins give it a top rating too: there’s a resident pod of more than 100 Bottlenose Dolphins in the bay and these intelligent creatures know a good thing when they see it.

There’s a resident pod of humans too, but only about 8000 of them scattered around the 100-odd square kilometres of the bay, and they are very hospitable. All this means that, whether you are a whale or human, Jervis Bay is a great place to visit.

Imagine how excited I was to learn, then, that my first travel assignment after Sydney had come out of COVID lockdown was to explore Jervis Bay, and that the first item on the itinerary was a two-hour whale-watching experience, followed by lunch and wine-tasting at vineyards in the wider Shoalhaven region. How sad was I to be leaving my colleagues behind at the office on a glorious Friday morning as I headed down the south coast!

Aerial view of the cliffs at Point Perpendicular, Jervis Bay, NSW

Jervis Bay Wild’s catamaran, Port Venture, is dwarfed by the cliffs at Point Perpendicular.

Into the deep

Our tour with Jervis Bay Wild on board an 18.5m catamaran, Point Venture, was specifically for spotting whales. The company has other tours that focus on the dolphins, or the scenery both inside and out the bay.

Basically, we made a beeline from the wharf at Huskisson to the gap between the headlands and out to sea, where the whales were most likely to be that particular day.

In the latter half of the the whale-watching season, which in Jervis Bay runs from mid-May to November, the whales are more likely to venture into the bay with their new-born calves, before resuming their journey south to Antarctica. Humpbacks and Southern Right Whales are the ones you are most likely to see.

Whale-watching can be hit and miss – no day is ever the same and sometimes the whales can be elusive. For much of this trip it looked like we’d be unlucky, but I wasn’t too fussed. I’ve been to Jervis Bay a number times, but this was my first excursion on it over the water, and the clifftop scenery at the headlands – Point Perpendicular on the northern shore, Bowen Island and Murray’s Beach on the south – is stunning. Some of the cliffs are 80 metres tall, and just being out on the water on a gloriously sunny winter day was reward in itself.

Thar she blows!

Then, just as we’d almost given up hope and were due to turn round and go back, the cries went up: “There, over there! I saw one! In the distance!” Trying to stay on their track is difficult – humpbacks can stay underwater for almost an hour but more typically take a breath every 5-10 minutes – and where one will resurface next is anyone’s guess. It was midwinter and these ones were still heading north, so we did too. Our efforts paid off: soon it breached again, a bit nearer; close enough to draw gasps of delight and to get some photographic evidence.

Of course, you’d love the whales to be really inquisitive and draw up conveniently alongside the boat, but for every such thrilling encounter you see on Instagram, there are millions of cameras that were poised in anticipation but never had a chance to click. At least we could say, “Mission accomplished”.

The white sand makes the seawater look particularly colourful.

Exit the humpbacks, enter a dolphin

But another treat was in store: out of the blue (and the water here is very blue) a friendly dolphin raced alongside our boat for part of the journey back to the wharf. It was a thrilling encounter. If one dolphin can generate such excitement, imagine what a whole pod could do. I’m definitely booking a dolphin tour on my next visit.

Other Jervis Bay Wild tours that look enticing are:

  • Jervis Bay Passage: this tour hugs the shorelines of the bay, taking you right in to Hyams Beach, The Hole in the Wall, Murrays Beach, Bowen Island, then across to Point Perpendicular, The Tubes, Silica Cove and Honeymoon Bay.
  • South Coast Passage: this covers all of the territory between Honeymoon Bay and Point Perpendicular (where the cliffs are spectacular, and up the coast as far as Old Mans Hat near Currarong, taking in sights such as Gum Getters Inlet, Drum and Drumsticks, Sea Caves and The Arch.

If you want to know more about the Humpback and Southern Right Whales’ movements in Australian waters, there is an excellent explanation here. TTW

Photographs: Shoalhaven Tourism. Bernard O’Shea travelled a guest of Shoalhaven Tourism, in conjunction with Jervis Bay Wild.

See also

Lady and the ramp at Jervis Bay Maritime Museum
The beaches at Jervis Bay
Tickled pink by Shoalhaven wineries

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