Cruising with the Franklins
I first came to know about the work of Trish and Wally Franklin when putting together the plans for the region’s annual Whale Festival. Prior to this, even though I had grown up in Hervey Bay, I had no information on this whale crazy couple or their work with the Bay’s Humpback Whales. I joined Trish and Wally aboard Moon Dancer to see what their annual whale research expedition was all about. This was their 21st expedition.
I came to learn that the Franklins head up an organisation called The Oceania Project, spending 8 weeks out of their lives in Byron Bay to study and scientifically catalogue our whales in Hervey Bay every year. The more I heard about their incredible work, the more I became perplexed as to why I had not heard of them before. These people had devoted their lives to understanding Hervey Bay’s number one asset, something we should all be thankful for, after all whale watching is an industry worth over $70 million to the local economy.
Thinking I knew everything there was to know about Hervey Bay’s whales with around 20 whale watching experiences up my sleeve, I wasn’t convinced I would see anything I hadn’t already seen. But still, I jumped at the opportunity to join the Franklin’s aboard The Oceania Project’s Research vessel Moon Dancer to join the crew on their 3rd week of this year’s expedition. A chance for me to see first hand where a lot of the awareness from this year’s festival was directed, and how the funds raised through gold coin donations were being utilised.
Six days later, I returned with a refreshed outlook, and will never think of Hervey Bay’s whale watching the same again.To think that in just under a week exploring your own backyard could bring with it once in a lifetime encounters is hard to believe. After all, when you call somewhere home, it is not uncommon to take some of the most incredible things for granted. When I first set sail for a week aboard research vessel ‘Moon Dancer’, I thought I had seen everything imaginable in my whale watching experiences growing up in Hervey Bay. Like Africa’s animal safaris I’d ticked off the whale watching equivalent‐ “the Hervey Bay 5”‐ mugging, spy‐hopping, tail slapping, pectoral slapping, and of course the powerful breach. But what I experienced in 6 days with the Franklin’s turned my own theory on its head‐ there’s so much more to understand about these majestic whales…I hadn’t even scratched the surface.
A Close Encounter with a Curious Calf
Day one‐ we boarded the research vessel inducted as research interns, and met our fellow expedition members . The luxury 40 ft catamaran was incredible‐ and home to just 7 of us for the next 6 days. We set sail from Urangan Harbour and it wasn’t long before we sighted our first pod. The first of my never‐seen‐before behaviours on the trip! We came across a Mum “fluke‐up feeder” ‐a mother lying on her back feeding her calf, her stunning fluke held above the water’s surface like it was planted there. Incredible!
The next few days presented even more unique encounters. As if it wasn’t enough to have pods everywhere we looked‐ on the horizon, beside the boat, swimming along with us, but the second morning brought with it the most memorable encounters of the expedition.
The morning began early with a rare encounter with a mum and her new calf. The baby curiously swam close to the vessel with Mum keeping her a safe distance from us, until eventually giving in to the curious calf. She brought the baby to the back of the vessel, lay underneath her and lifted her out above the water’s surface so she could have a good look at us. She was about 20cm away from the back of the vessel. The pair stayed with us for the next 20 minutes, the baby rolling from side to side eye‐balling us through the water. The experience brought a number of the expedition members to tears, overcome by the connection the baby appeared to make with those of us on board.
No matter how many encounters you have with these gentle giants, you never seem to tire of it. Each encounter is as exciting as the first. I think it’s amazing if you consider that these whales are free‐ not caged by aquariums or small pools, not trained, not enticed to the boat by food‐ but the ocean’s whales who choose you. There’s something magical about the fact that they decide to come to you, seemingly interested in humans as we are them. They eyeball each person closely as they make their way around the vessel and connect with you on some unspoken level.
Not long after this encounter, a call came across the radio from one of the whale watching operators advising Wally that there was a panicked mother beside their boat trying desperately to get her baby to breathe. Apparently she was holding the baby out of the water. Wally advised he would head straight there to see if there is anything he could do. We all sat quietly dreading arriving to find a lifeless baby just like the one we had just had an incredibly emotional encounter with. Thankfully as we were on our way, it appeared the baby had taken a breath and was doing ok. We all breathed a sigh of relief. Wally had told us he had encountered this before, the baby can become winded when the larger male escort is thrashing around the calf trying to impress the mother. The mother holds the baby out of the water until it gets its breath back. Phew!
The Simple Things
Surprisingly meal time was a definite highlight of the trip. Thinking we’d be eating a staple diet while out at sea of baked beans on toast, I was pleasantly surprised to see an assortment of fresh ingredients in the kitchen. The pantry and fridge were filled with a wider variety of ingredients than I have in my own kitchen at home. Fresh fruit and vegetables, fine cheeses, fresh meats and delicious sauces. The cooking roster was shared each day, and it really was a wonderment as to what the chefs on duty would come up with each meal. It was a fun task planning and preparing meals in the kitchen for your fellow expedition members.
We dined on gourmet salads and pastas, some incredible vegetarian dishes and a fabulous bread and butter pudding!
Oh and not to mention the most incredible view from a kitchen bench you could ask for. Making pasta one afternoon, I was watching whales at eye level, just outside the boat. We stopped at some beautiful spots for lunch, where the sand on Fraser Island was pure white, and the water was crystal clear. The water was so tempting, we couldn’t resist a swim.
Another amazing meal time I will never forget was sitting at the table watching another breathtaking sunset at Rooney’s Point to hear a whale singing underneath the boat. I had no idea whale songs could be heard above the surface. I literally had goose bumps hearing the singing so loud, as if the whale was in the shower singing away! That is definitely an experience I will never forget, it was eerie and beautiful sitting on the calm quiet sea listening to this Pavarotti of the ocean.
Bed time was another simple but satisfying experience! We were offered the comforts of a cosy double bed inside the cabin….OR….we could take a swag out on the front nets and sleep out under the stars! Of course, most of us opted to sleep out under the stars! The nights were so clear, you could see every star in the sky. Most evenings I lay awake for ages contemplating the day’s encounters under a backdrop of stars, planets and far away places. It had occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I looked up and contemplated what lay beyond our galaxy. Naturally, bed time became a highlight of the day, most of us couldn’t wait to get cosy in our swags and lay in silence with our own thoughts with this unknown underwater world below us. Most nights we could hear whales breaching throughout the night and most mornings we woke to the sounds of whales surfacing underneath or beside the boat. It really was magical.
Dwarfed Under a Galaxy of Stars
Other than relaxing on the front of the boat as if the vessel was privately chartered for us, or awaiting our next exciting encounter, our time was also spent taking turns in some of the research tasks. Our responsibility when on duty, was to join Wally on the observation deck recording the encounters, interaction behaviours and the navigation marks. I loved being on the observation deck, it was a great opportunity to sit beside Wally, just like a sponge and soak up every fact, theory and observation he had made. Each evening, we were immersed in more whale facts and stories with a passionate presentation made by Wally after the evening meals. After a day of driving the boat, tending to all of his passengers, even cooking a few meals‐ Wally still had the enthusiasm and energy to tell his incredible stories and share with us his wealth of whale knowledge. It was incredible.
There was not one moment of the trip that I wished I was somewhere else. Every part of the experience was enjoyable to soak up. Time between pod sightings (and to be honest, there wasn’t a lot between sightings) was taken up getting to know your fellow expedition members‐ often questioning various behaviours, everyone giving their own theories about why whales sing, why they are inquisitive around boats and even their thoughts on whales favourite colours based on what drew whales to certain members of the boat each day. There’s something incredibly special in the fact that no matter how big the differences are between the people on board, coming from all different backgrounds, we were all united by one thing‐ the fact that we were there because without a doubt, we genuinely loved whales.
During the trip, Wally told me a story about whales who beach themselves after hearing of a stranding off Woody Island only days before I boarded the expedition. I didn’t know that when whales beach themselves, they lost their balance on land, just like humans lose their balance out on the water. The point of the story was to explain the importance of making sure the whale is rebalanced in the ocean before it is set back out to sea otherwise it can drown. I thought about this a lot on the trip‐ being unbalanced in unfamiliar territory.
It was quite a grounding experience out there dwarfed by the vast open ocean, giant humpback whales and a galaxy of shining stars and planets above us. Out there we were in unknown territory while the whales were in their element. It made me wonder how back on land, we’re the apex predators, making decisions for our planet in our concrete offices behind blinding desk computers. We make all of the decisions for our planet, pluck whales from our oceans when we still know so little about their world and therefore little about the repercussions of what we do.
So little is known about the important role of whales in the oceans. There are still so many unanswered questions about their behaviour and intelligence that even long‐term researches like the Franklins can’t put their finger on‐ people who have dedicated their whole lives to study them. How can we make such devastating decisions knowing as little as what we know? What makes us in charge of their future to exist armed with harpoons to pluck them out of the ocean with? These creatures communicate their songs outside the audible human range, transfer their songs mammoth distances across oceans, control their own blood supply, turn off one side of their brain and have existed in their current form for over 50 million years. Then here we are, the most intelligent of all species, who can without a second thought, take them from the oceans. It’s amazing to think that we can do this when whales surface in the same world as us to breathe the same oxygen as we do. Regardless of living in an unknown underwater world, they still share the same vital oxygen as us to survive.
See for Yourself
Something that sticks out the most from the trip was a thought I had one evening when we were anchored up the tip of Fraser Island watching another stunning sunset. Whales were breaching on the horizon in front of the deep orange setting sun. Another pod of whales were playfully swimming just off the back off the boat- so freely. I thought to myself, the next time I am having a bad day, that all I have to do is to stop and take myself back to this exact moment. All I need to think is- there are whales in the world and somehow that would make everything ok.
If anyone can spare 6 days of their lives to experience a week on board getting to know our whales, then it is an experience I can guarantee you won’t regret. What better way to discover your own backyard, than to get amongst it and experience it for yourself. See for yourself why we’re the whale watching capital of the world and most importantly- be inspired by these creatures and learn not to take these amazing visitors to our region for granted.
The Oceania Project Research Expedition is now over for the 2010 season but is now booking places for those interested in stepping on board in 2011 contributing to the Franklins’ important research. The vessel departs each Sunday from Urangan Harbour in Hervey Bay for 6 days on board. The expedition is open to anyone with a love of whales and an interest in learning more about humpback whales in their natural environment. To find out more, head to www.oceania.org.au and follow the links to the Expedition section.