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Whale Watching Sydney with travel tips to help you have the best possible adventure
If whale watching is on your bucket list, don’t skip an opportunity to go!
We’re continuing our series of posts on our adventure in Sydney, Australia. Today I have a guest post to share with you, written and photographed by my Traveling Husband!
I’ve learned that sometimes checking things off a bucket list turns out to be more thrilling even than I had dreamed it would be. Such was the case for me, whale watching off the coast of Sydney, Australia. Tricia and I went whale watching on the North Atlantic during a trip to Iceland a few years ago. The weather had been amazing earlier in the week, but the Wednesday morning of the trip we awoke to a blanket of snow. We decided to press on anyway, ”because it’s on our bucket list” and all that.
But that day, the buckets were being used for another purpose. Many of the passengers were hugging one in the rollicking seas. We saw no blue whales, no white whales, no whales of any species or color..…just a lot of miserable green-faced passengers wishing they were anywhere else. At the end of that debacle Tricia and I pretty much promised each other that whale watching was going to be a “one and done” experience. But then not long ago we found ourselves watching whale watchers from a walking trail overlooking Gap Bluff in Sydney.
Although the boats were quite a way off shore, we could clearly see whales snorting and breaching.
It was all I could do to not yell “thar she blows!” Our Iceland mishaps were quickly forgotten and after a little Googling we’d booked a trip for the following day with an outfit called Go Whale Watching. I liked their straightforward name, and I appreciated their pitch about being a small family owned business with a strong focus on positive customer service and a commitment to not negatively impacting the whales. The price was right too.
Check out their amazing FACEBOOK page with incredible once-in-a-lifetime shots. Their excursions depart from King Street Pier in Darling Harbour, which is packed with great restaurants and attractions like the Australian National Maritime Museum, which has a wide variety of historic boats and ships on display.
We went to the Harbour a couple hours early to browse, have a light snack and people watch.
The boat ride from Darling Harbour takes you past the Luna Park Amusement complex, beneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge and past the Sydney Opera House, which you can’t help but photograph again regardless of how many pictures you’ve already taken of one of the world’s most recognizable buildings. We have shots from every angle, at every time of day and night. The Opera House really is that cool.
The whale watching route goes right by the small island outpost of Fort Denison, the Hornby Lighthouse, cliffs where scenes from Mission Impossible ll were shot, Manly Beach and miles of other scenery which will have you swiveling your head like an owl trying to take it all in.
Incredible scenery and experience
You cruise through the gap at Watsons Bay and into the South Pacific while the boat crew provides a great running commentary on landmarks and fascinating factoids about the history of Sydney and Australia. Our sightseeing narrator was First Mate Belinda, and her husband Kieren was our skilled Captain.
Once through the gap, the lookout for whales begins in earnest.
In all honestly, we didn’t see an overwhelming number of whales that day but we saw enough spouts, fins, tails, swirls and breaches to make it exciting. Keep in mind that wherever in the world you book your whale watching excursion, there are no guarantees the whales are going to be into it on any given day.
Even if no whales had shown up we’d still have had a fantastic time.
The fresh air, the sea, the sun…the snacks…all make for a great day. As we headed back to the pier a pod of dolphins joined us for a bit to say goodbye and Belinda surprised us with homemade treats and fruit.
There was more spectacular sightseeing on then return trip and when we got to the pier I was like a kid getting off a roller coaster. My only question was “Can I go again???”
The weather forecast for the next day called for 30-40 mile an hour winds so Tricia decided to skip the bucket hugging and go hiking instead. But I told Belinda and Kieran that I would be there, ready to go. As predicted, the following day the wind had some serious attitude. Belinda was doing her best expectation management, cautioning that we might not see any whales at all in this kind of choppy sea. But it turned out to be a great day! There were lots of whales. Several were between us and the shore and others were farther out to sea.
For something the size of a city bus, these beautiful creatures are amazingly agile and seem to be breaching just for the fun of it.
As I understand it, nobody really knows why they do it, so I’m going with the theory that they’re just jumping for joy. Although they are direct competitors, whale watching boat companies and captains share information by radio on where whales are being seen and do their best to maneuver so that everybody can have a look.
One of the highlights of the day was a “double breach.” A mother whale breached and splashed, and her calf did so a couple seconds later.
We saw these two whales cavorting several times during the day.
If you are going whale watching…in Australia, Iceland, or wherever…here are a few tips for your adventure:
Pack a windbreaker and maybe a fleece.
Even if the weather forecast causes you to think you won’t need it, conditions can be quite different at sea. It’s breezier and and chillier than on shore and you don’t want to spend the whole trip huddled inside.
If you’re a photographer, remember the boat is going to be constantly moving, sometimes quite unpredictably and erratically so have a good camera strap and use it.
I spent much of the second trip standing next to a ladder with one arm hooked through so I could keep both hands on my camera.
Even if the seas are calm there’s always a lot going on when you’re on a boat and mishaps can happen in an instant. You don’t want your camera or phone to end up at the bottom of the ocean.
I’ve found it’s easier to maintain your balance with a backpack than with a shoulder camera bag.
They are easier to wear for longer periods of time, especially if the sea is choppy and when you run to the front of the boat to get a better view, you won’t have to stress about leaving your bag unattended.
If you use a DSLR, consider buying or renting a zoom lens with a huge range on it.
Tricia and I recently picked up a Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5 to 6.3 and we love them because of their versatility. They are not quite as fast or as sharp as the Nikon or Canon high-end lenses but they are sharp enough, at a fraction of the price…and the Tamron is much lighter than comparable Nikon or Canon lenses. Weight is definitely a consideration if you’re going to be holding your camera at the ready for a few hours. (Note, we bought them after the Sydney trip. I shot the whale photos in this post with a Nikon 70—200mm 2.8.)
You never know where the next whale sighting is going to be so having wide angle to telephoto capability in one lens is extremely handy.
On the Go Whale Watching Sydney Facebook page there are numerous videos in which the whales are extremely close to the boat; far closer than any on my trips.
I definitely recommend against changing lenses while on the water.
With the sea spray flying around, you’re almost guaranteed to get funk on your camera sensor which will cause spots on all your images for the remainder of your vacation. Be sure to pack at least one good microfiber lens cleaning cloth. The sea spray will need to be cleaned off your lens from time to time.
While on the water, keep your ISO low and aperture and shutter speed high—in whatever combination works for your day’s weather and sunlight.
You don’t want to come home with a lot of blurry shots. The whales, sea, boat, and you will all be moving, sometimes in different directions and speeds.
Know going in that you’re not going to get a good shot of every whale you see.
Often they just surprise you when you’re not ready, you’re on the wrong side of the boat, or whatever. Don’t stress about the photos; just enjoy the moment.
And lastly, if you tend to have issues with seasickness, there’s no shame in taking a Dramamine to keep lunch where it belongs.
Just be SURE to buy the NON-DROWSY type—unless you want to sleep through the outing. I once popped regular Dramamine on a trip to the Persian Gulf and had a bad case of ‘bowling-ball-head.” It was all I could do to not fall asleep standing up!
I can’t recommend whale watching in Sydney highly enough.
We would go back tomorrow if we could make it happen. Sydney is not what we would call “cheap” but we found it to be totally affordable. You’ll of course want to check the current exchange rate.
I’ll close with a few of my favorite travel quotes.
- I once read someone say about his dad: “He took us on trips we couldn’t afford, to have experiences we couldn’t afford to miss.”
- Remember: Jobs fill our pockets but adventures fill our souls! Travel is never a matter of money, but of courage. Go for it!!
Thanks for PINNING to your favorite travel board!
If you have any travel questions about Sydney just leave a comment or drop us an email. Don’t miss our other posts about our Sydney adventure too:
- Taronga Zoo, Sydney Australia
- Watsons Bay Walkabout, Sydney Australia
- Manly Beach Walkabout, Sydney Australia
Thanks so much for stopping by! Tricia and Ed
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