For many months now, I have been struggling with the symptoms of, and consequences of, poor mental health. Robbing me of energy, enthusiasm and enjoyment for things that I normally love (including writing this blog), I hadn’t realised how much it was affecting me until this day, nearly 2 weeks in to my 5.5 week Australian adventure. I hadn’t felt my usual flutter of excitement at the airport, and although I had enjoyed many things on the trip so far, my heart wasn’t in it. I’ve loved travelling and exploring new places my whole life, and despite doing just that, something wasn’t right. I’d woken up in a slight grump after a poor night’s sleep thanks to some rude roommates, and an early rise. Downstairs at the front door, I waited and waited for my pick-up that started to look like it wouldn’t arrive. The receptionist was on the cusp of phoning them when they finally turned up, whisking me off the pavement, and moving on swiftly to pick up some others. In no time at all, I was at the marina, waiting to board the Blue Dolphin boat for a day at sea.
After safety briefings and introductions, we didn’t have to wait long to be on our way, and in no time at all, the pace was set for what turned out to be one of the most amazing days of my whole trip. Aside from travelling, I have a couple of other great loves, one of which is spotting cetaceans (whales and dolphins) in the wild. No matter where I go or how budget my trip is, if it is an option at that destination, I will make sure that I can do it. We were barely out of the marina when we spotted our first humpback whale, an unusual occurrence according to our skipper. We watched it briefly before heading off away from the coast, coming across first a couple of bottlenose dolphins but later a solitary dolphin. Then, as we sailed further and further across the large expanse of the bay between Hervey Bay and the tip of K’Gari (Fraser Island), we came across more and more humpback whales.
Viewed from a distance and then closer up, over the course of the next few hours we spied 15 humpback whales in various groups. Some of these may have been the same whale moving around below the surface but the sightings just kept coming and coming. At some point the realisation came over me that I was immensely happy, a feeling that had been lacking for the first 10 days of my Australian trip. After the initial sightings at a distance, we had several whales, including juveniles, come right up to the boat and interact with us. I stood up on the highest point of the boat that I could get to initially, before I found myself moving round and round as the whales circled us. They would swim round us and below us, constantly hiding and then showing themselves as we eagerly stood on watch.
When one mother and calf got bored with us, it wasn’t too difficult to find more that wanted to interact. We even ended up witnessing what looked like a mating attempt with a group of 5 whales getting into some sort of underwater skirmish that resulted in a lot of bubbles being blown to the surface. It was really hard to tear myself away from the constant whale activity to eat lunch, and even when I emerged from the cabin with a full stomach, I realised that there had been yet another whale swimming around the boat the whole time. I’ve been whale watching many times, including being lucky enough to see humpback whales in the waters off 5 different countries, but I’d never before had such an amazing experience with so many whales. I couldn’t believe what a day I was having.
But as if it couldn’t get any better, it did. I’d noted one of the crew sitting on a step-down at the back of the boat whilst we were being circled by a mum and calf. I joined her for a near-surface view of the interaction and then she swapped places with me and I was able to squat down on the lowest part of the boat, within touching distance of the water lapping at the stern. Whereas the main deck area provided enough height to see the whales as they passed right at the surface, as well as just below, whenever the whales swam round the back of the boat, they would surface directly in front of me, and I was able to stick my arm under the water and film them as they swam past. It was the most magical experience I think I’ve ever had with wildlife and I was ecstatic. My holiday mojo was back, and the trip couldn’t have gone any better. With the sun beaming overhead, and the water amazingly calm and glistening on such a warm day, I had a strong urge to jump in the water. Only common sense stopped me, but when they were swimming right underneath me, it was sorely tempting.
Eventually though, we had to leave the whales behind, but we’d travelled far enough to make the return sailing a relaxing chance to sunbathe. The tide had dropped, revealing large sandbars that we’d sailed over earlier in the day, and we hugged part of K’Gari’s sandy coastline on route back to Hervey Bay. I was still on cloud 9 when we arrived back into the marina, by now mid-afternoon. I couldn’t thank the crew enough for the trip, and I stayed at the marina for a while afterwards, letting the memories absorb whilst I mulled over an iced coffee. Foregoing the ride back to my hostel, I decided to use the remaining hours of daylight to walk back along the coast.
It was a short walk to reach the far end of the long stretch of beach that spans the length of Hervey Bay’s coastline. With the tide out and the coastal shelf flat, there was a wide expanse of sand exposed to walk upon, and I was quick to leave the streets behind and get down onto the sand. One of the distinctive features here was the extensive length of the Urangan Pier, 868 metres (2848ft) long sticking far out into the sea. Near its base, the water lapped at the struts in places and pelicans sat near the shoreline. It was a lengthy walk out to its end, with locals fishing off it in places. This attracted more pelicans and other seabirds, and there was plenty of activity surrounding them as they waited for a bite.
With the early sunset in Queensland, the light was already dropping down to create a long shadow as I headed back along the pier to the shoreline. I had planned on walking a good chunk of Hervey Bay’s beachfront, but with the lowering light it soon became clear that this just wasn’t achievable. I stuck to the promenade, walking under trees filled with talkative rainbow lorikeets, and followed the setting sun as the sky turned through shades of red. It was dark by the time I reached my hostel, having stopped for some pizza on the way back. There were a few others milling around the reception area with the same intentions as me. I had been planning on heading north to Mackay on the overnight bus, to spend 24hrs there to catch up with someone I hadn’t seen for 5 years, but after it fell through I was left at short notice with a day at hand. After mulling over options, I decided to take an arduous 12 hour bus journey to Airlie Beach. It was a busy bus of backpackers that set off late at night into the darkness. Like on planes, I struggle to sleep on moving vehicles, even although I had a double seat to try and stretch out. Dozing on and off whilst listening to music, the hours ticked by, and before I knew it, the sunlight crept back onto the horizon, and another glorious day in Queensland beckoned…