A Life Aquatic
It's whale watching season in the Margaret River region, and people from all over the world are flocking in with one intention: to catch a glimpse of these gentle giants out at sea!
When winter hits the South West it brings with it some of the most important VIP’s that the region has ever seen. Weighing about 36,000kg and ranging in length from 12 to 16m, these visitors are always a sight to behold and leave both locals and passers-through in awe of their beauty. Arriving in style, these guests sail down the coast of WA in crystal clear waters and visit twice a year – once on their way up the coast and once on the way back down.
They are of course the thirty thousand humpback whales that migrate every year and provide some of the most stunning wildlife encounters off the coast from Augusta up to the calm waters of Geographe Bay. Whales have been in the news of late, with a mass beaching at Hamelin Bay in autumn bringing some unwanted attention from sharks – and in turn, contributing to the premature close of the Margaret River Pro. Such events aren’t that unusual unfortunately, with a mass beaching of false killer whales in July 1986 in Augusta having prompted an extraordinary response from locals, desperate to save the lives of these gentle giants. After an extraordinary effort involving round the clock care by Augusta locals, out of 114 stranded whales, 96 survived.
So it’s no surprise that this particular part of the world has become famous for being the temporary home, twice a year, to migrating whales – and because of this reliable gathering, the world comes with one intention: to whale watch.
Naturaliste Charters is a family-run business and the first whale watching operator to provide the chance for members of the public to get up close and personal with whales in the region. Since the business is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, it seemed appropriate to catch up with owner Paul Cross to get the lowdown on what it takes to run a business with some of the most sizeable colleagues around.
Paul and wife Alison bought the business in 2009 and have expanded their offering to provide some of the most memorable experiences that guests will have on the high seas. “We’ve got the biggest number of humpback whales seen anywhere in the planet migrating up the Western Australian coastline. From 30 to 35,000 humpback whales. Additionally, geographically we have the longest season in Australian waters; starting late May and finishing in early December.”
It’s all well and good having the whales in reach, but the real treat for visitors on the trips out to sea is the educational journey that accompanies sightings of these deep-sea divers. “We work with Chris Burton from Western Whale Research and with UWA and Curtin University throughout our whale watching season. Having volunteer PHD research students on our vessels allows them to be able to study, but it also gives us in-depth knowledge of exactly what is happening out there other than just reading about it, or viewing behaviour and not actually certain what it may entail. It’s great having their expert knowledge on the boat, along with our newly employed full-time marine biologist. She will be attending all of our tours and all of our guys are now trained full-time safari guides.”
Everyone on the vessel is highly trained and educated on animal behaviour from killer whales to sperm whales, humpbacks to dolphins. “It’s really an educational journey that guests have when they come on board, it’s a privilege for us to be able to share the knowledge with guests and have them come off the boat having not only seen these amazing animals but learn about them too.”
From humble beginnings eight years ago, these guests and researchers are now taken out on state of the art boats worth over $2.5million.
“Being in that landscape on a daily basis, particularly Augusta and Dunsborough, is such a lucky place to operate. Especially with the $5million marina in Augusta now; when we started it was off the beach. It also makes it more accessible. Our goal is to have as many people as possible experience the majesty of mother nature and the ocean. It’s only when they understand what how precious it is, that people begin to realise how important it is that we protect it and save it from destruction.”
So what’s next for the eco-warrior and whale champion?
“The next step in the progression with the company is to access licenses to swim with humpback whales. It should be rolled out in our beautiful calm waters. We have a very strong ocean protection focus and using these natural resources like humpback whales is an ideal way to increase awareness. We need sustainable products utilising renewable resources such as these.” Currently, there is only one other place in the state that offers such an incredible experience, but what we can offer in the Margaret River region is unparalleled. “We have the ideal location down here for it – the whales are resting and not migratory. Up there in Ningaloo, they are on a mission and travelling. Here they are resting in shallow waters.”
Paul’s eye is on the bigger picture. It’s clear that his passion is about using tourism and education to expand the international visibility of our amazing ecology and in doing so help protect it.
“It’s so important to have really good niche high-end products in Western Australia – it promotes not just the regions but the entire state and our natural resources. It’s challenging but there are a lot of highly educated people globally that will come to these regions and showcase these places to the world. They don’t just use my products – they then go through the state to the other products and put us all on the global map.”
Having just been voted second best whale watching experience in the nation last week by Experience Oz + NZ and with his sights set on swimming with humpbacks in the future, there’s no stopping this seafaring South West local.
“It’s a privilege to be able to work with wildlife. I just want to know when I’m going to do the next exciting thing.”
This blog has been adapted from a piece written by Cassandra Charlick titled ‘A Life Aquatic’, which was originally published in the Winter Edition of the Your Margaret River Region magazine. These magazines are available from local Visitor Centres.