Hervey Bay’s reputation as a quiet, coastal town was breached two years ago, when we were thrown into the international spotlight and officially declared the world’s first Whale Heritage Site. Our calm, sheltered waters, renown for whale-y close encounters, and widely regarded as the unofficial whale watching capital of Australia, it was fin-tastic (yet no surprise!) to receive another barnacle on our belt at the World Whale Conference in Hervey Bay, October, 2019. So what exactly does it mean to declare a Whale Heritage Site, and what exactly does this mean for the future of our local tourism industry and travellers wishing to visit these gentle giants? Whale, let us explain…
What is a Whale Heritage Site?
An initiative by the World Cetacean Alliance (WCA), a Whale Heritage Site (WHS) is regarded as the ‘gold standard’, providing a clear benchmark for sustainable practices and eco-certification within the whale and dolphin tourism industry. This highly prestigious accolade means that ocean lovers, no matter where they are travelling from, are better informed when booking their next adventure, and can ensure that their tourism dollars are spent supporting conservation within some of the world’s most biologically significant places.
To successfully qualify as a WHS, a destination must successfully demonstrate its support of cetaceans through culture, education, local research and conservation initiatives. A WHS provides local coastal communities with the opportunity to better embrace their unique connections with marine culture, heritage and biodiversity, and aid in the protection of aquatic ecosystems.
What qualifies Hervey Bay as a Whale Heritage Site?
The clear, shallow waters of Platypus Bay, off the western shores of K’gari (Fraser Island), provide the perfect and only true stopover point for humpback whales during their annual migration up the east coast of Australia. From July-October, thousands of humpbacks will spend a few days or weeks in the warm waters of Hervey Bay, a natural phenomenon that has attracted thousands of whale lovers to flock and join them onboard local, eco-certified whale watching vessels. Their often relaxed behaviours and general interest with those onboard is evident, with guaranteed sightings during the season and ‘muggings’ (if you know, you know) a common occurrence.
Our unique connection to these gentle giants has sparked the interest of researchers from across the planet, including Pacific Whale Foundation, who have been studying humpbacks in the region for over 30 years. Simultaneously, The Oceania Project, established back in 1988 by Dr Trish and Wally Franklin (researchers from the University of Southern Queensland), is an organisation dedicated to raising awareness about cetacea and the ocean environment. From 1989 – 2013, the duo headed Whale Research Expeditions in Hervey Bay, cataloging almost 3, 000 individuals and long-term life histories on over 600 individual humpback whales in the bay.
Similarly, the Fraser Coast Discovery Sphere (located within the Hervey Bay Regional Gallery), is a family-friendly educational centre, featuring many interactive and static interpretive environmental and cultural displays, which of course includes humpback whales – and a 22-tonne sculpture of the much-loved and documented humpback whale “Nala”.
*Please note: The Fraser Coast Discovery Sphere is currently closed for scheduled maintenance and will reopen next year in 2022.
Hervey Bay’s unique connection to these gentle giants is celebrated each year during the Hervey Bay Whale Festival. Spanning over several weeks during July and August, the festival is split into four seperate ocean-themed events; Paddle Out for Whales, Hervey Bay Seafood Festival, Blessing of the Fleet and Whale Parade and Concert.
The main event is of course whale watching, which occurs in Hervey Bay each year from July – October. In fact, Hervey Bay was actually the first location in Australia to offer commercial whale watching tours back in 1986, and was officially declared a marine park by the 1900’s. Operating within the Great Sandy Marine Park, our local (and mostly family-run) fleet uphold the highest ethical standards and regulations out on the water, and are passionate about delivering intimate, educational and unique eco-experiences for all guests onboard. The region has been a pioneer in recovering the now-healthy humpback whale population, which was almost driven to extinction during the 1970’s by the end of the whaling era.
What does this mean for Hervey Bay?
Becoming the world’s first Whale Heritage Site ensures that Hervey Bay continues to uphold the highest standards of sustainable practices for the whale watching industry, and leads by example in the development of other whale tourism destinations around the world. The title will not only add value to our local tourism industry, but help shape the future of cetacean conservation and their habitats worldwide, and initiate long-term respective co-existence of our marine environments through law, policy and cooperation.