There is a buzz in the air at Port Stephens and all eyes are scouring the horizon. Winter has come and so have the whales.
Migrating north from Antarctic waters where they have spent the summer months feeding on krill, they hug the east coast of Australia on their way to the warmer waters of North Queensland and the Coral Sea.
Thousands of visitors flock to Nelson Bay between May and November each year to get a closer look at the majestic mammals. The whale watching industry is vital to the region's visitor economy. Destination Port Stephens says whale-related tourism contributed $621 million to the local visitor economy in 2019, which equates to an estimated $70,000 of revenue per hour. The majority of visitors stay in Port Stephens for two nights.
Last year Moonshadow TQC Cruises alone took 15,298 passengers out on whale-watch cruises (not including dolphin watch and other cruises). At the moment, even with restricted passenger numbers due to COVID-19 social distancing requirements, they believe they are on track in comparison to the same period last year.
In fact, it might be even more popular with tourists this year. There has been a significant increase in demand for mid-week cruises compared to the same period in previous years, and more cruises are being scheduled to meet demand.
Lisa Skelton, who works for Nelson Bay eco-tourism company Imagine Cruises, says it's shaping up to be a great season. On a 90-minute cruise last week passengers were treated to the sight of 50 or more whales.
"There was definitely concern that as COVID restrictions eased people might be apprehensive about visiting Port Stephens but we're breathing a sign of relief that people are so ready to embrace us again, and that we could be back on the water for the start of the whale season," she tells Weekender.
"Right now people are looking for short breaks and self-drive options closer to home that still offer amazing adventure experiences and a sense of escape. Also, reduced passenger numbers to allow for social distancing means people can enjoy a more personalised experience onboard vessels."
Skelton, who is also a wildlife photographer and advocate, and a founding member of the Marine Parks Association, says there were only about 2000 whales passing by Port Stephens about 25 years ago. Today that number is closer to 35,000.
The 32-year-old was born and raised in Lake Macquarie and attended Booragul Public School and Lake Macquarie High School.
"My family has always gravitated towards Port Stephens - I've got great childhood memories of bodyboarding at Fingal Beach, swimming with my sisters at Little Beach, and eating fish and chips in the park outside the marina with my family," she says.
"Our family also spent many weekends throughout the winter months perched at the top of King Edward Park in Newcastle. I would sit with binoculars in hand, waiting for passing whales."
Her parents Colin and Sue-Ellen were members of Teralba Amateur Sailing Club.
"If someone was short a crew member, Dad was always quick to volunteer myself or my younger sisters - I joke that I never really had a choice but to become a sailor," she says, laughing.
Skelton's interest in photography stemmed from her childhood love of whales.
In 2010 she travelled to the United States to tick the number one item off her "bucket list" - seeing killer whales in their natural habitat.
"They were the first species I was interested in and it was a life dream to see them but at first glance I knew one encounter was not going to be enough," she says.
Skelton returned to the US the following year, visiting the San Juan Islands in Washington State.
"The southern resident orca which frequent the waters of the Salish Sea are perhaps the most famous and best known among the scientific community, providing a framework for many population studies of cetaceans around the world," she explains.
"The population is also critically endangered. Their numbers were decimated through the 1960s and '70s when many were captured and sent to aquariums, and since then they have contended with health issues thanks to high chemical build-ups of pesticides and fire retardants which found their way into the waterways - and through bioaccumulation, into the animals' systems.
"Today they contend with a dwindling food source as the numbers of chinook salmon - their staple diet -continues to decline."
Today, Skelton says, there are only 73 orca left in the southern resident population.
"Seeing these animals in the wild and understanding the challenges they faced made me appreciate how special each encounter with them was and that it shouldn't be taken for granted," she says.
"I decided I wanted to preserve my experiences as best I could. When I returned home from the US in late 2011, I went straight to the local Camera House and bought my first digital SLR camera."
The following whale season, in 2012, Skelton headed to d'Albora Marinas at least once a week to embark on a whale-watching cruise. Her dedication and love for marina wildlife caught the attention of Imagine Cruises skipper Frank Future.
"At the time I was completing a degree in music and education degree at Newcastle University and looking towards a career as a high school music teacher. The goal was to work at school during the week and enjoy whale watching on the weekends," she says.
"I was a regular passenger on Imagine, and Frank and his crew suggested that I look into getting my general purpose hand certificate, telling me that a little weekend and holiday work might be available.
"I completed my certificate in 2012 and in August, 2013, I began working for Imagine Cruises. By August 2014 a little weekend and holiday work had essentially become my primary work."
By sharing photographs of animals in their natural habitat on her website, Lisa Skelton Photography, and by working onboard Imagine, she hopes to instill in people a deeper connection with, and appreciation for, wildlife.
"I haven't had any formal training for photography - I think having loved whales and dolphins from such a young age meant that I already had a good understanding of my subject, so anticipating behaviours was easy for me and I could focus more energy on getting the most out of the camera," she says.
"I've also been lucky to have some great friends and mentors over the years who have helped me improve in leaps and bounds.
"When I first started working for Imagine Cruises I met Ray Alley - a local icon - and he was a huge support, offering advice about camera settings and teaching me about editing and post-production.
"More recently, Peter Lorimer, who has had a long career as a photojournalist, has created lots of opportunities for me. My best friend, Jodie Lowe, is also a very talented photographer with a life story that pretty well parallels mine - we spend a lot of days talking shop about whales and photography and are always pushing each other."
Her main focus over the past five years has been underwater photography. There are, she says, many great places to dive and snorkel in Port Stephens both close to shore and a short boat trip away to Broughton and Cabbage Tree islands.
"Light behaves very differently underwater, so it's been a big learning curve," she says.
"I've been to Tonga a couple of times in recent years and swam with humpback whales. It's such a humbling experience - it requires a lot of trust in the animals and in the swim guides.
"After so many years of watching them at the surface, it was great to view them from a new perspective."
So, what endears her to whales and dolphins? Strangely enough, what she describes as their "unique sense of culture based on their geographic location".
"The only other beings on this planet that I'm aware of that have that quality is us," she says, laughing.
"Killer whales have very different diets based on their family's preference for certain food types. Orca in New Zealand have a diet that consists predominantly of stingrays.
"The southern resident killer whales in the Pacific NorthWest feed exclusively on salmon while another ecotype of killer whale exists in the same waters that feeds on marine mammals like seals, sea lions, minke whales and porpoise.
"Each ecotype has its own unique language and populations have been genetically distinct from each other for thousands of years.
"While killer whales might look similar all around the world, that's about where the similarities end. The idea that you could know so much about a certain population and be a complete novice about a different population of the same species is fascinating - It's a testament to the level of intelligence of these animals and their complex social relations."
Humpbacks are also unique, she says, in that the males perform elaborate "songs" specific to their population and geographical location.
"All males in a population sing the same song, which is rewritten each summer - think of it like a one-hit wonder," Skelton explains.
"It was thought the songs were used to attract females, although recent studies suggest it may be used by the males as a means of organising their relationships, determining if specific males co-operate or compete for females.
"The songs male humpbacks sing that pass our coast is very different to the tune humpbacks are singing in Hawaii. The song actually somewhat conforms to the western notion of song structure with a verse (an idea revisited, but slightly varied each time), hook lines (part of a song that is repeated) and a bridge (a new idea introduced).
"It is even rehearsed the same way. When learning a new piece of music, musicians will isolate difficult phrases and practice those before playing them within the context of the piece. Humpbacks learn songs the same way."
Skelton is familiar with the 100 or so Port Stephens bottlenose dolphins because they don't migrate and tend to reside in the sheltered waters of the bay.
"We can differentiate between every dolphin in our population by looking at the dorsal fin. Each fin has different nicks and scarring that is unique to that individual and acts like a fingerprint," she says.
"Macquarie University did an extensive population study in the early 2000s and, since 2014, I have been doing my best to build on their work and maintain a census of the Port Stephens dolphins.
"Every dolphin has a unique number they are assigned as part of the cataloging process but some of the dolphins that are seen more regularly that have very distinct features, or that are particular favourites of crew working in the industry, have received nicknames as well.
"The names are more for our benefit than the dolphins.
"Personally, I like how giving a dolphin a name allows you to more easily share stories of that particular animal with guests on cruises - it personalises the experience for each guest.
"Perhaps they saw Nicky, the oldest dolphin in the Port, who is estimated to be over 40 years of age and easily recognised by a large triangular notch in her dorsal fin. Nicky travels with her children and grandchildren.
"I hope that by sharing the stories of individual dolphins like Nicky, people feel more connected to them and the experience and that when we then have discussions about things that impact these animals, like marine debris, people will relate more and may feel motivated to make small changes within their own lives to lessen their footprint.
"And yes, there are a few Star Wars characters and other pop culture figures within our population.
"One of our most dominant male alliances is Kenobi, Vader, Skywalker and Yoda. In the past there was a group of four males, each named after a member of the Beatles."
With the exception of Migaloo, the famous all-white humpback whale, individual whales are more difficult to identify than dolphins, but humpbacks do have their own fingerprint of sorts.
"The pattern on the underside of the tail flukes is unique to each individual," Skelton says.
"For anyone watching humpbacks, if you can take a clear photo of the underside of the tail fluke, it can be submitted to happywhale.com, a global approach to cataloguing humpback whales which allows you to receive updates every time 'your whale' in re-sighted."
Speaking of Migaloo, he has been sighted already this season.
"My first encounter with him was in 2014, and he actually breached while we were watching him," Skelton says.
"The odds of being on the water at a time when he is passing through are pretty low, and as just one of some 35,000 whales, he's a bit of a needle in a haystack.
"I think Migaloo is special because he really embodies how our perception of these animals has changed. There's the story of Moby Dick, the large white whale that was feared and hunted by whalers, and now we have Migaloo, this white whale whose life we celebrate as one whale in a population that was nearly driven to extinction."
Skelton is just as excited to be on the boat as her passengers and laughs while recalling a dolphin memory.
"With our resident bottlenose dolphins, I've had a couple of encounters when they have been playing with pufferfish. It's my favourite behaviour to watch," she says.
"The toxins of pufferfish are thought to cause a narcotic effect on the dolphin's brain, which could be likened to the effects of drugs like marijuana on our own. The dolphins don't eat or kill the pufferfish, they simply harass it and ingest a small amount of the toxins produced by the fish.
"The dolphins are very social when playing with pufferfish - there's lots of touching and chase behaviours between individuals. It's very exciting and funny to watch."
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