Whale-watching cruises are back in Port Stephens after a year that has been anything but cruisy for the tourism sector.
The Nelson Bay-based Imagine Cruises has run its first few whale-watch tours since the NSW government ushered in "freedom day" and lifted COVID restrictions at the 70 per cent double vaccination mark.
Frank Future, who owns Imagine Cruises, said business was "still fairly quiet" with people not allowed to travel from Sydney to Port Stephens until November 1.
"It's only been locals and regional travellers, but it's been really good to get back out there again," he said.
He said the pandemic had been tougher for his business than the Global Financial Crisis and 9-11 terror attacks.
"This has been our worst year in 26 years of operation," he said.
The business and its staff had received some government help through JobSaver and disaster payments.
"But there are a lot of bills like berthing fees and insurance that still have to be paid. All we've been doing is handing over money, so it's been a shocker."
Staff in the tourism sector had been doing it tough.
"Port Stephens is very much a tourism town, so young folk have gone and got jobs like packing shelves at Woolies," Mr Future said.
"Overall, everyone is just busting to get back to work."
Nevertheless, Mr Future said it would be tricky to enforce the government health orders, which allow only double-vaccinated customers.
He felt it was tough to put the onus on business to be the vaccine police.
Now that the 80 per cent double vaccination rate for people 16 and over had been reached, Mr Future said it was "time to get on with it".
"We've got to look at Europe, places like the UK or Holland and see what they've done. I know the hospital system maybe still calls the shots if they can't cope with things.
"But, in the end, we are affected by the way we think about everything. There must be a lot of highly stressed and anxious people out there."
Many people had struggled with mental and physical health because of the stress of lockdown.
"I dare say if you look at the amount of illness that happened as a result of the lockdowns, maybe one day we'll see there was more illness created by that [than COVID-19]," he said.
"The one thing I can recommend is to get out on the ocean with good clean air. Blow the cobwebs out and get ready to go back to work and play. It's time to be able to sing and dance again."
As for whale watching, Mr Future said "mothers and calves are travelling now".
"Baby whales are being encouraged by their mums to jump around a lot and build muscle. They're always very energetic."
About 35,000 whales, mostly humpbacks, migrate north for warmer waters from June to July. They return to southern waters from September to November.
"We're desperately trying to claw back some funds at the end of the whale season. We have a few more weeks left to go, so we are encouraging folks to come along. It's a spectacular time," Mr Future said.
The season will go until at least November 7.
"We're expecting over 3000 babies to be travelling down this month. It's not just whales, we see different types of dolphins and seals. Lots of seabirds are around at this time of year, flying in from the northern hemisphere."
He said the whales were spread out from the top of the barrier reef to below Tasmania and the Tasman Sea.
"They feed anywhere south of Merimbula. We start to see krill and pilchards."
They migrate to Antarctica, which is their main feeding ground.
They don't feed much in northern waters.
"Once they've left the Southern Ocean, there's not much food available for them. They live off their fat reserves," Mr Future said.
"The calves feed on up to 300 litres of milk a day. That's all coming from mum's own fat reserves, so the females that have given birth are getting very hungry and quite weak.
"They're anxious to start feeding. On the other hand, they've got to make sure the calves are strong enough to contend with crossing the Southern Ocean.
"That's a fearsome stretch of water to cross before they get to relative safety at the south polar ice shelf."
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