It was only my third day in Australia but I could already tick kangaroos, turtles,
“Nemos” (clownfish) and a kaleidoscope of other tropical fish off my wildlife-spotting checklist. But I was here on the search to find bigger creatures. Between April and November, the waters off Australia’s north-eastern coastline form part of the route that humpback whales take to get from Antarctic feeding grounds to warmer waters suitable for giving birth.
Cairns draws in crowds of backpackers and Barrier Reef tourists, but the state has some relatively unknown gems further south. The Capricorn Coast region is an hour’s flight from Brisbane and has sapphire mines, caves and gorges, wetlands and secluded islands.
Yeppoon on the coast is a small, relaxed holiday town with miles of quiet beaches looking out at the Keppel Islands rising in the distance. Make the most of your jet lag by joining the locals for a dawn stroll along the surf (Aussies are early risers) and enjoy the beautiful sunrise.
One of these islands, just out of sight from the mainland, is really special. Pumpkin Island is a tiny, privately owned hideaway, epitomising chilled-out, barefoot living. It sleeps 34 people in simple-but-spacious, solar-powered, self-catered huts. Bring lunch and fire up the barbecue.
Life as a “Pumpkineer” moves at a leisurely pace – take a paddleboard, pedalo or snorkel out around the calm sea, then watch the sun set with a cocktail at the bar before falling asleep to the sounds of waves lapping and birds calling.
Back on the mainland, half a day’s drive south is Bundaberg, an old fishing and sugar town that’s famous for freshly caught seafood, protected turtle-nesting sites and rum. Take a tour of the Bundaberg Distillery, where youcan even mix your own blend, and try to get a table at Indulge, a popular brunch spot.
From the marina, we took a day trip out to Lady Musgrave Island. If you’re unlucky enough to be setting sail the day after a tropical storm, as we were, you’ll be in for a particularly stomach-churning, two-hour journey, but this will quickly be forgotten once you drop anchor in the coral island’s stunning lagoon.
Australia’s abundance of marine life is no secret, but looking down though a snorkel mask or a glass-bottomed boat at the Great Barrier Reef’s colourful underwater world will never fail to amaze. Here, while I was snorkelling, three huge green turtles floated gracefully by just metres away from me – a moment that I will never forget.
But it’s Hervey Bay, another two hours’ drive south, where the real whale action happens. From here, you can board a ferry to Fraser Island; it’s full of jungle, sandy beaches and has the sparkling blue Lake McKenzie in the middle.
Everyone here is passionate about whales, and there are plenty of boats lining the harbour ready to take tourists out. The sheltered waters of the bay provide a playground for humpbacks and their calves, and it wasn’t long before we were in luck.
Growing up to 15 metres in length, they’re huge but placid creatures, often inquisitive enough to swim right up to the boats in between playful routines of rolls, tail slaps and giant leaps out of the water. Keep an eye open for Migaloo, the elusive albino whale whose appearance always makes the headlines.
Hopefully, they’re about to become even more protected. Hervey Bay is applying to become one of the world’s first Whale Heritage Sites, which would elevate whale conservation and education to the next level. For a unique trip to the country’s sunshine state, there’s never been a better time to visit.
Laura visited the Fraser Coast (visitfrasercoast.com), Capricorn region (capricornholidays.com.au) and Bundaberg (bundabergregion.org) Queensland with Tourism and Events in Queensland (queensland.com). For Whale Heritage Sites, see whaleheritagesites.org.
InsureandGo (insureandgo.com) offers Single Trip travel insurance from £15. Travellers will be insured for a number of sporting activities from jet skiing and whale watching to river tubing and dune bashing.