Whale watching by helicopter is a new angle on a classic Sydney experience, but will Megan Blandford spot any?

Who’s familiar with the movie Chariots of Fire? Even if you don’t know the story of the Olympian running for glory, I’m willing to bet that you know the theme music.

It’s the ultimate instrumental for unforgettable moments in life, and it’s the first thing I hear as I place the headphones on my ears.

I guess my pilot realises a helicopter flight is a momentous occasion for any traveller, and there might be a touch of humour in her musical choice, too.

The helicopter lifts straight up as though pulled by a puppet string into the sky, and the view of Sydney Harbour is immediately brilliant.

As we begin to travel horizontally, it gets even better as we fly over the harbour and, over the course of the next little while, north to the Central Coast on our search.

There are a few reasons for choosing a helicopter for whale watching: it’s a great opportunity to consider whales from another angle, the flight is an experience in itself, and if your stomach is averse to sea travel, this is a much smoother ride.

My pilot, Melina, points out the beaches and suburban points of interest. She knows where the humpback whales have been hanging out lately, but she’s not too confident of spotting any today.

“We’re looking for shadows and splashes,” Melina explains. “Although it’s hard to see them when the water is this choppy.”

Spotting wildlife is, after all, a matter of pure luck. The ocean isn’t exactly a small area, so no one can guarantee that the whales will be where we’d like them to be on this particular day.

You need to go into this adventure with your mind wide open; if you simply get a bird’s-eye view of Sydney for an hour, then you have to be happy with that, right? Spotting whales is a bonus.

I quiz Melina for details of what it’s like to spot them from the helicopter. Her report? It’s pretty special.

If you’re lucky enough to see the giants of the ocean, the pilot will position the helicopter with consideration for the whales.

“We need to be 1650 feet [500 metres] above the water and the same radius to the side, so we don’t distress them,” Melina tells me.

From that position, you’ll see the whales leaping those enormous bodies from the water with effortless grace.

Melina then goes silent for a moment. “Do you know what’s even more amazing than seeing a whale?” she asks suddenly.

“What’s that?” I ask into my headset.

“Seeing a shark,” she replies with a smile.

My eyes widen. “Do you get many sharks in Sydney Harbour?”

“Oh yes,” Melina says emphatically. “And the shape and size of them looks incredible from up here.”

We turn around and start heading back towards the sights that are much more predictable than whales and sharks.

Flying over the bridge and the Opera House sounds terribly clichéd, but boy is it a great view from up here.

You can see the wide-reaching beauty of the harbour and have a sneak peek at the tiny islands dotted throughout, watch the ferries whiz atop the water like toy boats in a bathtub, get a little voyeuristic with an oh-so-brief view over the fancy harbour-side houses, and spot the zoo’s giraffes who have the best city views in the world.

It’s hard to be disappointed that the whales didn’t show after spending time hovering over this wonderful part of Australia.

And, as that invisible string lowers us back down to the ground, the headphone soundtrack gives me U2’s Beautiful Day.

It sure is – and although we didn’t find the glory we were chasing, a helicopter flight over Sydney is a pretty great consolation prize.

The details: Helicopter Whale Watching

Getting there: Whale watching helicopter flights depart from Ross Smith Avenue, Sydney Airport.

Playing there: Blue Sky Helicopters operate one-hour whale watching flights from June to July and September to November. Anyone over the age of three can participate. Costs start at $365 per person, but this varies depending on the number of people in the chopper.

Australian Traveller issue 68

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