Humpback highways have their place, but they’re no match for what has essentially become one big Airbnb between late May and November for our favourite creatures.
Much has been made of the Gold Coast skyline over the years, and with good reason. First, there’s the multitude of gleaming skyscrapers soaring above the city; a dazzling cityscape of outdoor pools and sunset reflections interspersed with the odd swaying palm.
What’s only ever whispered about in hushed circles though is how at certain times of the year, this setting essentially becomes a glamorous backdrop for the greatest nature show on Earth when pods of humpback whales breach from the water – so much so that you can often see them from the window of your accommodation.
There is a staggering number of whale-watching tour choices you can count on. (Image: Boattime Luxury Whale Watching)
It’s no surprise that our marine mates are just as keen on the Gold Coast as the rest of us, says Dr. Olaf Meynecke, a Research Fellow at Griffith University’s Coastal and Marine Research Centre.
“The Gold Coast bay is an open embayment providing shallow waters with sandy bottoms, and in particular the southern part of the Gold Coast bay gives protection from the south-easterly trade winds,” he explains. “It’s the perfect place for humpback whales to socialise, rest and even give birth.”
Want to know more about why the Gold Coast is one of the best places to whale watch in Australia? Settle in and listen up.
Whale-watching season on the Gold Coast
What’s so special about whale watching on the Gold Coast? Unlike some of nature’s best phenomena, this isn’t a case of a two-week window that changes every year. On the Gold Coast, the humpback whales announce their arrival in late May and stick around until late October/early November. Not only does this give you plenty of notice to book a trip, but the whales’ generosity with their scheduling allows you to research the perfect whale-watching tour to see the magnificent creatures in action.
The Gold Coast is the perfect place for humpback whales to socialise, rest and even give birth. (Image: Sea World Cruises)
It’s also worth pointing out that the Gold Coast isn’t considered a ‘highway’ for whales on the move. Instead, they essentially treat the region like a resort for mammals, sticking around for a solid break before it’s time to move on again. And while adult whales frolicking before you is impressive enough, the warm waters there mean they also treat the joint like a nursery as the mums often bring their calves with them to prepare for their journey south in a few months.
“The Gold Coast bay is a mixing pot for humpbacks – all ages, genders, and attitudes can be found here,” explains Dr. Meynecke. “Socialising is one of the most important activities, which means we see a lot of surface behaviours, from breaches to tail slaps to pectoral slaps and more.”
On a whale-watching tour, you’re going to be seeing whales up close and personal. (Image: Spirit of Gold Coast)
He’s not kidding. Last season, Dr. Meynecke witnessed the largest heat run he’s seen in over 10 years of his research. “About 16 whales followed a female. At some point, they were only a few kilometres off Surfers Paradise. [It was] an incredible sight to watch one of the largest animals on Earth steaming through the water, competing for a female.”
An estimated 35,000 humpback whales visit the Gold Coast each year so the odds of seeing them are in your favour! Keep an eye out for bottlenose dolphins, minke whales, green sea turtles, and gigantic whale sharks too.
Best time of day to see whales on the Gold Coast
So when is the ideal time of day to start looking out for whales? Honestly, these beautiful mammals come and go as they please, but if we had to pick a time, it’s recommended to look in the morning when the conditions are calm before any wind picks up and wave height increases. This also means you have the rest of the afternoon to explore other parts of the Gold Coast.
On the Gold Coast, you’re in humpback whale heaven. (Image: Spirit of Gold Coast)
Whale-watching tours on the Gold Coast
From an intimate small group experience on a small boat to a more affordable option on a larger vessel with marine experts, or even a luxury whale-watching experience paired with a rotating viewing deck, there are more than enough tours to go around to suit all tastes and budgets.
Bring your binoculars along if you like, but rest assured knowing that on a whale-watching tour, you’re going to be seeing them up close and personal as they like to hang out only 15 minutes from the shore. Here are some of the best whale-watching tours on the Gold Coast to choose from.
Calm days make for a relaxed tour, however, a slight breeze of 15 knots does tend to increase activity. (Image: Sea World Cruises)
Whales in Paradise
Setting sail from Surfers Paradise, ready yourself for an intimate whale encounter with the family-operated business Whales in Paradise. With guaranteed railside viewing, watch in awe as the whales curiously approach the purpose-built whale-watching vessel with expert commentary along the way.
Tours are limited to smaller numbers to avoid crowding and on the rare occasion the whales can’t be found, Whales in Paradise offers a free return cruise so you can see them on another day.
Price: $109 (adult) and $69 (child)
Sea World Cruises
Departing from either the Surfers Paradise or Main Beach Terminal, join marine experts at Sea World Cruises for a wonderful family-friendly whale-watching tour. Marvel at their acrobatic aerial displays and see mother whales tenderly care for calves.
If your tour fails to see a whale, Sea World Cruises will provide you with a free return cruise.
Price: $109 (adult) and $69 (child)
The whales announce their arrival in late May and stick around until late October/early November. (Image: Sea World Cruises)
Spirit of the Gold Coast
Get on board Spirit of Gold Coast and witness the majestic humpback whales in their natural habitat. Enjoy complimentary tea, coffee, and snacks on arrival.
Spirit of the Gold Coast has a 99% success rate of finding whales but you’ll get a free return trip if no whales are sighted.
Price: $119 (adult) and $79 (child)
See adult whales frolicking before you. (Image: Spirit of Gold Coast)
Boattime Yacht Charters
Join Boattime Yacht Charters for their hit luxury whale-watching tour where you can experience the Humpback Highway in style on a 34-metre superyacht. From Main Beach, join the crew on board along with sensational commentary, a fully licensed bar, complimentary morning tea, and rotating viewing decks so everyone gets an amazing view!
If you don’t see whales on your tour, you’re invited to come back for a free return trip.
Price: $99 (adult) and $49 (child)
The Gold Coast bay is a mixing pot for humpbacks. (Image: Boattime Luxury Whale Watching)
Swimming with whales on the Gold Coast
Did you know that you can swim with whales on the Gold Coast? Humpbacks have an incredible sense of their surroundings and never touch a person or vessel hence they are nicknamed ‘gentle giants’. Following the ‘soft in-water encounters’ approach —meaning you don’t swim with whales, the whales swim with you — it’s a proven method to achieve a successful and sustainable whale swim.
Cooley Eco Adventures
Join Cooley Eco Adventures (just over the NSW border in Chinderah) for an unforgettable eye-to-eye experience. The experienced crew will lead you and seven other swimmers into the water for whale swimming interactions as close as 30 metres – the rest is up to the whale. Snorkel training is offered to improve your current skill level
Sea the Gold Coast
Another bucket list whale adventure option is Sea The Gold Coast departing from Southport. Everything in this experience is at the whale’s discretion and whatever happens simply happens. You can join this tour as a whale swimmer or observer and watch from the deck.
What to bring to your whale-watching experience
If you’re hopping on board a whale-watching boat tour, don’t forget the necessities so you can enjoy the experience comfortably.
While the ocean breeze can feel invigorating, it can get chilly depending on the weather so pack a jumper or wind-proof jacket to keep warm. The boat can also get quite rocky so it’s best to wear flat, rubber shoes to ensure you don’t slip while moving around on the deck.
And of course, suncream and sunglasses are essential, and you may like to take a sea sickness tablet beforehand. Make sure to bring your phone or camera to get those epic whale breach shots.
Looking for more things to do on the Gold Coast? See our ultimate guide for tips and ideas.