To celebrate the end of the whale watching season, Australian sailor Ian Ford was taking a break at the Kings Cup in Thailand a few weeks ago when we had a quiet little drink.
Ford was in Thailand to sail in Asia’s largest regatta. His company Bass & Flinders operates from Sydney, Australia. Ford runs possibly the largest whale watching operation in the world, and a rather special Boxing Day Sydney to Hobart spectator boat.
Ford explained how it all began: ‘We’ve been at sea all our life. We were running a charter boat up in Airlie Beach. Then we came down the Coast and set up the whale watching operation in Hervey Bay back in the mid nineties.
‘Then we set up a Whale Watching operation in Sydney, we were the first people to do the southern migration and it’s been growing in size ever since. We started out in Botany Bay just on weekends, with a small boat called the Norman Allen that took 50 passengers out,’ he said.
Bass & Flinders operate five cruises per day leaving from Sydney Harbour in a 35 meter power catamaran that carries 275 people to sea morning and afternoon. There is also an 11.3 meter RIB that takes 27 passengers out at 50 miles an hour to have a look at the whales three times per day.
Passengers get to observe many species of whales, and hump back whales are sighted on a regular basis. Minke whales, Southern Right whales and Blue whales have also been spotted.
According to Ford, the whale population is increasing; however it has not yet recovered from the practice of whaling.
‘The overall whale population it is increasing but problem we have always is the scientific experimentation from Japan. Last year they threatened to start taking the hump backs and they only have one calf every two years. It is a long haul back since the depth of the whaling numbers drop in the 1960’s.
‘They are mammals and they don’t have the resiliency of fish and other things of the sea that you can harvest them and then suddenly expect them to recover.’
While the population still has a long way to go before it reaches pre-whaling numbers, things are improving. According to Ford, 98% of the time whales are sighted on his cruises, confirming that Sydney is the whale watching capital of Australia.
‘We’ve got whales passing every year starting on the 15th May. They come like clockwork. This year they continued right on until about the second of December. Every day there are whales outside of Sydney,’ he said.
Whales give birth near Sydney on their journey north because of the east coast current and warm waters. There is always something exciting to see on Sydney Harbour, and whales are not the only attractions. ‘There is something new out there every day. Plenty of seals, lots of dolphins and of course the Albatross are plentiful through the year,’ Ford said.
When the whale season finishes in early December, Bass & Flinders turn their attention to boat watching.
On Boxing Day they use their sailing experience and their vessels Ocean Dreaming I, Ocean Dreaming 2 and Sun Cat to follow the Sydney to Hobart fleet right from the start.
‘We take our boat out with 200 passengers and we are able to follow them down the leading boats because our vessel does travel at about 28 knots, so we can keep up with them out on the ocean.
‘We go down and we watch them down to Cronulla and then we will turn back and pick them up again. We toll the passengers and find out what boats they are supporting and then try to pick those boats out so that we can actually say farewell to them on the way back, this allows us to see the big boats, right through to the smaller boats at the back of the fleet,’ Ford said.
Depending on the conditions, Ocean Dreaming can just about keep up with yachts like Wild Oats XI, Ethiad Stadium, Alfa Romeo, Loyal, Lahana and Ichi Ban.
'If the forecast are right this year, it will be a spectacular sight as the fleets sets spinnakers as they come out of the heads. Last year we ran to Kurnell with the leaders, then came back through the fleet to the middle group, stayed with them back to Kurnell and then came up to the tail enders and kept them company until Maroubra,’ Ford commented.
Primarily for whale watching during the winter months, The vessels provide a fast, stable platform for viewing this incredible race. With two enclosed air-conditioned decks fitted with TV monitors and three open decks, everyone will be able to see the magnificent yachts as they leave the Harbour and set sail for Hobart.
The trip will leave Darling Harbour’s Cockle Bay Marnia, Circular Quay’s Eastern Pontoon and Manly Wharf on Boxing Day and cruise to the starting area on the eastern side of the line. After the start, the vessels will move to the first rounding mark (ZULU) and watch the leaders round. Pending wind conditions she will follow the leaders south for about one to one and a half hours before returning through the fleet back to Sydney Harbour. The cruise will return about 4.00pm.
‘With a lot of the sailors' families and supporters onboard, this will be the best opportunity to view the yachts rather than just watching the start from within Sydney Harbour. With the capability of these fast offshore vessels, we will be able to keep pace with the big maxi's even if we get a strong sea breeze. As the sailors families come on board, we find out which boats people want to follow closely and we try and get a good look at all those. Its very exciting for the families to see their loved ones out of the harbour and setting up, for what could be a very quick ride south,' Ford said.
There will be Live Commentary of the race and fantastic outside viewing areas. A cold seafood buffet lunch will be provided and there is a licensed bar onboard for the purchase of drinks.
Tickets can be purchased by phone on (02) 9583 1199 or email your request to bassflinders (at) bassflinders.com.au. Tickets are just $195 for adults. There are still some left but they are selling fast. www.bassflinders.com.au