June and July sees the return of the majestic Humpback Whales to the waters off Forster-Tuncurry. In this issue of Focus we talk to local whale watch skipper Matt Coombe about his family’s business ‘Amaroo Cruises’, and what we can expect to see in our local waters this whale season.
Amaroo Cruises is a local family owned and operated business. Tell us a little bit about the business.
My family has been running cruises in Forster/Tuncurry for the past 32 years. Bill and Noni Coombe, my parents, purchased the business in 1978. In the mid to late ‘70s, Dad was working for an oyster farmer on Wallis Lake. He used to see the little old timber cruise boat putt past every day and thought it looked a lot easier than oyster farming. So when the opportunity arose to buy the little business, he grabbed it. I’m glad he did, or we might be doing an interview about oysters right now!
That first boat was called the ‘Lake Wallis’. She was a small 30 foot (10 metre) timber cruiser which was old and run down, but gave Mum and Dad the start they needed. Although not real flush with money at the time, they were, however, young, smart, hard workers, and could see the potential for growth.
It wasn’t long before Dad sold the ‘Lake Wallis’ and bought a slightly larger timber vessel, the ‘Amaroo’. This boat was a great success and paved the way for bigger and better vessels, all given the prestigious name of ‘Amaroo’.
Our current ‘Amaroo’ is a 20 metre aluminium catamaran designed specifically for whale, dolphin and lake cruising. She is fast, stable, comfortable and safe. With heaps of room to move around and three different viewing decks, you are assured of the best possible view of the whales and dolphins.
We are also at present having plans drawn up for our next ‘Amaroo’, which will be a 24 metre catamaran. The new boat will be of an extremely high calibre, with all the latest innovations and technologies aboard to give our guests the best possible whale, dolphin and cruise experience available.
How long have you been doing the whale watch cruises?
We have been running whale watch cruises for over 10 years. It all started back in the 1990s, due to public demand. Customers just started asking, “Can you take us to the dolphins and Humpback Whales?” That’s all they wanted to see. It was revolutionary; Australia’s East Coast still had several whaling companies killing humpback whales right up until 1979, and less than a decade later people were crying out to go on a boat and look at them – go figure! So a new ‘Amaroo’ was drawn up and built, and the rest is history.
When do the whales migrate past our part of the coast?
The Humpback Whales migrate north past the Great Lakes from mid May to the end of July and then return home again past us from mid September to late November. This is not set in stone, however, and can be earlier or later some years depending on ocean currents, feeding habits, pregnant females etc.
The whales spend the summer months in the cold waters of Antarctica, where they feed on enormous quantities of krill (like prawns).
In Autumn, as the temperature falls and ice begins to form on the sea surface, the whales begin their northern migration (past Forster/Tuncurry) to the warmer waters of Queensland, mostly to Hervey Bay and surrounding areas, where they give birth and mate before returning to Antarctic waters (past Forster/Tuncurry) by mid December.
What kind of whales pass through our waters?
Most whales that pass our area are the huge Humpback Whales. Probably 95% are Humpbacks, but we also occasionally see Southern Right Whales, Minke Whales and Bryde’s Whales.
It’s great to see any sort of whale, but the Humpbacks really are the show stoppers. A lot of the time they will perform the most incredible aerial displays that can go on for tens of minutes. An adult Humpback Whale can weigh anywhere upwards of 40 tons.
You just can’t explain to someone the sheer thrill of seeing a mighty Humpback lift its whole body mass skyward and then come plummeting back to earth in a huge watery explosion. It really has to be seen and heard to be believed. All the crew and myself are always mesmerised by this breaching display and constantly find ourselves ooing and ahhing with our customers.
The only person aboard the ‘Amaroo’ who seems to have some grip on the reality of what’s happening is our local resident professional photographer, Shane Chalker. Shane has been coming out with us from day one and has the most incredible and uncanny knack for taking whale photos.
If you have tried to photograph a breaching whale, then I’m sure you will appreciate how difficult it is. Shane has had several of his whale photos published in the Daily Telegraph and countless photos in the local papers; he is truly a master of whale photography.
So next time you’re on the ‘Amaroo Whale Watch’, sit back, relax and enjoy the show, because Shane won’t miss a thing!
How close can your boat get to the whales?
All boats have to stay 100 m from the whales. You cannot approach them from behind and you cannot wait ahead of them in their path. However, whales are very curious and intelligent mammals and frequently approach us. If this happens, we will shut our engines down and let the whales come as close as they like.
What is your most memorable whale watch moment?
We have had some very memorable whale encounters over the years, but one that stands out is a whale cruise we had in October 2008. We were forced to stay still and unable to start our engines thanks to a mother Humpback Whale and her newborn calf, which mugged us for an hour and 20 minutes just off Burgess Beach.
The mother and calf were approaching us within touching distance. People were reaching out off the fore deck and the whales were centimetres away – simply incredible. We were an hour late getting home from that cruise, and not one person complained!
What else can people expect from your cruise?
Everyone who takes a cruise with ‘Amaroo Cruises’ is treated as a guest, not a number like on some cruises. Right from the initial booking of your cruise, until the moment you step off the boat, we will go out of our way to make your experience with us and the whales a memorable one.
The crew who work on the ‘Amaroo’ are the backbone of our business. They love their job and are all experts in their own field. Nothing is a problem for them, and they will all make you feel comfortable and welcome while you are aboard.
What other wildlife can we expect to see?
Bottle Nosed Dolphins, common dolphins, oceanic dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, seals, little penguins, stingrays, huge schools of fish, and a huge array of sea birds. There is an abundance of wildlife on and in the water – there is always something to see.
How often do your cruises depart?
We run every day at 10am (weather permitting). More cruises are scheduled in the school holidays. Cruise duration is approximately 2 – 2.5 hours depending on whale proximity. Morning tea is included on the cruise, and there’s a kiosk on board for drinks and snacks. Prices – Adults $45, Senior/concession $40, Child $25(4-16yrs), Under 4 years free, Family 2 x Adults and 2 x Children $125.
Amaroo Whale Watch Cruises are located in Memorial Dr, Forster (opposite Forster post office).
Bookings and enquiries can be made by calling 0419 333 445 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Do yourself a favour and come and see the whales – a truly great experience!
Thank you Matt.