From April to November, Australia’s east coast transforms into a “humpback highway” as tens of thousands of humpbacks, southern right whales, blue whales, and orcas migrate from Antarctica to give birth and raise their young in the warmer waters. Along the way, they visit coastal towns and ports, from southwest Victoria right up to the Great Barrier Reef, putting on a show for whale-watching devotees before returning south again.
Warrnambool is a coastal city along Victoria’s famous Great Ocean Road and close to the Twelve Apostles. Its sheltered, calm waters are popular with both families who camp on the beach and the southern right whales who usually swim within 300 feet of the shore. Logan’s Beach is a regular calving and nursery spot for the whales, and you can watch them from a specially constructed platform built into the sand dunes.
While in town, visit the Warrnambool Art Gallery and browse works from local creatives, or soak in a geothermal bath at Deep Blue Hot Springs. You can also learn about the dramatic maritime history of the Shipwreck Coast and visit the spectacular gorges where ill-fated ships still rest.
Eden, New South Wales
Eden was not a place you wanted to be if you were a whale in the 1920s. Thankfully, the historic fishing town on the glittering Sapphire Coast has shrugged off its whaling past. The siren that once called harpooners to their boats now alerts the public to whale sightings.
Whales are mostly seen here during the southerly migration from September to November. You can take advantage of numerous free vantage points around Eden, including Twofold Bay and Beowa National Park, or get up close via a whale-watching expedition with Cat Balou Cruises. Eden hosts its annual Whale Festival in October, with special markets, dining events, and tours scattered in and around town.
Port Stephens, New South Wales
Port Stephens is an adventure playground wedged between giant sand dunes, dolphin-filled rivers, and leafy mountains in the Great Lakes Marine Park. Some of the best whale watching from the shore can be found at Barry Park in Fingal Bay, or Birubi Beach in Anna Bay, where you can enjoy a coffee at the beach club. Eco-certified Imagine Cruises offers tours in search of whales, dolphins, and fur seals.
After you’ve had your fill of whale watching, learn about the area’s Worimi Aboriginal heritage on a quad bike tour over the dunes, shuck fresh oysters at Holberts Oyster Farm, or chill out with a spritz at Shoal Bay Country Club.
Fish and chips. Sunscreen. Long lazy days on the sand. Mooloolaba is one of those quintessential sun-kissed beach towns that Australian kids look back on fondly and marketers love to put on billboards. There are plenty of ways to see whales here, but one of the most unique is with Saltwater Eco Tours, which runs whale-watching tours with Aboriginal guides who share songs and stories from Kabi Kabi culture.
Back on soil, stroll along the Esplanade to Pavilion Mooloolaba for a healthy breakfast by the water, hire a fishing rod and drop a line in the river, and toast the sunset with a beer at The Dock.
Airlie Beach, Queensland
After traveling more than 3,000 miles, the “humpback highway” comes to an end in the warm waters of the Great Barrier Reef, including the many protected coves and bays of the Whitsunday Islands. Airlie Beach is the gateway to exploring the islands and reef, and the launching point for a large range of whale-watching, snorkeling, and diving tours.
While the reef steals the spotlight, there’s still lots to do on the mainland. Head to the weekend Whitsunday Market to shop, eat, and see giant sand sculptures, chase waterfalls at Conway National Park, or embrace the Ibiza vibes at Balearica Beach Club.