Whale watching has long been a popular tourist activity. It is still as popular as ever, and since it began in April, for the migration of the gentle giants to warmer waters in the north for breeding, whale watching charters have experienced a great season.
The migration will be finished by the end of this month so there's still the chance to get out on the water and see these massive mammals as they head south for refuge with their new calves. Travellers on any of the different tours are almost guaranteed to see a variety of whales and marine life including humpbacks, minke, southern right and blue whales and turtles, seals and dolphins.
Depending on the time of year, whale watching charters operate out of Fremantle, Augusta, Busselton and Dunsborough. Most of the whale watching companies in WA can promise an up-close encounter with a whale because of their inquisitive nature and the big population that passes the WA coast. Legend Charters, operated by Dean and Sandy Jensen, began life as a commercial fishing company.
After the rezoning of fishing areas, it was decided to pursue whale watching as an alternative to fishing. Legend Charters now runs a 16m Conquest, the Santosha, for tours.
Ms Jensen said the new boat allowed Legend Charters to diversify. .
"In June last year we bought a charter boat so over summer we do commercial fishing or charter fishing depending on demand, and since September we have been running whale watching from Port Geographe Marina," she said.
Legend Charters is one of only two whale-watching companies that operate out of Busselton.
Ms Jensen said the reason was ease of access.
"In a lot of other tours you have to get in a dinghy to get out to the boat and we wanted to work from Port Geographe Marina. We also do a run down to Busselton Jetty on the way in so we are trying to do something more interesting.
"The jetty draws so many people anyway, we just wanted to show it to them from a different perspective - the water. I think it really adds something to the boat ride."
From June to August, Legend Charters runs whale watching tours from Augusta. In the second half of the season, from September to November, when the whales head south with their calves, the tours run from Port Geographe Marina.
In Augusta, the tours depart from the Davies Road boat ramp or Elliott Road, Augusta, and from September to November from Port Geographe Marina, Busselton. Guests are given morning or afternoon tea which includes cakes, biscuits, fruits, tea, coffee and other beverages.
A number of WA whale-watching companies began as fishing charters, such as All Sea Charters, which ran fishing and diving charters in Busselton.
When _Travel _ spoke to owner-operator and skipper Paul Szczypior, he was juggling a mobile phone while trying to follow a pod of whales circling 5m from the viewing area of his boat.
All Sea Charters is in its first season as a whale-watching company and runs tours four to five days a week, usually for travellers from Japan, Germany and New Zealand.
Mr Szczypior said he never had to head too far from Port Geographe to find whales, usually minimising the distance to less than 11km from where the company's 9m catamaran departs.
"Usually, as soon as we get out of the heads we will see a pod of whales breaching," he said.
"Generally, we head seven miles straight out and we will find some.
"Even when we were running dive charters and mooring work we have always seen whales."
All Sea Charters runs whale-watching tours from Port Geographe in Busselton at 9.30am and 1.30pm each day. The company also conducts group bookings for six or more.
An All Sea Charters whale-watching tour can cater for up to 10 people.
Naturaliste Charters has been operating whale-watching tours from Geographe Bay for 20 years.
According to owner-operator Paul Cross, the season has been highly successful and travellers are almost guaranteed to see some whales, mainly humpbacks. He also said the whales' inquisitive nature meant they would come very close to the boat.
"Ninety nine per cent of the time we are picking up our first group of whales within the first 10 minutes," he said.
"At the moment we are seeing mainly humpbacks but there has been the odd blue whale."
Naturaliste Charters runs two boats and operates charters twice a day. The purpose-built 17m catamaran leaves Port Geographe at 10am each day and has been the company's main charter boat for 10 years.
The second boat, a 12m adventure cruiser, the Observer, leaves Port Geographe at 1.30pm, and is designed to get to the whales in a fast and exciting way, offering a different experience.
"The catamaran finds the whales in the morning because it's very elevated with a large fly bridge," Mr Cross said.
"That means that if we've got a great location where the whales are, then we go straight back to that area on the second tour to interact with them.
"We know the whales we interact with in the morning are very calm with our presence so we know they're going to be interacting with us in the afternoon."
Mills Charter is a family-run company which runs whale watching tours from Hillarys Boat Harbour.
Established in 1984, the company has an international reputation that has developed from years in the industry and popularity among international travellers visiting WA.
Mills Charters has earned a Lonely Planet Guide listing for its whale-watching charters and it guarantees all visitors will see whales while onboard. Owner-director of Mills Charters Mark Williams said the increased whale population in recent years had not extended the season but has increased the number of whales passing the coast during the second half of the season by between eight and 10 per cent.
Mills Charters only operates during the second half of the season, when the whales are heading south.
Mr Williams said this was when the whales came closer to the coast. "The whales go out so wide when they are heading north," he said.
"They're generally 40km to 80km off the coast when they're heading north so there is too much ground to cover, from pod to pod.
"When they're heading south there's a lot of calves coming down with their mothers so they shelter closer to the coast."
Nominated as a finalist for the 2011 WA Tourism Awards Adventure Tourism category, Mills Charters has an extra feature that adds to the experience for passengers - a hydrophone, used to broadcast the whale songs.
"The hydrophone is like a waterproof microphone that we place deep in the water and it's set up to our on-board stereo system so you can hear the whales speaking and chirping to each other. When they are talking, the variety of different sounds they use is amazing. It is quite incredible to hear them chatting away." he said.
Mills Charters runs three to four-hour whale watching tours on board the 23m Aussie Warrior. They include fact sheets and an onboard DVD viewing.
For this month the company is offering a special deal where all tickets are on sale for $55 per person.
- fact file *
For more details on whale watching tours, visit legendcharters.net.au or call 0419 908 742, see allseacharters.com.au or call 0417 794 008, go to millscharters.com.au or call 9246 5334, visit whales-australia.com or call 0419 186 133, see millscharters.com.au or call 9246 5334.