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Have a whale of a time
Gemma Nisbet A graceful humpback surfaces for air. If you don't spot whales on your trip, Mills Charters will give you another trip free.

I'm sitting on the bridge of Mills Charters' whale- watching boat with Rottnest to my right and the hazy outline of the city poking above the coastline to my left.

We are all scanning the sea around us, watching vigilantly for a shiny dorsal fin or a telltale plume of water from a blowhole, wondering whether that white froth is a breaking wave or a whale surfacing.

There's a sighting and we all hover expectantly, cameras at the ready, as the skipper approaches with caution.

As we near the whales, they continue south without seeming to have noticed us. It's a mother and her calf and they're not feeling friendly.

Often mothers are more wary when they have a baby in tow, I'm told, plus the brisk wind this morning makes them understandably less inclined to loll about on the surface for our benefit.

From a respectful distance the skipper tries to attract their curiosity, turning off the engine, switching it back on - some whales like the sound of the motor, others don't - but they're not interested.

Never mind, there should be plenty more out here. This stretch of water is part of the "humpback highway", the migratory route followed by tens of thousands of humpback whales every season as they travel from their northern breeding grounds back to the Antarctic, where they will feed over the summer.

Mills has a reputation for finding them, with last season's 100 per cent success rate backed up by the promise to take you out on a free second trip if you don't see one.

An hour or so later and we've come across the mother and calf again but no new pods. The decision is taken to put down the underwater microphone that will allow us to hear whether the whales are communicating with each other.

But they are silent and all that can be heard are the waves against the hull of the boat.

We do find another pod - described alternately as "shy" and "snobby" by the crew - but the highlight for me comes as we're heading back to shore, our near four hours at sea coming to a close. I'm still gazing at the ocean, eager for one last sighting, when I spot the distinctive puff of spray a short distance away.

I point it out to no-one in particular but the other passengers don't seem to notice.

Then the whale arches its back, sending a gleaming dorsal fin above the surface, followed by a flash of white from the underside of its tail. It's not quite the intimate experience of which other groups with better luck can boast, including the passengers who go out the afternoon after us and apparently enjoy a "circus" of whales.

But like seeing any wild animal in its natural environment, it's pretty special.

>> Mills Charters whale-watching cruises depart from Hillarys Boat Harbour on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays during the whale migration season and cost $80 per person, with concessions available. To book, see www.millscharters.com.au or call 9246 5334.