Hervey Bay whale watching identities Jill Perry, Jason Brigden and Vicki Neville.
Hervey Bay whale watching identities Jill Perry, Jason Brigden and Vicki Neville. Alistair Brightman

Harpoons and headaches for Bay whale watching industry

IT didn't exist because there was no industry.

Not back then.

There was just an old fishing charter boat, the promise of a tiny write up in the local paper and these great big, massive logs that were moving about in the ocean.

"We didn't have a clue what we were doing," Jill Perry, pioneer of whale watching in Hervey Bay and Australia, says of the initial encounters.

"We had a charter boat. Brian was out fishing one day with a heap of people and saw what he thought were some rather large logs floating in the ocean.

"Then the logs started to move.

"He thought, 'That's not logs it's something else'."

Two weeks later, Brian and Jill Perry were taking boatloads of people on whale watching tours, the sun was shining, and the Hervey Bay whale watching industry had grown to a fleet of six vessels.

It was 1987.

Gold Coast-based Whales in Paradise director, Anthony Ardern, says the decision is fair.

In fact, it's more than fair.

He says the Hervey Bay operators are behaving like "spoilt brats".

That the government acted appropriately in allowing vessels on the Gold and Sunshine coasts to watch whales in state waters without a permit or without paying fees.

After all, Ardern says: "Back in the day, Brian Perry and the original operators lobbied the State Government to introduce permitting.

And the reason they did that is to create a closed market they've had 30 years of exclusivity and now the exclusivities have gone and whale watching has opened up they're jumping up and down. They want to have their cake and eat it too".

Jason Brigden from Whalesong.
Jason Brigden from Whalesong. Alistair Brightman

Jason and Virginia Brigden own and operate the Whalesong vessel in Hervey Bay. Their views differ.

Times in the industry are tough.

The decision to allow some whale watching operators to use state waters - waters within three nautical miles of shore - while he and the rest of the Bay's fleet are made to pay fees and for permits that cost up to $250,000 so they can use the Great Sandy Marine Park isn't fair.

Same goes for those in Morton Bay too, they're paying fees and for permits. It's not fair.

"It's completely lessened the value of our permits," Mr Brigden, who forked out $200,000 for his, says.

He questions how those with a permit can absorb the losses. He questions who would now buy one when they can operate without one further south.

He wonders if this is the end of the Hervey Bay whale watching industry as he's known it for 14 years.

"The bank is scrutinising my business to a great degree at the moment and we're under great pressure from that," he says.

"I'm not sure if it's the same for all the operators or not. Most of them keep that information to themselves. But some of those boats have two permits."

Others fear this latest decision could see the industry become overrun with cowboys, private boaties who have little understanding of either the regulations or the mammals they are in place to protect.

They fear that every man or woman with a jet-ski or boat will be out joyriding on weekends, chasing memories, chasing experiences, chasing their little piece of the humpbacks.

Vicki Neville is a whale researcher and a crewperson on Hervey Bay vessel Tasman Venture.

She has followed humpbacks for 16 years. She says about 85% of migrating whales remain in commonwealth waters.

She says there are typically just a couple of reasons the other 15% move in closer to shore.

"The whales that are travelling very close to shore are travelling very close for a reason," Ms Neville says.

"You get the mums on the way back travelling close because they've got to stop and pull up to feed their calves so that's why they stay in tight."

One of the giant mammals approaches the Tasman Venture for a closer inspection.
One of the giant mammals approaches the Tasman Venture for a closer inspection. Vicki Neville, Tasman Venture

Anthony Ardern will this weekend start taking passengers whale watching for the first time in 2013.

His Whales in Paradise vessel will continue to charter visitors until November.

The recent changes mean he and other Gold Coast-based operators could start watching the giant mammals - first on their migration to the sub-tropical waters off northern Australia, and then on their southern migration as they return to Antarctica - within three nautical miles from port.

The Perrys and Brigdens begin their seasons with the other Hervey Bay operators in July, though August is the best time. Operators travel a minimum of 15 nautical miles before they can show their customers whales.

The humpbacks rest up in the calm waters of the Bay on their migration south. Fraser Island protects the young calves from any rough ocean conditions.

Mothers feed their young.

Juveniles get up to mischief. It's the only place in the world they have such a playground. And they use it to put on a show like they do nowhere else.

Researchers Wally and Trish Franklin run the Oceania Project, a not-for-profit research and information organisation dedicated to the conservation and protection of whales.

They've been at the forefront of whale research since 1988.

Mr Franklin believes the Newman Government's latest decision is the wrong decision.

He remembers a time in the middle of the 1990s, when his team studied the mammals in waters closer to shore, in state waters.

He says the interaction was different.

The whales were more distant. There were no muggings, no breeching, and no playful banter. The whales tried to escape any interaction.

They wanted, he says, to be alone.

It didn't exist. There was no industry. Not back then. There was nothing.

But it took just one encounter.

One moment when the world stood still just long enough for the Perrys to appreciate the magic and the beauty of nature.

One moment when a 35- tonne humpback dived under their old fishing boat - from one side of the cabin they could see a huge eyeball, and from the other side of the cabin they could see its huge tail disappearing below the surface of the water - that moment was magic, it was really magic.

They saw it, they felt it, they experienced it, they embraced it and never let it go.

They loved it, still do.

It's the very thing they hope is not lost in these whale wars.

Jill Perry from Hervey Bay Whale Watch.
Jill Perry from Hervey Bay Whale Watch. Alistair Brightman

How the State Government's responding:

Minister for national parks, recreation, sport and racing Steve Dickson says the LNP has no plans to scrap the permit and fee-to-access-based marine park system.

He denies the government collects stamp duty from the sale of whale watching permits.

He says any fees paid go towards managing parks, whale watching compliance and education associated with whale watching.

He says other tourism groups also require permits or pay fees to operate in marine parks.

Asked if the recent LNP decision has lessened the value of whale watching permits in Hervey Bay, Mr Dickson says:

"The Queensland Government is investing $400,000 this year on the 'Harvey and the Humpbacks' campaign and a further $100,000 to assist in getting the most from Hervey Bay's whale tourism. Hervey Bay is unquestionably the best place in Queensland, and one of the best destinations in the world, to view humpbacks".

How Tourism Fraser Coast's responding:

Chairman of Tourism Fraser Coast David Hay believes there will be wide-ranging ramifications because of the recent changes to whale watching.

He believes tourism in the region will suffer and would like to see the LNP review its decision.

"I said to the government some time ago that the impact of this decision will be very, very minimal in a positive sense on the Gold Coast," Mr Hay says.

"The extra visitation it might get the Gold Coast will be bugger all compared to the negative impact it will have on our industry.

"(I would like to see it reviewed) and if the decision to allow whale watching in State waters outside of marine parks is not going to be reviewed then the least they can do is remove the fees or apply them to the Gold Coast.

"It needs to be equable."

BREAKING: Paramedics on standby at Fraser Coast shed fire

Premium Content BREAKING: Paramedics on standby at Fraser Coast shed fire

Queensland Fire and Emergency Service crews are at the scene

Fraser Coast motorcyclist dies in horror crash near Gympie

Premium Content Fraser Coast motorcyclist dies in horror crash near Gympie

The man was killed in a collision with a vehicle

Wet, wild and hot with a chance of cyclone

Premium Content Wet, wild and hot with a chance of cyclone

Wild and wet weekend expected for parts of Queensland