Avalon adventurer Jonathan King tracks whales in Hervey Bay with former Beaches resident Wally Franklin who helped save the humpbacks from extinction.

“Whales ahead – off portside!” shouts Captain Wally Franklin. “Quick, it’s a mother with calf, up close!”

I rush to port and ‘there she blows:’ an enormous grey bus-sized humpback leaping out of the ocean followed by her car-sized calf, before crashing back into the sea. “Wow,” I call to Wally at the helm. “What a magnificent creature!”

“Here comes another!” Wally yells as an aquatic giant hurtles straight towards our bow. I gulp, running back aft fearing it might jump on board. I’d just read a humpback had swallowed American lobster diver Michael Packard, 57, in June 2021, off Massachusetts. Michael survived 40 seconds in that 10-foot mouth before being spat out and was rescued by a passing boat, living to tell his ‘Jonah and the Whale’ tale. In October last year, another Humpy knocked Jason Breen, 55, from his windsurfer off Mona Vale! But fortunately our hurtling giant turned to starboard at the last second.

Jonathan King (left) with Captain Franklin

Author Herman Melville created the whale-hating Captain Ahab in 1851, who made it his life’s work to kill white whale Moby Dick who’d bitten off his leg in a previous encounter. While the fanatical Ahab was eventually dragged into ‘Davy Jones Locker’ by Moby Dick, the book highlights the centuries-old whaling industries which decimated whales. Australia led the way to whale resurrection, banning their destruction in 1978. In 1982, the International Whaling Commission followed suit, ignored to this day only by Iceland, Norway and Japan.

It’s October 2023, and I’m sailing a research vessel in Hervey Bay, Queensland beside K’Gari island, commanded by Captain Ahab’s antithesis – whale-loving Captain Franklin, who has spent 30 years helping humpbacks recover from near extinction. Originally from Avalon, Wally, 83, was a former airline executive and then chief executive officer of my 1988 London to Sydney Bicentennial First Fleet Re-enactment Expedition. Wally founded The Oceania Project with his late wife Trish Franklin in 1988. Gaining scientific doctorates, they’ve produced educational cruises, anti-whaling campaigns, films, whale song CDs, academic papers, media articles, commentaries and lectures.

Captain Franklin says we must protect the oceans

“By 1960 only 150 humpbacks survived off our east coast, but we estimate by now they’ve reached 40,000,” Wally says steering us towards another splashing pod. Wally hopes his films stop consumers eating whale meat in Norway, Iceland and Japan, where ‘consumer demand has fallen’. In 2008, the Franklins stopped Japan killing humpbacks illegally in Antarctica by placing photographers on Greenpeace ships to ‘catch them red handed’. They also persuaded 73 east Australian communities to lobby Australia’s Federal Parliament.

“Look, there’s a fabulous fluke!” yells Wally, pointing to starboard where a nosediving mother waves her glistening white tail. “We photograph flukes, because all have different markings. Trish identified and named hundreds”. First Mate and official photographer, Franklin’s son Mark, 57, sprints forward to take a shot.

“We’ll compare Mark’s photo with 17,006 flukes on our data base,” Franklin says as the fluke disappears. The database identifies old friends like ‘Narla,’ one of 683 re-sightings proving she returns often. Others are named ‘Bluebell,’ ‘Clipper’ and ‘Yolanda’. Having photographed 7,305 pods for their ‘Who’s Who’ of 3,339 humpbacks, Wally sends pictures to happywhale. com which boasts 12,000 whales, confirming their comeback.

“Quick, portside!” our excited skipper yells. “Another large pod!” I dash to the rail. “There are nine mums and calves. They’ll dive in a minute,” says Wally, whose instinctive sixth sense tunes into whales. They disappear but then, “Everywhere you look – a plethora of whales!” he grins. They’re swimming off port, starboard, bow and stern, leaping in graceful arches, breeching and waving pectoral fins at our waving cooks, my wife Jane and granddaughter Olive. “That proves the great humpback comeback,” Franklin proclaims joyfully.

“Lets hear what they’re saying,” Wally commands from the helm. “Get your hydrophone Mark, record their conversations. I’ll stop the vessel.” After lowering his hydrophone into the sea, Mark hands me headphones. Suddenly, to my surprise (I didn’t know whales sung 24/7) the silence is shattered by an explosion of songs, an exciting cacophony of humpbacks singing to each other.

Author Jonathan King on his whale adventure

“That boisterous singing also confirms their comeback,” Wally says grabbing the headphones. “Their songs can echo like a relay baton through oceans of the world. One we named ‘Pavarotti’ sang non-stop for two hours.”

Mark’s recordings which are published online and on CDs help protect whales, ‘as nobody wants to kill a Pavarotti’. A former sound engineer, who recorded David Bowie and Queen, Mark prefers recording these ‘spiritual songs’ because ‘unlike pop stars, whales never complain about my recordings or get grumpy’.

Then Wally shouts, “Hang on, here’s a rare treat. I’ve spotted a competitive group of males chasing a female”. Like a Mad Max movie, we race across waves after several jostling big black monsters fueled by a frenzied sex drive, roaring like bulls, violently knocking others out of the race until their prized prey (which are bigger than them) selects the winner, driving losers angrily away. Phew!

After five exhilarating days having ‘a whale of a time,’ our cruise finishes and it’s time to look to the future, which worries Wally. He pleads for ocean protection. “We must abandon fossil fuels which are overheating oceans, stop overfishing krill and outlaw pollution”. And that is something all of us can help with.


Evolved: 55 million years ago
Average length: 15 to 18 metres long
Average weight: 50 tonnes
Time between breaths: 6 to 12 minutes
Average lifespan: 100 years


Whales killed in 20th century: 3 million
Whales remaining today: 1.5 million
1960 East Coast humpback population: 150
1978 Australian whaling ban
1982 IWC ban
2023 East Coast humpback population: 40,000