Humpback whales are very special to Hervey Bay. To acknowledge this, the Fraser Coast community promotes their love of the ocean and whales with an annual Hervey Bay Ocean Festival.
Hervey Bay has a long history with the humpback whales. They have been coming here for centuries but tourist whale watching only started in 1987 when Jill and Brian Perry used their 12m boat, Tasman Adventure, for the first commercial whale watching tour.
I remember Mimi McPherson (yes, the sister of the famous super model Elle) when she started up her very own successful whale watching business in the area in 1989.
Mediterranean traditions at the Ocean Festival
Part of the Ocean Festival is a special ceremony based on century-old Mediterranean traditions where the whale watching fleet and all related boats are blessed by local ministers of many denominations to ensure a safe and prosperous season.
The Blessing of the Fleet is held on the first Saturday evening of the festival spanning two weekends in August. It is a free-entry event held in the Great Sandy Straits Marina with dockside cafes, restaurants, shops and stalls open into the evening during the sail past.
I was curious to witness this event given my strong but reluctant Catholic upbringing. Perhaps my attendance would appease my long deceased, converted Catholic (previously Lutheran) mother, who never quite came to terms with my turning agnostic by the time I was 20 years old.
Blessing of the Fleet festivities
The festivities for the Blessing commence in the late afternoon. Live music, amusement rides for the little ones, as well as food and craft stalls are for everyone’s entertainment.
As the sun goes down, the happy mood and fun atmosphere builds as the crowd eagerly await the formal proceedings. The Aloha Mai E Chant is followed by the Town Cryer, introducing an ear splitting firing of a historic time cannon, which precedes the sail past.
Blessing of the Fleet
The blessings are given by 12 local clerical staff who stand on a pontoon in front of the Urangan Boat Club. Dignitaries are flanked by two neat rows of youthful Australian Navy Cadets who also pay homage to the fleet.
As the beautiful setting sun casts a soft glow over the start of the event, the boats line up in order. Then one by one they make their approach towards the pontoon.
The clerics have their own boat or boats to bless. Blessings are quite individualised to the craft they are assigned.
Gerry, the Hervey Bay Coast Guard’s Chaplin, told me he had five special blessings all ready to go depending on which vessels he was given. A blessing for every occasion, I thought. How awesome and organised is that?
I was soon to find out that not all the clerics came as well prepared as Gerry, who had 5 years of experience behind him. One cleric quite new to the proceedings confessed to having come totally unprepared and didn’t even know which vessel he was there for. I could sense a moment of fun down the track.
The fleet includes Spirit of Hervey Bay, Quick Cat II, Whalesong Cruises, Hervey Bay Dive Centre, Freedom III, Blue Dolphin Marine Tours, Pacific Whale Foundation’s Ocean Defender, Tasman’s Island Venture, Yahoo Whale Watch, Boat Club Adventure Cruises and vessels from Kingfisher Bay Resort and Remote Fraser Island Experience. Even a Police Boat and the Coast Guard get a guernsey.
Just like Christmas
One by one, led by the beating drum of rowers on the Hervey Bay Dragon Boat, they slowly motor through. It seems like Christmas with many lit up with fairy or LED lights.
Party music blares from some, including the sound of a didgeridoo onboard Milibi of Eco Marine Tours, the party atmosphere builds. The MC gives a little précis of who or what they are and their history in Hervey.
As a blessing is cast over the speakers, each boat attempts a 360-degree twirl in front of the dignitaries, to the great delight of the crowd before moving on for the next vessel to come in.
I laugh as I hear one softly spoken, ad libbed blessing punctuated by a number of mmm’s and aaa’s.
I instantly know who the cleric is. But bless him as he finishes with a resounding confident “Bless them all and the whales too, as they are why we are here today!” I thought Amen to that, as the now well-lubricated crowd cheer and clap him on enthusiastically.
One captain near the end of the line gets a little carried away. He roars up to the pontoon, does a frantic boat twirl and shoots out of the marina before his appointed cleric even got to the microphone. I chuckle imagining he probably has a beer getting warm back on land and can’t hang around!
And so the blessing comes to an end. Everyone is invited to board the docked whale boats to meet and greet captains and crew.
What better way of finishing off such a novel event? Of course, a spectacular firework finale! A great crowd pleaser signalling the start of the evening’s party…
Discover Fraser Coast
The Hervey Bay Ocean Festival is Hervey Bay’s premier event. The festival ends this weekend. For more go to this website.