Sydney Whale Watching Cruise and Aquarium Visit

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Being an island, Australia’s marine life is important to our ecosystem. Even in our biggest and busiest city, it’s not difficult to be touched by experiences with marine life. In Sydney, visiting the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium and going on a whale-watching cruise are two memorable ways to learn about the denizens of the ocean. 

In fact, these two Sydney attractions make a perfect pair and both can be experienced in one day. Sea Life Sydney is also an instantly recognisable Australian landmark in Darling Harbour. 

Whale Watching in Sydney

About humpback whales

whale watching season sydney
Whale watching Sydney – A humpback whale breaching is an impressive sight.

The number of humpback whales is on the increase – and we, like the giant mammals, couldn’t be more delighted. 

Since authorities banned the lampooning of the species in 1963, numbers have increased in Australia’s waters from a mere few hundred to an estimated 33,000 that head along the 5000-kilometre “Humpback Highways” from Antarctica to the warm waters of Queensland and Western Australia.

It’s an impressive figure that must surely exceed predictions from the most optimist nature lovers in the 1960s.

It was revealed 8300 humpbacks had been slaughtered off the east coast alone between 1949 and 1962.

Although commercial whaling was a profitable, albeit bloody and ruthless industry, numbers had dwindled dramatically, so much so that only 5 per cent of the pre-whaling-era humpbacks remained.

Protection was needed to prevent the species from extinction – and it arrived. And monitoring the progress is the internationally-renowned Save the Whales organisation of dedicated environmentalists.

Whale watching in Australia

whale watching cruise sydney
A special moment during a whale-watching cruise in Sydney.

Today, nothing can match the might of the tourism dollar, as everyone has discovered with whale watchers hailing from around the world to join admiring Australians as onlookers and, in doing so, inject invaluable cash into the economy and help boost physical efforts to saving the whales.

It’s not a coincidence that among the whales on the annual migratory swims, a majority are the majestic humpbacks.

And if you are particularly lucky, you may see Migaloo, the famous white whale or “white fella” (indigenous meaning for Migaloo), who first graced Australia’s east coast in 2015 and continues to make annual pilgrimages.

Such is the abundance of whales between early Autumn and late Spring, whale watching cruises literally guarantee a sighting from such hot holidaying destinations as Port Macquarie, Port Stephens and Newcastle in the north, Jervis Bay and Eden – once a prime whaling station – in the south.

For more things to do in NSW, read:

Experience whale watching in Sydney

whale watching sydney
Captain Cook Cruises offers whale watching tours in Sydney

As Sydney is the hub of international and Australian domestic tourism, it is a favourite choice if you want to combine a harbour cruise with a sail through Sydney Heads to the open waters of the Tasman.

And heading the fleet of operators is Captain Cook Cruises which conducts regular afternoon cruises during the peak whale watching season.

If you don’t spot a whale, which is very much a rarity these days, passengers can cruise again – free.

Captain Cook Cruises

whale watching sydney
Humpback whales frolicking around the Captain Cook Cruise boat.

As with all Sydney Harbour cruises, the whale watching cruise begins at Circular Quay, near the historic The Rocks residential area, within the shadows of the city’s skyscrapers.

Under blue skies on a balmy spring or autumn day, holidaymakers soon grab the cameras or Smart Phones to capture what is quintessentially Sydney in its best light.

From one side of the catamaran to the other they scurry to capture an image of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House.

Soon, they find themselves close to historic Fort Denison as one of the Manly ferries passes en route to Circular Quay.

On weekends, the harbour is decorated with a splattering of sails from competing yachts in the various sailing regattas as well as leisure craft owners seeking refuge in one of the sandy beaches and coves.

Many multi-million-dollar homes of the Sydney eastern suburbs are pointed out as the vessel passes famous Taronga Zoo on the north shore, and ultimately the harbour side of Manly.

“Hold on tightly,” is the warning from the bridge.

“We may get a bit of chop as we go through the heads,” he said.

Fortunately, the swell is low despite the freshness of the north-easterly breeze, and we soon find ourselves bobbing around about three kilometres from Manly Ocean Beach.

Whale Watching Season – Sydney

Whale watching season sydney
Humpback whale watching season in Sydney is from April to December.

“Tars she blows,” is the cry from the bridge. “Take a look around two o’clock,” points out the guide.

Sure enough, within 10 minutes of passing through Sydney Heads, we are rewarded with our first humpback in full cry, showing off its hulk of a 12-metre long body with several breaches.

Just when everyone had put down the cameras after taking frame after frame and video action shots, word filters through of a pod of three perhaps four humpbacks just north, off the coast from Long Reef.

With speed increased, we hurtle to an area where further breaching and tail slapping takes place, this time involving the entire family of whales – large and larger.

It was an afternoon performance that had everyone applauding – and acknowledgment that the decision to ban whaling was for the best.

The whale watching season in Sydney runs from April to December. 

Sea Life Sydney Aquarium

Sydney Aquarium
Sydney Aquarium is a fantastic place to see marine life.

From the moment you approach this famous Sea Life Sydney Aquarium, there’s a buzz among the families with young children.

As the attraction shares the same address as Madam Tussauds, you soon notice a waxed model of singer Pink perched on a swing above them at the entrance.

Once inside, the focus turns to the fascinating marine life, from tiny sea horses to the entertaining little (fairy) penguins.

A highlight is the shark walk in one of the glassed underwater tunnels where the most feared grey nurse is sighted swimming along with rays.

In the parallel tunnel, the giant Queensland Groper is a favourite for its sheer size alone.

You couldn’t possibly get any closer – without getting wet.

Meet Pig – the Mermaid of the Seas

Sea Life Aquarium
Sea Life Aquarium star – Pig.

As unflattering as the name suggests, 19-year-old Pig is one of the most fascinating and adorable residents at the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium – a star in his own right.

Each day at 11.30 am and 2.30 pm, the staff at the aquarium drop a bundle of specially prepared lettuce to the floor’s bottom allowing the onlookers both above and in one of the glassed tunnels to capture a close view of the 2-metre-long dugong feverishly dig into his meals.

It’s in his manner of eating that the resident mammal, rescued off the Queensland coast in 1998 when he was separated from his mother, was affectionately named Pig.

He dines on at least 80kg of lettuce a day.

Pig was rehabilitated in the Gold Coast’s Sea World and returned to the wild, only to be found washed ashore sometime later.

Now, he calls Sydney home where he has become accustomed to grabbing the spotlight, from his time on reality TV show Bachelorette where he attempted to win the heart of Sophie Monk to showing off is feeding capabilities to aquarium guests.

At Sea Life Sydney Aquarium, in between meals, Pig can be seen gracefully swimming in waters shared by white-spotted eagle rays, various shark varieties and countless fish species.

Legend has it that the dugong was mistaken for mermaids by early European sailors because of the shape of the tail.

We also learn that the mammal is surprisingly related to the elephant – perhaps with the same sized appetite.

Penguin Expedition

Sea Life Sydney
King penguins in Sea Life Sydney.

The queue to this popular boat ride is often long, a wait that can have children impatiently asking: “When will we be there?”

But if you are a parent – or grandparent – of an inquisitive nature-loving youngster, it’s a wait worth the stay.

Board one of the chain of boats which seat eight and you drift along a canal that takes you up close and personal to a colony of King and Gentoo penguins in a frosty sub-Antarctic environment where the temperature dips to 6C.

And the good news is that the cost for such an educational adventure is included in the price of the entrance ticket (11 am till 4 pm).

Whale Watching Tours Sydney

As part of an educational program, to achieve a good understanding of our marine life, Captain Cook Cruises offers a combo package – Sea Life Sydney Aquarium experience plus a whale-watching cruise which departs within a few strides of the Sydney Opera House and the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge. And you can link the Sea Life experience with the cruise via a free Sea Link ferry transfer between Cockle Bay/Barangaroo and Circular Quay.  

More whale watching:

Where to go whale-watching:

Whale Watching Sydney

Sydney Aquarium

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mike smith travel writer
After more than 20 years as travel editor of the top circulating Sydney Telegraph newspapers, Mike continues to explore and write freelance articles both domestically and overseas. Mike also spent more than 10 years as a radio commentator on the popular George and Paul Show on radio 2UE, later referred to as Talking Lifestyle. As a long-time travel writer, Mike has been a valued member of the prestigious Australian Society of Travel Writers, gaining life membership after volunteering 10 years on the society’s committee, four years as president.