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Off the coast of Sydney, the winter period of June to August is rush hour on the “humpback highway”, as thousands of whales migrate from Antarctica to sub-tropical breeding grounds such as Hervey Bay in Queensland.

A record-breaking number of whales – up to 18,000 – are expected to make the 10,000km round-trip journey this year -- 10% more than in 2011. And statistics gathered by national parks officials, commercial fisherman and local whale watching companies point to a steady rise in numbers over the last few years, which is in turn attracting larger numbers of tourists.

On a four-hour trip with Sydney Whale Watching, one of the many companies that offers whale watching tours along Australia’s eastern coast, travellers can have a brief but enchanting encounter with the magnificent creatures, which can grow up to 18m long and weigh 45 tonnes. The whales, including mothers and their newborns, can also be spotted as they make the long trip back to the icy waters of the Southern Ocean between September and November.

“They are generally very relaxed and sometimes they come right up close to the boat,” explained tour guide Jonas Liebschner.  “What we do is actually make a little bit of noise on the boat, so we stamp our feet and sometimes I feel like the whale is actually answering to that.  You can see the whale slapping its tail and doing all sorts of stuff.”

Global numbers are still recovering after humpbacks were widely hunted and slaughtered by commercial whalers for much of the 20th Century. Australia abandoned commercial hunting in the late 1970s, and since then has become a vociferous critic of Japan’s still-operating scientific whaling program.  “One of the main arguments against commercial whaling is that the whale watching is a far more sustainable and far more profitable business,” said Will Ford, a director of Whale Watching Sydney.

A short distance from the sandstone cliffs that guard the entrance to Sydney Harbour a frolicking humpback put on an acrobatic display. It propelled its hulking frame out of the battleship-grey waters and twisted through the air, before crashing back into the white surf.

Alex, a 12-year-old who had travelled with his family from Perth in Western Australia, was taken aback. “It is the first whale I’ve ever seen,” he cried. And thanks to the growing numbers, even more visitors will have the chance to glimpse some of nature’s most captivating performers on one of the planet’s great migrations. 

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