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Saturday, 10 August, 2002, 11:30 GMT 12:30 UK
Whales bring feel-good factor
Beneath a cloudless blue sky I rode out of Sydney's harbour on board a big white catamaran packed with dozens of other people, eager for a glimpse of the many whales which migrate up and down the coast at this time of year.
Within an hour we spotted some - a pair of humpbacks, rolling and plunging their way north, heading away from chilly Antarctic seas towards the balmier waters of Queensland, where the females give birth and rest.
The boat followed the pair at a discreet distance for nearly an hour, and there was excited chatter as people took photos and admired the sheer bulk of these giants of the sea.
In retrospect, I need hardly have bothered.
Last week the whole of Sydney was treated to the ultimate whale watching experience, and it was free of charge.
Three southern right whales chose to make a two-day stopover in the harbour, breaching and slapping their tails within sight of the Opera House - testimony to how much the water quality has improved in the last few years.
The city was captivated. Newspapers ran front page pictures of the whales cavorting beneath the Harbour Bridge. And not just cavorting, it turned out.
Wildlife experts quickly realised that two of the whales were mating - right here, in the middle of Australia's largest city.
The amorous couple brought ferry traffic to a standstill as skippers went out of their way to give their passengers a good view of the spectacle.
A small armada of yachts, cruise boats, water taxis and kayaks gathered around the whales.
One of those kayakers was me. About a year ago I bought a bright red and yellow canoe for pottering around the harbour. The most wildlife I'd ever seen out on the water was a few cormorants and pelicans. Kayaking alongside a whale was too good to miss.
It took about 20 minutes' hard paddling from the bay where I live to reach the trio. It was easy to tell where they were - I just followed the crowds.
Squinting into the sun I could initially see nothing.
But then one of the whales surfaced, followed quickly by another - their great shiny black backs rising like miniature islands, their snouts covered in barnacles. I was about 60 metres away and it was an extraordinary sight.
I could hear them snorting as they expelled great plumes of spray from their blow holes. It drifted across the water like smoke.
I suddenly felt very vulnerable. The largest whale was about 14 metres long - five times the length of my kayak.
I had visions of a whale diving down and then inadvertently coming up beneath me, lifting me out of the water like a child's toy and tipping me over, to be clobbered on the head by a massive pectoral fin and drown.
That is exactly what happened to four early settlers in 1790, just two years after Sydney was founded as a penal colony.
The three British marines and a midshipman were tossed out of their rowing boat when a whale surfaced underneath them. All but one of them drowned.
Whales were hunted in Australia from the very first years of European colonisation. Southern right whales earned their name because they were the "right" species to kill - they yielded plenty of oil, often came close to shore and didn't sink after being killed.
By the turn of the 20th Century Australian and New Zealand whalers expanded into the Antarctic and killed two million whales.
It wasn't long before numbers crashed. The last Australian whaling station closed in 1978 and now the creatures are protected.
Whale populations are slowly recovering. Each year more and more humpbacks and southern right whales are sighted migrating along Australia's coasts.
The fact that three adult whales ventured so far into Sydney Harbour remains, however, unprecedented. "How lucky we are," a woman said to me when I paddled back to shore. "It's hard to believe that we used to kill them."
Not since the Olympic Games nearly two years ago has there been such a buzz in Sydney.
The whales seemed to bring people out of themselves, spreading a feeling of excitement mixed with goodwill.
I watched the people who were watching the whales.
Everyone had a smile on their face. Strangers fell into conversation. Everyday worries, it seemed, were temporarily forgotten.
The whales have gone now, heading south, back to the Antarctic. Things are back to normal. Ferries plough purposefully across the harbour, commuters bury their noses in their newspapers, and office workers take lunch at their desks.
The whales vanished as quickly as they had appeared. But somehow, I like to think, they left something of themselves behind.
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