All words by Marie Harrington. Header photo by Fraser Coast Tourism & Events.
Hervey Bay, a coastal city in southern Queensland is home to some 52,000 residents and, during the winter months, approximately 8,000 migrating humpback whales. Sheltered by the coast of Fraser Island, Hervey Bay is an ideal resting spot for the whales and their calves as they take a detour off the humpback highway to relax, play and rejuvenate and, as a result, this area is renowned for being one of the best whale-watching destinations in the world.
Hervey Bay started offering commercial whale-watching tours in the mid-1980s and today attracts tens of thousands of tourists and contributes over $11million each year to the local economy but this is so much more than just a great place to go whale watching. In October 2019, Hervey Bay became the joint first ever Whale Heritage Site (along with The Bluff, South Africa), making it one of only two accredited Whale Heritage Sites in the world.
The Whale Heritage Site initiative is a global certification programme established by the World Cetacean Alliance. It formally recognises those places that support and demonstrate the importance of cetaceans through culture, education, research and conservation.
Whilst whales and dolphins are at the heart of global sustainable tourism, whale-watching as an activity or ecotourism product is a community level industry. To the Hervey Bay community, the whales that grace the tranquil coastal waters are not just a tourist attraction, they are an inherent part of the culture. These majestic and charismatic mammals are celebrated, protected and are ingrained in the heritage and traditions of a proud community.
Becoming a designated Whale Heritage Site is more than an industry award, it’s a journey. Like the journeys of the great whales themselves, it is challenging and requires communication, collaboration and a lot of hard work.
When people come together with shared values and goals, something very special happens.
Coretta Scott King, American author and wife of Martin Luther King Jr. said, “the greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate action of its members.” Those involved in the Hervey Bay application process experienced an overwhelming sense of pride in achieving this status for the corner of the world they represent. Local government officials, NGOs, researchers, representatives of Hervey Bay tourism boards, local business, tour companies and citizen scientists all played their part. Hundreds of pages of evidence were gathered, critical research work was presented and valuable information was shared in support of the criteria underpinning the accreditation.
Local researcher and humpback whale expert Wally Franklin described the achievement as an “absolutely amazing outcome and incredibly deserved by Hervey Bay. The accreditation is only a stop along the journey and provides a very strong and clear focus of what we need to be giving attention to in the future.”
The criteria may be stringent and the process rigorous but anything worth having is worth working for. Many Whale Heritage Site candidates may be surprised at how much they are already doing in support of the initiative already without it being formally recognised. This is an accreditation that is attainable for all prospective candidates, particularly with the help and support provided at each and every stage by the World Cetacean Alliance and the network that exists around it.
Collaboration is borderless. The whales and dolphins know no barriers so why should we when it comes to protecting them? Community initiatives such as this have a positive impact on conservation. Bringing diverse groups of people together to focus on the bigger picture is at the very heart of what this process is about.
Hervey Bay is an area of both regional and global significance with a unique community connection to whales and dolphins. The Whale Heritage Site accreditation has brought an almost iconic status to the area and proudly reflects the dedication and passion of those who worked tirelessly to make this a reality.
The recognition this region has gained as a result of this process has presented a major marketing opportunity in promoting the growth of eco and edutourism.
This has undoubtedly attracted the attention of the environmentally-conscious traveller and has positively impacted the economic value of tourism to Hervey Bay. The protection of this critical habitat and of the oceans in general is firmly in the spotlight and will help to ensure that both the whales and the tourists keep coming back for generations to come.
This is not simply about taking holidaymakers out on boats and observing whales in a responsible manner. This is an all-encompassing and continuous process that focuses on celebrating the close cultural associations between humans and cetaceans, environmental, social and economic sustainability and a perpetual commitment to research, education and awareness.
Outstanding practices that support whale and dolphin conservation should be formally recognised and rewarded. Community spirit, pride and a sense of being a part of something special already exists in many regions where cetaceans are celebrated and protected. It is hoped that Hervey Bay’s achievements will inspire others to embark on their own great migratory route towards Whale Heritage Site designation. Each and every accomplishment starts with a decision to try.