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Sydney: A mama whale’s tale

The child is misbehaving. Out at sea, the swell slops about the boat, bouncing it from side to side like a rubber ducky. Most of the passengers had disappeared inside hours ago, wiped out with seasickness from the heavy waves; the lower deck a wasteland of bodies spread out on the carpeted floor.

Sydney: A mama whale’s tale
Humpback whale, Sydney. Image: Mat Ladley / Alamy

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Those still standing are outside, hugging the rail of the boat, catching the spray and splash of a freezing cold afternoon, captivated by the very familiar scenario facing the family before us: the kid is acting up, and mama whale isn’t happy.

The calf’s shiny, pale skin contrasts to the deep, dark shine of his mother’s barnacle-covered humpback, and we see him lift his head gently from the water to get a look at our noisy boat, now gently idling behind at the recommended distance. The sight of our boat is almost irresistible, and he makes a beeline for us, much to his mother’s chagrin.

Winter in Sydney is whale-watching time, with around 20,000 humpback whales heading north to calve in the warm waters off Queensland, then returning south to Antarctica in the early spring with their babies — a slower, but no less spectacular, migration.

The mother and calf we have encountered off Sydney Heads today are some of the last whales to make their way down the eastern seaboard. To see them, we’d departed from Sydney’s King Street Wharf, taking a four-hour whale-watching cruise that took us through the scenic calm waters of Sydney Harbour and out into the choppy Pacific Ocean.

For hours, the whales had eluded us: a few glimpses of blurry white plumes on the horizon as they dashed away south. All in all, it had been a disappointing excursion, right until the end, when this little tyke and his exasperated mother had shown up.

The calf scoots forward; darting around and surfacing near the boat, keen to show off to his new friends just how clever he is. His mother, however, wisely tries to steer him away from our boat. It’s a good instinct: whaling only ended in 1979 in Australia, the industry giving way to the more eco-friendly pursuit of whale-watching as whale numbers steadily increased.

At every turn, his mother thwarts him: surfacing in his way, blocking him off and stopping him from getting to our boat. The battle of wills makes for fascinating viewing, particularly when the whale calf, fed up with not getting his own way, does what most toddlers do: he chucks a massive temper tantrum.

The calf twists and wobbles in the water, thumping his tail repeatedly and sending spectacular lashes of water into the air — the whale equivalent of throwing toys out of the pram.

His mother surfaces again, sending a puff of noisy spray into the air — an exasperated huff most parents could relate to. It was late in the whale-watching season, and it was time to go home to Antarctica. In her books, enough was enough.

Nudging the small calf, they descend into the depths of the ocean, and our captain decides to cut the mum some slack, turning the boat back towards the shore. For all of us, it was time to go home.

Oz Whale Watching offers whale-watching cruises daily between May and November, from A$94 (£46). ozwhalewatching.com.au