Lisa Skelton was just four years old when she first became obsessed with whales.
The year was 1993 and parents Colin and Sue-Ellen had taken her to see a film about a street kid who befriends a killer whale, fighting for its release.
“It started with Free Willy,” Ms Skelton said.
“That first time I saw a killer whale breach.
“It went from there.”
What followed was almost three decades of finding ways to share a passion for the wild creatures with others.
Now 32, Ms Skelton is a crew member at Imagine Cruises in Port Stephens, where she is referred to as a ‘whale whisperer’.
The team was thrilled to welcome passengers back on board the ‘Envision’ last week after the NSW Government lifted travel restrictions across the state.
“We shut down on 24 March,” Ms Skelton said.
“So it’s great to be back.”
Ms Skelton, also a talented wildlife photographer, said returning to full capacity and sharing the region’s ‘Humpback Highway’ with whale watchers was the goal.
“We love what we do and we love it when people learn something about the whales during their time with us,” she said.
For now, the 90-minute cruise looks a little different than pre-COVID, with regular wiping down of railings, a thorough sanitation of the boat both pre-and-post cruise, having hand sanitiser available onboard and the request to passengers to maintain social distancing throughout the cruise.
These are things they can control. The whales, however, are unpredictable.
“This is mother nature so we can’t guarantee a sighting obviously, but rarely do we not encounter at least one whale,” Ms Skelton said.
“And, usually we’ll be followed by quite a few dolphins as well.”
After gorging on krill in the Southern Ocean the female humpbacks travel 10,000 kilometres from Antarctica to give birth to calves in warmer water.
Once in Port Stephens, the whales are two-thirds of the way to their final destination in Queensland, a journey they undertake every May to November either alone or with a calf.
“They rarely travel with a male,” Ms Skelton said.
“Some of the calves might travel the route with mum two or three times so they may have been here before.”
Ms Skelton believes this may be why the young whales appear playful in the waters outside Nelson Bay.
“They slap their fins on the water and breach and jump out (of the water) and show us their bellies, it’s all so playful,” she said.
This is a far cry from the 1980s when whaling was at its peak and numbers were just 1,800.
“Thanks to us not killing them anymore, the numbers are more like 37,000.”