Swimming with the Great Barrier Reef minke whales
Each winter on the Great Barrier Reef, a rare and extraordinary wildlife encounter takes place.
It’s a phenomenon that happens nowhere else in the world. In fact, scientists don’t know why it happens at all.
During the months of June and July, between 60 and 80 dwarf minke whales come to the warm waters off Queensland’s northern coast to frolic, mate and calve.
Thought to be a distant cousin of the northern hemisphere minke, these agile little whales grow to a maximum of eight meters.
But, unlike most timid marine mammals, they behave in a highly unusual manner - purposefully seeking out human company.
Emerging from the open ocean, the whales even follow boats as they travel between dive sites.
Unfazed when swimmers slip into the water to observe them, the minkes are first to approach, some coming as close as one meter -- hovering at shallow depths and eyeing swimmers intently for hours on end.
At times, it’s unclear who is more interested in whom.
There are only a handful of tourism operators in Queensland permitted to swim with these gentle, curious creatures.
“Without a doubt, it’s the top wildlife experience on the planet,” says John Rumney. “It’s up there with gorillas in the mist or an African safari.”
Rumney and his wife Linda run Eye to Eye Marine Encounters, one of nine permit holders licensed to take tourists into remote sections of the Great Barrier Reef on four-day dwarf minke whale expeditions.
Rumney pioneered the minke encounters, and continues to work closely with the country’s top marine biologists and scientists.
Each expedition has researchers from the Minke Whale Project on board, there to collect data to identify the whales and their behavior.
Tourists also play an important role -- their personal underwater snaps and videos providing an invaluable resource to the project's scientists.
Yet, even after hundreds of encounters, tens of thousands of photographs, hours of videos and nearly two decades of research, scientists remain baffled as to exactly why the minkes seek out humans.
“It’s curiosity -- pure and simple,” suggests Peter Wright, owner of Poseidon Cruises.
“They simply are curious creatures. They like to come and see what’s going on.”
Wright knows the Great Barrier Reef exceptionally well, having scuba dived the area for three decades before launching Poseidon Cruises with his wife Barbara.
Poseidon is one of the few day operators endorsed to swim with the minkes.
When the whales are sighted, a rope attached to the Poseidon catamaran extends into the water, allowing groups of 10 to enter the water for the encounter.
Wright says the whales tend to approach snorkelers more so than divers, but one thing is for certain -- they steal plenty of hearts along the way.
“Anyone who sees them or swims with them becomes absolutely enthralled,” Wright says.
A closer look
Herold Prins, one of Poseidon’s onboard dive instructors and marine biologists, says he’s never seen a creature so implausibly inquisitive.
“We know that dolphins are inquisitive, but after five or 10 minutes they can get bored and leave,” he says. “The minke whales are different -- they actually want to hang out with us.”
Prins says the whales appear to study each person in the water with unashamed curiosity.
“They don’t just take a look and go away either,” he adds.
“They really try to examine you -- to see who you are and what you’re doing. Then, they will swim to the next person and check them out too.”
Even with no one in the water, the curious whales like to see what’s happening onboard by “spy hopping,” a maneuver which sees them arch their heads from the ocean, peering at passengers with one inquisitive eye.
Once swimmers are in the water, the whales pirouette, belly roll and erupt in a cacophony of grunts, moans and belches.
But it’s the whales’ sci-fi-sounding “ba-boiing” calls that are the most bizarre -- dubbed “The Star Wars Vocalization” by acoustic researcher Dr. Jason Gedamke, who first recorded it in 2001.
No one truly knows why the whales behave so coquettishly, but some believe the Great Barrier Reef acts as one big high-school pool party.
The winter months of June and July are thought to be the mating season -- and whales approaching swimmers tend to be adolescent females.
Could the teenagers be practicing their flirting skills on humans?
“Yes, they might be a little bit horny,” laughs Prins.
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Unraveling the mystery
Dwarf minkes might revel in human company, but these acrobatic little whales are also largely elusive.
Frustratingly for scientists, little is known about the minkes’ migratory patterns or even their exact numbers.
Some experts have expressed concern that the whales’ friendly, curious nature and fascination with people could put them at risk -- making them easy targets for whaling vessels, for example.
A Japanese fleet of whaling vessels set sail last month, scheduled to hunt at least 260 minkes for “scientific research” in the northwest Pacific Ocean.
Though the whalers are targeting larger species of minke, at least 16 dwarf minkes have been killed in the past.
And worryingly, some of the dwarf minke whales have shown signs of scars, thought to have been caused by traditional harpoons.
Most experts agree that if commercial whaling in the southern ocean resumes, the dwarf minke will almost certainly be at risk.
Emotion in the ocean
Thrilling. Life-changing. Awe-inspiring. There are endless ways to gush about the feeling of gazing into the eyes of a dwarf minke whale but one thing is for certain -- it’s a highly charged, emotional experience.
Even the most po-faced tourists end up weeping tears of joy. Some even break into song.
“There’s definitely a lot of emotion when people see the whales gently passing by,” explains Prins.
“People cry or they can get really euphoric, really hyped up and they start to sing.”
Prins isn’t surprised -- he still feels the same sense of wonder himself.
“It’s mind-blowing,” he enthuses.
“You can compare it to having an elephant beside you, staring at you eye-to-eye, only one meter away. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience. It’s very special.”
Swimming with minkes on a day trip can never be guaranteed, but this day operator is one of the few to offer the experience on its daily scuba diving or snorkeling trips to three sites on the Agincourt ribbon reefs. If minkes are spotted, onboard marine biologists are on hand to lead the encounter.
Minkes can be seen as early as May and as late as August, but the best months of the year are June and July.
Book at Reef Adventure Centre, corner of Grant and Macrossan, Port Douglas, Queensland, Australia; +61 (0) 7 4099 4772; poseidon-cruises.com.au
Eye to Eye Marine Encounters
John Rumney pioneered the “swim with minkes” experience and whales are the priority on these multi-day liveaboard trips. They take a maximum of 22 guests along with Minke Whale Project scientists on four- or five-night expeditions with diving and snorkeling.
Expeditions this year started on June 24. The last departs on July 16, although custom, private expeditions can be arranged.
Eye to Eye vessels (and flights to the reef islands) depart from both Port Douglas and Cairns, Queensland, Australia; + 61 (0) 7 4098 5417; marineencounters.com.au
Mike Ball Dive Expeditions
Departing from Cairns, Mike Ball arranges three-, four- and seven-night liveaboard diving and minke expeditions. Ball launched the reef’s first dive school in 1969 and his contributions to minke projects have earned the company numerous awards.
The minke expeditions run throughout June and July -- the last one departs on July 28.
143 Lake St., Cairns, Queensland, Australia; +61 (0) 7 4053 0500; mikeball.com
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