Swimming With Minke Whales on the Great Barrier Reef

A Minke Whale Approaches a Snorkeler on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo credit: DM Smith

We float quietly in the water, holding onto ropes tied to the boat. One by one the whales appear, drifting up from the dark below.

We’re swimming with dwarf minke whales on the Great Barrier Reef.  But this is a swim with whales program with a twist. The whales themselves started it, and they control it.

They come and go as they please, staying for several hours, sometimes slowing to view us, sometimes swimming rapidly past and sometimes spy-hopping, poking their huge heads out of the water. Most come close, checking us out as we watch them.

I turn to grin at my husband, next to me on the line. By the time I look down again there are two more whales approaching. I can see others studying the group on the other rope. This is only the first of several encounters we have with the whales during our week on a  liveaboard boat on the Great Barrier Reef. In between visits with the whales there is time to snorkel and dive at some of the Reef’s most famous sites.

Dwarf Minke Whales Initiate Contact With People

A little over 15 years ago, divers on the Great Barrier Reef in June and July noticed that they were regularly being approached by whales who proceeded to hang around with them.  They turned out to be dwarf minke whales, the smallest members of the common minke whale species. Scientists are not sure why the whales are there. Mothers and calves are not seen here and the minkes don’t appear to feed while here. One theory, the one I like best, is that this is the dwarf minke ‘singles bar’ with everyone looking for a mate.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • This is intense interaction with whales who chose to spend time with you. There is literally nothing like it anywhere else in the world.
  • Who doesn’t have diving and snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef on their bucket list?
  • Good for adventurous, wildlife-loving swimmers and divers.

Rules of Engagement Respect Dwarf Minke Whales

Over the years, a lot has been learned about swimming with these whales. The reason for the rope lines is two–fold. It allows us to drift with the boat without having the engine running, making it safer for the whales and people. Plus, the whales don’t like a lot of flailing arms and legs. Holding the rope allows us to stay quiet in the water.

They also seem to prefer snorkelers, so we oblige and wear only snorkels and masks. Unlike the friendly gray whales of Baja, however, they don’t like to be touched. They maintain enough distance to avoid most outstretched hands, moving away when people persist. And they control the interaction.

Unlike most whales, who exhale once their blowhole has cleared the surface, minkes exhale just under water so there is very little blow to see.  They also tend to swim quickly with most of their body remaining out of sight. As one of the researchers commented,

“If a minke whale doesn’t want to be seen, it isn’t.”

The White Markings on the Fins Are Used to Identify Individual Minke Whales. Photo credit: I Robinson

Snorkeling and Diving the Great Barrier Reef

So as we move along the reef all we can do is keep our eyes open and shout if we see a whale, signaling the captain to stop the boat. Sometimes the whales come, sometimes they don’t.

When they don’t we anchor at Ribbon Reefs, Cod Hole, Steve’s Bommie or one of the other world famous diving and snorkeling sites on the Great Barrier Reef and take to the water. Not a bad way to spend time between visits by the minkes.

The Whales Give Us an Unforgettable Send–Off

On our last full day on the Great Barrier Reef the whales are with us for more than five hours. This time there is a lot of vocalizing. Hydrophones dropped in the water record their voices. Taking a break from being in the water, I wander up on the top deck and take in an extraordinary panoramic view.

People on the two ropes strung from the back of the boat are surrounded by a constantly changing parade of whales. Often they don’t see the whales, sometimes as many as five or six at once, behind them. I watch the whales making their way along the lines, taking time to check out each individual.

Dwarf Minke Whale Diving Close to the Boat. Photo credit: DM Smith

Dwarf Minke Whale Diving Close to the Boat. Photo credit: DM Smith

Other whales come flying past, headed to an area where a serious avian feeding frenzy is in progress. Some circle the boat at high speed, possibly playing a game of hide and seek? Whatever they are doing it is obvious they’re having fun and we’re just part of the entertainment.

Getting out of the water for the third and final time, I sit on the upper deck to watch the whales playing as the rest of the swimmers straggle in one or two at a time. The whales begin to move off.  Suddenly, one whale flies completely out of the water, a full breach. He (or she) breaches again and again, gradually moving further from the boat, until all we can see is his silhouette against the sunset. One of the researchers tells us she counted 18 breaches. What a way to say “so long and please come back.”



Practicalities

  • There are several companies that offer minke whale trips. We went with Eye to Eye Marine Encounters because of their long history of conservation on the Great Barrier Reef and because every trip includes at least one berth for a researcher working on increasing our understanding of this unusual whale population.
  • Best time to see dwarf minke whales is in June and July, winter in Australia, when seas tend to be rough and the weather can be cool at times. Bring motion sickness medication and warm layers.
  • You will be on the boat for five to 10 days with no TV or internet. Bring books and other things to do.

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