All the places you can go swimming with whales in Queensland
There are not many experiences that are quite as thrilling as watching humpback whales in the wild. From shore or in a boat, the sight of the enormous mammals breaching and blowing is completely mesmerising. The only thing that can beat it is coming flipper-to-mask with one of the creatures in the Pacific Ocean.
Australian humpback populations are on the rebound, with an estimated 30,000 steaming up the country’s east coast this year to their annual breeding grounds in the Great Barrier Reef. In fact, numbers are expected to recover to pre-whaling levels within the next 12 months.
Australia is among a handful of countries offering “swim-with” humpback whale trips, and there are a limited number of operators with permits allowing snorkellers to step off vessels and slide into the ocean to watch the gentle giants on their 10,000km migratory path.
Where can you swim with whales?
A small number of Hervey Bay operators followed suit later the same year as part of a three-year trial that has now become permanent. It’s so popular that there are now six operators in this part of the world, including Blue Dolphin Marine Tours, Hervey Bay Whale Watch’s Quick Cat II, and Hervey Bay Dive Centre, taking snorkellers into a marine park off Fraser Island.
The latter operator is the newest to offer the experience, and one of the smallest, taking out a maximum of 12 people on every expedition. The Quick Cat II, by comparison, can take out 90 people at a time on the boat, but only four are permitted in the water with a guide.
Depending on the operator, different levels of “swimming” are offered. Some allow you to simply float off the back of the boat attached to guide ropes in the water, while others offer you the opportunity to snorkel freely through the sea.
Regardless of where you are and what method you choose, you’ll also likely swim with dolphins, which often trail whales along their migratory path. Other marine life that whales attract includes orcas and sharks. It’s for this reason – and to protect the humpbacks and their habitats, ensuring a lasting and meaningful encounter – that there are strict regulations in place for any swim.
Electronic shark shields are compulsory, there’s limit on the number of people in the water at any given time, and there’s a swim-up limit as well – a fin or tail swipe from a healthy adult humpback could injure or kill a shark, let alone a human. But humpbacks by nature are curious creatures, and there’s nothing stopping them from approaching you. On my multiple dips in the ocean off the Sunshine Coast, they do.
What it’s like to swim with humpbacks
Nothing quite prepares you for that first glimpse of a whale underwater. There’s an initial and immediate need to flee – quite natural given that humpbacks can grow up to 16 metres in length and weigh 36,000kgs. But once the “oh-my-god-it’s-three-times-bigger-than-the-boat” feeling had passed, the adrenalin kicks in.
There’s actually very little swimming involved; after slipping into the water, currents allow me to drift toward the two humpbacks we’ve been watching at a distance. Floating beside the 40-tonne creatures I hear their soft song, a muted but lyrical wail, and feel the pull of the ocean they create as they flipper through the water.
Surfacing minutes later I see them put on a show off the bow of our boat, breaching and waving flippers as if to acknowledge our presence.
Of course, we’re in the wild, and there’s no guaranteeing the presence of whales. But our skipper tells us that on the 70 or so trips the boat has done in the first three months of the season, there have only been two where humpbacks have been hard to find. On our trip, we spot them within 20 minutes of leaving the shore, in fact.
I end up in the water half a dozen times, there are that many sightings. Some members of our group of 20 swim once or twice, then are content helping our skipper spot pods from the bow.
Regardless of whether on the boat or in the water, you’ll feel very small and insignificant – but in a good way. There’s nothing quite like a wild whale encounter to put life into perspective.
How to swim with whales in Queensland
Dwarf minke whales are the second-smallest species of whale at around eight metres in length. Mike Ball Dive Expeditions and Eye to Eye Marine Encounters offer snorkelling and whale research tours off the coast of Tropical North Queensland, which hosts the only known congregation of minke whales in the world.
Scuba diving is not permitted when swimming with humpback or minke whales as the bubbles from the oxygen tanks can frighten them. But a snorkel, mask and fins are necessary as there are often currents, and the best views are with your head under water.
While you don’t need to be fit per se, as you’re in the ocean for less than 10 minutes each dip, you do need to have a moderate level of swimming ability, again because of currents and waves. Swims are also dependent on the weather, and if conditions are too rough and deemed unsafe by your skipper, you won’t be permitted in the water.