Swimming with dwarf minke whales
There’s an air of mystery surrounding the elusive yet curious dwarf minke whales.
“Where they go to exactly, no one yet knows,” explains Dr Matt Curnock from James Cook University.
“They seem to love the northern waters of the Coral Sea for just a few weeks every year and then simply disappear. No one has yet tagged them so they simply disappear off our radar.”
Getting up close and personal with huge marine mammals underwater, especially whales is something many dreamt of doing and the overwhelming allure of something as mystical as the dwarf minke whales is impossible to resist.
The minke whale
The scientific name Balaenoptera acutorostrata is quite a mouthful but if you look more closely you will see that name actually describes the minke whale. The dwarf minke whale belongs to the family of whales that filter their food through long sieve-like plates (baleen) and they have a pointy head.
An adult can weigh up to 6,000 kg and grow to 8m but spare a thought for the mothers who go through a gestation of 10 months giving birth to young up to 2m in length.
Minke whales are migratory and often only visit Tropical North Queensland for a small window each year. June-July is the best time to spot them and then outside of these months spotting a minke whale is less reliable. After they disappear from Queensland waters, scientists aren’t exactly sure where they go.
Most tours to swim with dwarf minke whales depart from Cairns or Port Douglas. There are two types of tours either a day trip or on a longer liveaboard that gives you the best chance to see dwarf minke whales over a number of days.
Operators who offer a single day trip include The Silver Series and Poseidon.
All companies offering minke whale encounters must be licensed so check this first and remember they are wild animals and simply might not even turn up. It’s important to note that the encounter is controlled to minimize the impact on the animals and this includes not swimming after the animals. Minke whales are curious so just float around and let them come and eyeball you.
If you are staying in Cairns after your liveaboard adventure use this handy accommodation guide to book you base to rest until the room stops swaying.
Onboard Ben Southall’s personal journey
With spotters on top of the boat and the captain telling us what to look out for, it wasn’t long before the cry rang out: “MINKE!”
The crew threw out long snorkel lines from the stern, we squeezed into our wetsuits and grabbed cameras and floated out away from the boat – this was a moment not to be missed!
As soon as I dropped my head into the water I spotted a long dark shadow way below me. Was that one of them? By the time I focused again it had gone.
Scanning from side to side suddenly I saw a flash of white from its belly! There it was: a serenely beautiful, perfectly streamlined minke whale. I totally forgot I had my camera with me at first, hypnotised by the majesty of something so big and so close.
As the whale’s confidence grew it passed closer and closer, sometimes only an arm’s length away.
Looking directly into the eye of this stunning creature is something that will stay with me forever. As it passed by, the eyeball rotated and I’m sure for just a second we both shared the same thought – ‘hello creature from another world’!
Seeing any whale in the water is a sight to behold. Hearing them singing when you’re diving underwater takes it to another level. But floating alongside minke whales as they swim by, singing back at them through my snorkel is a moment that will stay with me forever.
Thinking about a liveaboard experience? Read this first timer’s guide.
Have you seen minke whales on the Great Barrier Reef? Tell your story in the comments below.
*This post was first published in 2012 and updated in June 2018.