Can swimming with whales and ocean conservation really go hand in hand? Tracey Croke goes in search of an answer during a close encounter with the ocean goliaths in Queensland, Australia.
“LOOK DOWN!” a voice screams with disbelief.
I quickly scan the bobbing heads around me. The voice belongs to a man a few meters away, whose popped eyeballs are staring at me from the void of his snorkel mask.
I try to decipher my fellow snorkeler’s cartoon-esqe expression. Fear? Excitement? Disbelief? I decide it’s a combination of all three and dunk my face into the ocean.
With heart in throat, I float motionless; a powerless piece of plankton above two bus-sized omnivores. You could park a Volkswagen Beetle on each tongue. My brain auto-uploads the moment into a memory bank labeled ‘mind blown’.
It takes several seconds to identify the slow motion of barnacles softly drifting beneath me. Time almost freezes while I register that attached to those barnacles is 40 tonnes of mottled humpback whale. He or she has company—a marginally smaller mate.
The thought of swimming with humpback whales gave me a face-in-hands vision of being elbowed by an army of social media influencers fulfilling their #whaleselfie #GoPro #bucketlist #dreams. But here I am, a cynical sleuth, dangling roughly 30 kilometers off Australia’s east coast, close to what’s known as the ‘humpback highway’. I’m curious to see how this works with these giants of the ocean, who—as I have just found out—are also quite curious about me.
From here, myself and 17 other tingling spines have a swell view of one of nature’s greatest endurance swims: The humpbacks’ mammoth 5,000-kilometer migration north, from the krill-feeding Antarctic oceans to the warmer breeding waters of the Great Barrier Reef.
Everyone is respectful. Everyone is doing exactly as they’re told. A few are mumbling “missed it” because they were faffing with their GoPros. “Whales often come over for a closer look or they may just swim past, says Dan Hart, owner of Sunreef Mooloolaba, who pioneered the ‘swimming with humpback whales’ experience in Australia five years ago. “It’s up to them. Either way, it’s an experience you’ll never forget—for all the right reasons.”
Watching whales from a boat is one thing, but from an ethical point of view, the whole idea of swimming with humpbacks initially sounded questionable to me. Should we be encouraging swimming with anything? Are we not supposed to leave animals to their own devices? Wouldn’t it cause unnecessary stress?
To be fair, I guess the more accurate description of “float thirty meters from humpback whales who may or may not decide to swim under you” is a bit longwinded. And I found something surprisingly symbiotic about the whole business.
Some scoff at the thought of a commercial operator and conservation relationship, but without it, science and whales could suffer.
This in-water experience, which only a handful of operators in Australia are licensed to offer, is conducted in accordance with Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching as well as Sunreef’s own strict Code of Practice, which has been developed in conjunction with whale researchers and experts.
Under these rules, all vessels—whether commercial or private—must stay 100 meters away from humpbacks and 300 meters from mothers with calves.
Of course humpbacks can do what they like—and they often choose to approach boats and swim around them. This behavior is so common that it’s even got its own whale-watching speak: ‘Mugging’.
“Some whales will come up to your boat and spend an hour looking at you; others will swim away because they don’t want to know you,” says Leigh Mansfield, rescue manager for ORRCA (Organization for the Rescue and Research of Cetaceans), who are licensed to assist NSW National Parks and Wildlife Services with the rescue, rehabilitation and release of marine mammals.
Leigh tells me that ORRCA trains volunteers to be first responders when, for example, a stranded whale or dolphin is reported. The best part? “Any member of the public can train to do it,” says Leigh.
The rules state that anyone in the water must not swim closer than 30 meters, but humpbacks don’t always give us that choice. They’ve been known to swim into popular bays and surface in the middle of a bunch of swimmers. “In that case, calmly move away,” he continues. “And never approach or touch them.”
“Gentle giants” and “curious” are words that are repeatedly used by those who know humpbacks best. Experts also say, like all wild animals, humpbacks will seek to escape if threatened or distressed and may thrash out. “They’re large and can do a lot of damage,” says Leigh.
Sunreef have had five incident-free seasons running their ‘swim with whales’ experience. And there’s nothing muddy about their crystal-clear instructions. No duck-diving, no touching, no swimming past the guide. Break those rules, and they’ll take you out of the water.
While we’ve stopped killing humpbacks for our energy needs, we’ve adopted a far more inclusive approach of killing everything in our oceans with our plastic waste.
When you consider the history of our relationship with humpback whales, it’s surprising they want to know us at all. Between the 17th and early 20th centuries, we almost wiped out these swimming oil wells. A ranting public and the fact there were hardly any whales left led to the International Whaling Commission banning humpback whaling in the Southern Hemisphere in 1963.
Before the ban, the only whales we counted were the ones we killed. That data and some clever genetics put the pre-whaling population of Australia’s east coast migration somewhere between 45,000 and 60,000. At the time of the ‘63 ban, scientists estimate there were as few as 200 left.
Since the early ‘90s, when ORRCA started its annual whale census, populations have shown a solid upward trend of 10 per cent each year. At the turn of the 21st century, a few thousand were migrating. The 2018 estimate is 33,000. At this rate, we could see Australia’s east coast migration hitting the lower end of pre-whaling numbers in another three seasons.
Some scoff at the thought of a commercial operator and conservation relationship, but without it, science and whales could suffer—operators have a good track record of helping marine scientists and wildlife authorities keep tabs on population health. University researchers are in Sunreef boats twice a day, three times a week throughout the whale migration season from June to October. At $149 per place, that tots up to a $40,000 freebie towards research.
But this whale-saving tale is a long way from a happy ending. While we’ve stopped killing humpbacks for our energy needs, we’ve adopted a far more inclusive approach of killing everything in our oceans with our plastic waste. By 2050, it’s estimated that there will be more plastic in the world’s seas than fish. The UN is calling the growing crisis “ocean Armageddon”. If you need proof, look no further than the whale that washed up in Indonesia earlier this month with 115 plastic cups in its stomach.
So if you go swimming with whales, anywhere in the world, do it responsibly, and support the research. Compassion and action—two things floating above these graceful ocean goliaths will inspire in even the hardest of hearts—are needed if we’re to avoid turning our oceans into a plastic stew.
Everyone can help to protect marine mammals by knowing the approach zones and reporting any concerns to their relevant local parks and wildlife Services. For those based in Australia, ORRCA operates a 24 hour rescue hotline to report injured or stranded whales, dolphins, seals and dugongs: 02 9415 3333