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“There's one!” I shouted, pointing to the bottom left-hand side of the windshield.

Our pilot spun the helicopter around and headed toward a small white shape 500m below, swimming through the ocean. It was a southern humpback whale – one of 20,000 that migrate north from Antarctica each southern winter to feed, breed and give birth in the warm waters off Australia's east coast. “At this time of the year, we see them on nearly every flight,” said Andrew Tredinnick, a Hamilton Island Air pilot.

As we passed overhead, the humpback lifted its tail and dove out of eyeshot. As on any other whale-watching flights, cruises and walks I've been on over the years, the sighting was much too short. After all, whales are wild animals perennially on the move. Glimpses, for the most part, are all nature allows.

Unless of course, you get in the water with them – an endeavour that had previously only been available in a few locations around the world, such as the Dominican Republic and the remote South Pacific island nation of Tonga. But starting this July – and for the first time in Australia – a whale-swimming experience in Mooloolaba offers the chance to swim with the gentle giants that have inspired fear, greed and enchantment among our kind in quantities that are in direct proportion to their colossal size.

The concept
The project in Mooloolaba, a sleepy resort town 100km north of Brisbane, is the brainchild of Dan Hart, owner of Sunreef, a small family-run business that specialises in wreck diving. “I went swimming with humpbacks in Tonga a few years ago,” Hart said. “It was such a breathtaking and mind-blowing experience I thought it should be made available to more people. So I thought, why not start it here?”

The tours, run from a large diving boat with a maximum of 20 participants, motor a few kilometres off the coast where the crews start looking for blows – bursts of vaporised water shot from the humpback's blowholes when they surface to breathe. Once a whale is spotted, the skipper cruises up to the 100m distance recommended by current guidelines to ensure the animals’ safety, kills the engines and throws out a safety rope. The swimmers jump in, holding on the rope; it's then up to the whales, which are very inquisitive by nature, to come over and say hello.

Swimmers, humpbacks, Mooloolaba, Australia
Swimmers search for humpbacks. (Brett Wortman)

Human interaction with the species is not without controversy, of course. Last month, a group of surfers in Sydney risked their lives – and potentially disturbed the animal – when they encircled an adult southern right whale at Sydney's Freshwater Beach, breaching local regulations that require swimmers and boardriders to remain at least 30m from whales. About 1,000km north of Mooloolaba, in the tropical waters surrounding Hamilton Island, regulations were put in place keeping boats and swimmers more than 300m away from the whales, offering greater protection in one of the humpback's main east coast calving grounds. Not to mention that that recent instances of whale strikes – the vast majority of which are by large ships, and not whale watching vessels – have prompted conversations about whether to impose speed limits for ships along Australia's coast.

Given the issue’s sensitivity, Hart spent two years consulting with wildlife officials, marine biologists and ecotourism experts to create an activity template that ensured swimmers' safety and didn't affect the whales. Sheila Pyke, a lecturer in environmental science at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, agreed, saying Sunreef is onto a good thing. “It's being done on the whales' terms – not the operators,” she said “Getting in the water and hearing the noises whales make and feeling their vibrations is such a 'wow' experience that when those people go home, many will speak out against whaling. But this year is very much going to be a wait-and-see for them to figure out if the trial has been successful.”

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