“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 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.
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
It took three tries – and three two-hour drives north from Brisbane – to experience Hart’s whale-swimming
operation. My first attempt was thwarted by an unexpected storm front, which
swept in minutes before Hart got his boat out of the Mooloolaba River. My
second attempt also bombed. After spotting a few blows, we coasted alongside
two humpbacks for a few hours but they never stayed at the surface for more
than a minute. Still, the trip got me closer to a whale than I'd ever been
before. This is the trouble – and excitement – of trying to experience wildlife
in its habitat: about half the time, Hart said, the whales swim away to avoid
the noisy boat.
“We have 100%
success rate seeing whales and about 50% success rate in getting people in the
water with them,” he said. “[The success rate is] higher than what I thought it
would be. When I was in Tonga I went on six whale swims. On three of them, I
didn't see any whales at all and I only got to swim with them once. But that
one encounter made it all worthwhile.”
On my third try, soon after leaving port we
spotted a pod of three humpbacks and followed them for more than an hour. Twice
we tried jumping off the back of the boat and swimming towards them – all of us
dressed in 6mm wetsuits with GoPro cameras strung to our wrists – but by the
time we got to the spot they were last sighted, the humpbacks were gone. And
with only 10 minutes cruising time remaining, it seemed my whale quest was
doomed to fail.
“There they are!” shouted one of the crew, pointing to a telltale arched back,
sliding along the surface around 30m from the boat. “Now remember, get into the
water in an orderly...”
Throwing caution to the wind, I launched myself in the direction of the whale.
Kicking and paddling as hard as I could, I soon found myself lost in a mess of
black waves. From the deck of the boat, Hart pointed in the direction of land yelling
“Keep on going, mate, you're nearly there!”
I pushed through
the water until I felt a fast-moving dip in the current; I sensed that
something incredibly large was in front of me. Suddenly, I came to a stop. “Are
you nuts?” I remember thinking. “Why are you rushing a 30 ton whale?”
At that moment, the humpback's colossal tail – serrated and pointed at the
tips, white on the underside and maybe five metres across – exploded from the
surface, raining a sheet of seawater over my head. I ducked underwater and
couldn’t see anything but bubbles. The whale was gone.
I tallied it up: I had spent six hours flying, 12 hours driving and eight hours
boating over three days for two seconds of swimming with a humpback.
Was it worth it?
Yes – without a shadow of doubt it was.