The newest spot to swim with whales

For the first time in Australia, a new whale-swimming experience offers the chance to swim with the southern humpback whales that migrate north from Antarctica each winter.

“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.

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.”

The execution
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.