Inspiration

This Is What It’s Like to Swim With Minke Whales in the Great Barrier Reef

Minke whales are so friendly, they initiate encounters with humans, sometimes playing for hours. We dive into their playground.

By Jenny Hewett

Jul 23, 2021

THE SEA BENEATH MY FINS is like a night sky, but with sapphires for stars. Gripping the minke line, a long rope extending spaghetti-like from the front of the catamaran, I slosh around to the rhythm of the ocean, every inch of me exposed to the creatures within this far-flung part of the Great Barrier Reef. I should be looking for something big. But I’m distracted. Threaded into the cobalt blue abyss below is what looks like brilliant blue diamonds, glowing flecks floating still in the ocean as if stuck in jelly.

“Behind you!” shouts Diver’s Den crew member Tobi from my left side. Nervously, I lift my snorkel mask out of the water and turn to him, acutely aware that there are only two of us on the line — and I’m smaller. A pit briefly forms in my stomach, excitement and anxiety intertwined. I whip around and let out a warbled Wow: a dwarf minke whale, roughly five or six meters long, glides past to check us out, before fading away into the blue. It’s my wildest dream come true. But it won’t be until the next day that I fully understand why marine biologists believe this to be one of the most unique wildlife encounters in the world.

We’re at Lighthouse Bommie, one of the Great Barrier Reef’s best pinnacle dive sites — pillar-like, often solitary, naturally occuring seamounts that are home to a surfeit of wildlife. (They’re epic for snorkelers, too; we’re graced by a green sea turtle snacking on a buffet of coral all morning). It’s here and within Ribbon Reefs 3, 5 and 10 that most of the magic happens.

This remote northern part of the Great Barrier Reef is the only predictable aggregation of dwarf minke whales in the world, and encounters occur during a brief window between June and August every year. Diver’s Den is one of just eight operators with a permit to run strictly regulated encounters, and 30 new friends and I are taking part in a four-day adventure on the 22-berth liveaboard Ocean Quest, sleeping in comfy cabins, getting to know each other at the lounge bar, downing amazing food and being spoiled by an all-star crew.

Reaching up to 7.8 metres, minke whales are the second smallest baleen whale and they make futuristic sounds that some say mimic that of a lightsaber. Given the fact that they were only officially recognized as a subspecies in 1980, there is still plenty unknown about them. What researchers do know is that they come here to hang out.

“The whales initiate and maintain the interactions,” says Martha Brians, volunteer researcher and representative from the Minke Whale Project. “That’s what makes them unique. When they come to Ribbon Reefs, they’re curious about the boats, so we think they come here for social reasons. The best practice is regulated interactions because they’re going to come up to us anyway. This is safest for the whales.”

The next morning, at the final dive site, the alarm sounds again. “Minkes!!” shouts someone as we rush to get our gear on. Swimming against the swell, I make my way out to the open water and grab hold of the line. There are two inquisitive beauties this time, the larger whale passes meters in front while the smaller swims below us (incredibly, the trips before and after mine both counted 10 in the water at one time).

For hours they stay here, interacting with us and the boat. Every two minutes or so, they come back into view again, and then again, smiling as they rubberneck their way along the line. Now feeling the cold and with my minke dreams firmly realized, I make my way back to the boat, where along with other wet-haired, wide-grinned divers, I’m on the look-out for bubbles and blow-holes for the rest of the morning.

For me, few things will ever compare to meeting an animal in the wild from an authentic and equal place of curiosity. If this is a dream, don’t pinch me.

diversden.com.au; four-day, four-night diving with minke whales trips from A$1,940 per person for snorkelers, A$2,060 for divers, only offered June through August; must book a year in advance. Sign up to the minke mailing list for announcements on future trips, https://info.diversden.com.au/minke-whale-mailing-list.html

All photos courtesy of Tourism Partners

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