There were four, possibly five whales surrounding me, gliding lazily through the water. A second grunt echoed and I repositioned my body on the line. My cousin’s head popped out of the water next to me. “Can you hear that?” she said. I suspended my body upside-down, holding my whole head underneath the surface, listening carefully. The sounds were incredible, deep, almost mechanical grunts. They were unlike anything I have ever heard…
This was during the six-week period in June and July when the dwarf minke whales congregate around the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the only place in the world with such a great concentration of these whales. Only here are you permitted to swim with the whales in a programme that has been running for many years and includes both tourists and researchers.
Travelling between dive sites, we would look for the whales just off the Ribbon Reefs between the Great Barrier Reef and the coast of Queensland. The first whale was spotted roughly 300 metres from the boat. The engines on the boat shut off and we started to drift. It was a bright, sunny day, yet there was a steady wind and whitecaps littered the surface. After 15 minutes, more whales began to appear. A white patch on their pectoral fins glowed bright aqua against the darker water. They came closer and closer to the boat, making passes by the bow. They often surfaced for a breath of air, their beak-like snouts and broad backs protruding from the water, followed by their seemingly undersized dorsal fin. The crew threw out two 50-metre ropes, which floated off vertically from the side of the boat.
Ten minutes later I was in the water, hanging on to the line. The whales first appeared underwater in the distance, approaching slowly. Their sleek, submarine-like bodies glided through the water effortlessly. When they were within 10 to 15 feet, they stopped dead, hovering in the water. Their large, squinted eyes swivelled, checking me out. After what seemed an eternity, they simply arched their bodies, pointing their snouts to the ocean floor and catching the next wave to accelerate at what seemed an impossible pace.
I spotted a whale speeding towards me from below. It was coming straight toward me and at the last moment it veered, with great agility. I could see every detail of the whale’s shiny skin. Its wispy colour patterns of white and shades of grey resembled cloud formations. Every dull scar on the whale’s skin clashed against its smooth, glinting back. As it moved past I could see light flakes slide off its body, dancing in the water long after it passed from view.
Being in the water with the whales seemed like such a personal encounter, as if I were important enough to get the attention of these amazing creatures. That evening on the boat, as the researchers led a discussion on the whales and their behaviour, some people talked about their experiences with tears in their eyes. During my two weeks on the boat I learned as much as I have ever learned in such a short time, really strengthening my love of the ocean and building my interest in exploring it even deeper.
Dwarf minke whales have the most complex colouration patterns of any baleen whale, and these patterns allow us to identify individuals and study their social structure, movement patterns and population demographics. The goal is to learn more about the whales since there is surprisingly little information available on their biology to date. As a matter of fact, dwarf minke whales are currently considered an undescribed sub-species.
These “little” whales are now well-known seasonal visitors of Australian waters. We’re not sure yet why the species visits the Northern Great Barrier Reef every year, although we suspect it’s for breeding, and we have yet to determine where their annual journey actually begins and ends. Together with the other projects currently conducted by the Minke Whale Project researchers, my research will help to monitor the impact of tourism on the species, which will enable us to ensure the long-term survival and protection of the species.
What we do know is that dwarf minke whales grow to about eight metres in length, which makes them the smallest members of the baleen whales. They do not have any teeth but instead baleen plates, like long fingernails, hanging from their upper jaw. These plates allow them to filter food like small fish and krill from the water. Dwarf minke whales possibly live up to 50 or 60 years, based on the lifespan of the larger common minke whales found in the Northern Hemisphere.
THE DOs & DON’Ts
When photographing these most friendly and trusting whales it is important to have a good understanding of the Code. First and foremost, it is illegal to swim directly towards a whale. It wouldn’t help in any way in getting a good shot as minke whales can swim much faster than humans! Dwarf minke whales are over six metres long and may come as close as one to three metres from a snorkeller. If you are that lucky, remember that it is illegal to touch a whale. You might startle it and put yourself and the whale at risk of injury. There is also a guideline recommendation not to wear a weight belt when snorkelling on the line as this pulls your legs down. Consequently, the whales will stay further away.
One of the main rules when photographing whales is use natural light only. That means absolutely no flash photos of the whales while snorkelling or scuba diving since the bright light may harm the whales’ big eyes. Since the closest encounters are while snorkelling at the surface, you should keep the shutter speeds faster then 125th of a second or adjust the ISO.
At the start of the trips, we ask all guests to synchronise the dates and time on their cameras so any of the photos taken can be used for the research project if the guests would like to donate them. Most people are more than happy to do so and this has been a great benefit to the research. We have taken many of the world’s top photographers including Jürgen Freund, who won several prestigious awards with his minke images in competitions including the Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2007 and Nature’s Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International Awards 2007. However, over the years, fantastic photos have been taken even with “compact” cameras.
IN A NUTSHELL
Scientific Name: Balaenoptera acutorostrata subspecies
Weight: Up to 6,000 kg
Life Expectancy: 60 years
Conservation Status: IUCN Not Evaluated
Size: 8 m, Size difference between male and female, if any, has yet to be determined
Diet: Small fish and krill
Habitat: Migratory species, habitat ranging from open ocean to continental shelf
Distribution: Dwarf minke whale sightings have been recorded all over the Southern Hemisphere, including Australia, New Zealand, Antarctic, South Africa and South America
Taken from Asian Diver Issue 02/2010