Text by Cecile Brosolo
Images by Giancarlo Brosolo, Jurgen Freund and various contributors
It’s winter in mid-July on the Great Barrier Reef, north of Cairns, and the sea is rough and cold. I’ve been floating in the ocean, hanging to this snorkel line for 15 minutes now, and I can’t help but question: “What on Earth am I doing here?” But just a few seconds later, two massive dark shapes appear from the blue depths. They glide gracefully and effortlessly through the ocean, just a dozen metres away from us. They’re beautifully streamlined, with sharply pointed snouts, large dark-grey backs covered with complex patterns, white flippers with dark tips at their sides, and long tapering tails. There is no doubt that the mighty creatures surrounding me are dwarf minke whales.
This magical encounter lasts for about 20 minutes, whilst the whales come and go as they please. Amongst the many wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, the opportunity to swim with the dwarf minke whales is definitely one of the most memorable. Overcome with emotion, we realise just how privileged we are to share the ocean with these gentle creatures, an awareness that makes us float through the day.
Every winter, from May to August, pods of dwarf minke whales migrate to the tropical waters of the Great Barrier Reef, around the Ribbon Reefs between Port Douglas and Lizard Island, north of Cairns. The vast majority (about 90 percent) of sightings are between June and July.
This extraordinary aggregation doesn’t seem to happen anywhere else in the world, and provides rare opportunities for tourists. Like other baleen whales, minke whales appear to migrate from high latitude feeding grounds in the summer to low latitude grounds in winter. As of yet, scientists are unsure why the whales gather here, but for many this lack of clarity simply feeds the sense of mystery and intrigue that surrounds these incredible creatures.
MINKE EXPEDITIONS, RESPONSIBLE TOURISM
Most countries do not allow tourists to swim with whales, but Australia has adopted a different and interesting approach by developing an ecologically sustainable form of tourism. The GBR Marine Park authorities, together with researchers and tourism operators, have developed a “code of good practice”, ensuring strict protocols for vessels, skippers and crew, as well as for snorkellers and divers, to allow interaction with whales in an environmentally responsible way.
But this cruise is more than just a dive trip; it’s a real exploratory expedition, dedicated to the dwarf minke whales. Hosted by Mike Ball, in association with the Minke Whale Project (MWP), it enables each snorkeller or diver to contribute to the research and monitoring programmes.
Dr Matthew Curnock is also on-board. He’s a passionate and awarded James Cook University researcher, whose fascinating briefings about the minke whale’s biology and behaviour help make this expedition such an outstanding experience.
Matt happily spends stints of six hours in the water in a row to study these mammals. When he’s not below the sea, he’s on the deck scanning the horizon, and it’s never too long before he, or another spotter from the top of the boat, roars “MINKE!”. Time for us to leap into the water, following along the two snorkel lines the crew throws out from the stern. Swimming towards the whales is not allowed, and frankly I don’t think it would have crossed anyone’s mind given the strong current. Anyway, it would be totally unnecessary as these whales are extremely inquisitive and often choose to approach humans. It seems we have a mutual interest in each other!
With the broad experience and depth of knowledge of the researchers and crew, amazing encounters are virtually guaranteed each day. These opportunities usually happen when snorkelling, but occasionally when diving, which is exactly how it happened on the last dive of our expedition, on Steve’s Bommie, when two whales approached the boat just as we began our descent and gave us the greatest of pleasure as they stayed with us for almost the duration of one hour dive.