Reef encounters of a special kind

Aimee Jan, 3 Islands Whale Shark Dive, captures Graham and Margaret Greenacres humpback wale interaction.
Photo of Angie Tomlinson

There’s a ‘new’ giant to see at Ningaloo.

Slowly they emerge through the blue, five humpback whales. Two stick close to the surface just 10m away, eyeing the snorkellers while three pass beneath.

“Did we really just see that? Did you see them looking at us?” the excited snorkelers chatter upon surfacing.

This special moment was experienced by Graham and Margaret Greenacre who took advantage of the second-year trial of a humpback whale interaction at the Ningaloo Marine Park in August.

Traditionally the domain of the whale shark, operators are now offering humpback interactions, many with great success. And while these two giants of the deep may both migrate past Ningaloo Reef, they are different creatures.

Whale sharks are slow-moving, and not that bright, fish. Humpbacks are fast-moving, smart mammals. And both offer very different experiences for visitors.

Graham and Margaret were lucky with their early-season tour with 3 Islands Whale Shark Dive. The morning was spent viewing whales from the surface and snorkelling above green and loggerhead turtles, rays, reef sharks and Ningaloo’s colourful fish.

Then it was down to serious business. A spotter plane and boat chose the right group of whales for the group to interact with. Swimmers can’t approach a mother and calf and only five swimmers can be in the water at a time.

“As with all things in life sometimes you can just be lucky. We were in the first group to go into the water and we were positioned so that we were going to be 30-50m from this pod of whales as they swam past,” says Graham.

“Of course we are dealing with wild animals and they of course do not know the rules. As the pod approached they must have decided we were interesting so they just kept on coming closer.”

The curious whales passed within 10m, circling to level again swimming straight at the group passing alongside and below again.

Three Islands managing director Mick Husband says the season so far has turned up some very curious whales.

“Our experience with the whale shark industry no doubt has a part to play in our success rates with humpbacks but they are much faster, bigger and more intelligent. The interactions are definitely all on the whales’ terms,” says Mick.

“Swimming in the wild with a 40 tonne mammal and actually sharing a little moment where the only thing you’re thinking about is what’s in front of you…… that’s pretty amazing.”

The season runs August 1 to October 30, but remember the migration is not a human-scheduled event, so may end naturally sooner. While it is still early, Mick says the second year is proving popular with visitors as they become more aware of the tours. The inaugural season saw 1644 people swim with the humpbacks from August to November when about 40,000 whales migrate through.

Operators use a spotter plane to circle above the boat and radio the humpbacks’ coordinates to the dive master/guide in the water with a radio. The direction of the whale is continually radioed to the group to get in position until the whale approaches the group.

“The humpbacks are unpredictable and more mobile than whale sharks therefore every experience is different,” says Australia’s Coral Coast marketing manager Suzanne Fisher.

She says swimmers are placed in the water about 300-500m from the whale, which comes to them to interact. 

Top image: Aimee Jan, 3 Islands Whale Shark Dive, captures Graham and Margaret Greenacres humpback wale interaction.

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