Each Australian winter, the Great Barrier Reef plays host to some very special visitors. In fact, it’s the only place in the world where you can don mask and snorkel in warm tropical water, and swim with dwarf minke whales. Diveplanit’s Deborah Dickson-Smith shares her minke magic experience.
An encounter with one of these gentle giants is a life-changing moment, a moment you’ll remember for years to come, each time you recall it, feeling the same raw excitement and emotion you felt the first time. In fact, even writing this article, I feel those emotions bubbling up now!
My first encounter was several years ago, but I remember it like it was this morning. After steaming north overnight from Cairns, we wake up bright and early on the Ribbon Reefs and slip quietly into the water not long after sunrise.
It’s a hushed atmosphere as we quietly wait for our first sighting. And then they’re here. One, two – maybe six minkes. Some appearing and disappearing quickly, nothing more than a brilliant flash of white. And they gradually become bolder, swim closer, until they are cruising by at eye level. If there’s a more humbling experience than staring into the eye of a five-tonne mammal on the world’s most famous reef, I’ve yet to find it.
By the time I drag myself in for breakfast, I’m shivering with excitement, babbling to anyone that will listen, my fingers resembling prunes as I try to scroll through the hundreds of photos I’ve managed to take.
Dwarf minke whales visit the northern Great Barrier Reef in June and July each year, forming the only known predictable aggregation of these whales in the world. The extroverts of the whale family, they are incredibly inquisitive and often approach boats and snorkelers, sometimes interacting for extended periods.
The second smallest member of the baleen whale family, growing up to eight metres long, they are only found in the Southern Hemisphere, spending the summer months feeding in sub-Antarctic waters and migrating to the warm waters of the Great Barrier Reef over winter to breed and give birth.
While dwarf minke whales can be seen almost anywhere on the Great Barrier Reef over winter, they are most frequently seen in the north on the Ribbon Reefs, sometimes visiting the Agincourt Ribbon Reefs accessible on a day tour from Port Douglas.
Who to go whale diving with on the Great Barrier Reef…
Operating out of Port Douglas, Quicksilver’s Silversonic and Poseidon Cruises, as well as Calypso Reef Charters visit the Agincourt Reefs where minkes have been sighted between June and September each year. These operators each hold one of the few permits available from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority that allow guests to swim with dwarf minke whales if encountered.
In June and July, the dive liveaboards visiting Ribbon Reefs further to the north can almost guarantee an encounter. Operating out of Cairns, permit holders Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, Spirit of Freedom and Divers Den run multi-day trips, offering a mix of diving the Ribbon Reef’s best sites and encounters with dwarf minke whales on snorkel.
Liveaboard trips are suitable for both snorkelers and scuba divers. For divers, the whale action combined with excellent winter visibility on the Ribbon Reefs makes for a great experience. The short two-month season gets booked up months in advance so it’s advisable to book early.
Mike Ball Dive Expeditions run three, four and seven-day Minke Whale Expeditions aboard Spoilsport. There are up to four scuba dives (and snorkels) loosely scheduled each day. But when the minkes are out, it’s everyone in — no tanks required. Since commencing Minke Whale Expeditions in 1996 the company boasts a 98 per cent success rate. The largest pod seen was 28 whales, the longest encounter was 10 hours.
While Spirit of Freedom is not operating in 2021, the boat will be back in the water in 2022, in time for Minke Whale Season. Normally Spirit of Freedom offers a three-day Minke Whale and Ribbon Reefs Adventure, a modification of its Cod Hole trip, spending time exploring the amazing dive sites of the remote Ribbon Reefs, with an underlying focus at all times to maximise in-water encounters with the whales.
Divers Den offer four-day, four-night Minke whale expeditions every year during June and July on board OceanQuest. Tours are open to both snorkellers and divers, with whale interactions strictly controlled. They boast a 90 per cent success rate for close sightings, with interactions sometime lasting over two hours.
If you are interested in learning more about these fascinating creatures, Divers Den also offer a PADI Minke Whale Awareness Specialty which can be completed on your trip. On the course, you’ll learn about their biology, how to identify them by their markings, how they behave as well as gain insight into the pressures and threats to their populations worldwide, and what conservation efforts are being made to protect them.
For a more luxurious encounter, guests at Lizard Island Resort can book a 3-hour or full day private snorkel or dive charter for up to six people aboard its Riviera Cruise Vessel, the MV Duyfken. Although there is no guarantee of a sighting on tours, the inquisitive minkes often come up to boats in the waters surrounding Lizard Island.
Safe encounters… for minkes and divers
A code of practice is in place to manage safety for both divers and whales, providing the maximum opportunity to see whales at very close range while ensuring the whales interact on their terms. Most diver and whale interactions occur while snorkelling.
The voluntary approach to the vessel (and swimmers) by minke whales creates a unique in-water experience. Abiding by these codes, a maximum of two surface ropes are placed in the water with swimmers then positioned 3-4 metres apart for a safe encounter. The whales actually control the encounter in that they decide how close they interact.
Dwarf minkes are highly inquisitive and often approach snorkellers and divers to within close distances, sometimes interacting for extended periods. Close approaches (within 3m) occur occasionally and are more likely to happen when snorkellers are stationary in the water, holding onto a rope, remaining relatively still and calm. Very close approaches of 1m or less are rare, but have been experienced, usually in longer encounters where the whales’ confidence has increased, possibly due to the predictability of swimmers’ movements.
The Minke Whale Project
Most of the Great Barrier Reef tour operators that offer dwarf minke whale expeditions contribute to scientific research into these enigmatic creatures, and guests are invited to participate.
Based at James Cook University, the Minke Whale Project conducts multi-disciplinary research into dwarf minke whale biology and behaviour, the social and economic values of the whales and the sustainable management of swim-with-whales tourism.
With assistance from charter boats like Mike Ball’s Spoilsport and Spirit of Freedom, the project has been on-going for almost 30 years and has started to shed a little light on these mysterious cetaceans. Both operators host volunteer minke whale researchers on each minke whale expedition, and guests are encouraged to assist the research by using data collection forms to record whale observations and by sharing their photos to the database.
Research is continuing to define the exact species of dwarf minke whale that visits the Great Barrier Reef. There are two known species, the North Atlantic minke whale and the slightly larger Antarctic minke whale. It is thought that the Great Barrier Reef dwarf minke whale is related to the North Atlantic minke or is an un-named species.
Ongoing research aims to map migratory paths, identifying critical habitat and potential feeding grounds and identify risks and threats beyond the protected waters of the Great Barrier Reef.
Guests can also contribute to the future of the Minke Whale Project by donating.
More information: minkewhaleproject.org
Find out more about minke whale diving on the Great Barrier Reef…
The 2021 Minke Whale season is already heavily booked, so it is recommended you book early for the 2022 season. Talk to a dive specialist travel agency for individual and group booking enquiries for whale diving on the Great Barrier Reef.
Keen for more diving? Check out shark diving in Shellharbour.
This article first appeared in Scuba Diver ANZ.