An exhilarating, low-level, scenic flight to Lizard Island begins our swimming with Dwarf Minke Whales adventure. I have chosen Mike Ball Dive Expeditions to host my Minke Whale odyssey; operating since 1986, Mike Ball Dive Liveaboard has a reputation for excellence. Boarding Mike Ball’s custom-built dive boat, the Spoilsport, we are given a dive itinerary outlining the various dive sites we hope to visit. The dive plan is fluid, dictated by the movements of the Minkes and when and if they choose to approach us. They are, after all, what this trip is about. With a 98% success rate, I am praying I am not part of the 2%. As the Spoilsport navigates towards our dive site – Lighthouse Bommie, lookouts scan the ocean for whales. Our journey, though, is not about finding them; we hope they find us.
Table of Contents
- When can you scuba dive with Dwarf Minke Whales?
- When is the time to swim with Dwarf Minke Whales?
- Where do Dwarf Minke Whales live?
- How big are Dwarf Minke Whales?
- Dwarf Minke Whales on the Ribbon Reefs Great Barrier Reef
- A scuba woman & a Minke Whale connect on the Great Barrier Reef
- A senior scuba diver, research and the Minke Whale Project
- What sound do Dwarf Minke Whales make?
- When are Dwarf Minke Whales sexually mature?
- A scuba woman’s 2nd ecounter with Minkes on the Great Barrier Reef
- Licenced snorkel and dive tours with Dwarf Minke Whales
When can you scuba dive with Dwarf Minke Whales?
June and July are magical months on the Great Barrier Reef. Scuba women worldwide travel to Queensland’s outer reefs to enjoy the brilliant visibility, calm water, and sunny days. The real attraction is the Dwarf Minke Whales. Spending the summer months in the sub-Antarctic, each winter, the solitary Dwarf Minkes are thought to travel to the northern Ribbon Reefs to socialize and mate. Dwarf Minkes are exceptionally inquisitive and are known to approach boats, divers, and snorkelers voluntarily. Interactions can be brief or may last for hours; the longest known contact 10 hours. Dwarf Minke Whales are more likely to approach snorkelers than scuba divers.
When is the time to swim with Dwarf Minke Whales?
Most Minke sightings occur between June and July; we are on the reef in mid-July and are hoping to possibly see some early humpback whales along with the Dwarf Minkes. The whales dictate the terms of all the interactions; swimming toward or chasing Dwarf Minke Whales is illegal. Sensible protocols keep the whales and snorkelers safe, sustaining swims with whales for future generations, for both humans and whales.
Where do Dwarf Minke Whales live?
Migrating from the Antarctic to the warmer Australian waters, the Great Barrier Reef is the only location worldwide where you may swim with Dwarf Minke Whales. These curious, gentle baleens are most commonly seen on the outer reefs off north Queensland each winter. Pods average 4 to 6 whales; the largest pod encountered was 28 whales.
Curious about where the whales went after their summer sojourn, 4 whales were tracked in 2013. Four weeks later, one of the whales had traveled nearly 3000km to the continental shelf off Sydney. The last transmission received placed the whale in the sub-Antarctic. Ongoing research aims to map migratory paths, identify potential feeding grounds, and risks and threats to the Minkes.
As we moor and gear up for our dive, we hear the shout “Minkes.” Without thought, our dive gear is abandoned as we peer over the boat’s sides in the hope of seeing a Dwarf Minke Whale. We are not disappointed. One, two, three, maybe four are cruising past the boat. The Dwarf Minke Whales have found us, and they appear curious.
How big are Dwarf Minke Whales?
With great care, two surface lines are attached to the Spoilsport, sinuously spreading across the water. Termed Dwarf, the Minkes are the 2nd smallest of the whales; the pygmy right whale the smallest. Dwarf Minke Whales grow to 8 meters long and weigh up to 6 tonnes. The average length of a Dwarf Minke is 5meters, with the female being larger in size.
Each snorkeler quickly and quietly slips into the water and moves along the line. The excitement is palpable. Hanging from the surface line, I peer into the blue, straining to see a whale. A flash of white tells me the whales are still with us. It is not long before I see a silhouette in the distance. Enthralled, I watch in awe as a Dwarf Minke Whale swims toward me. Watching it disappear into the blue, I see another two whales directly below me.
Dwarf Minke Whales on the Ribbon Reefs Great Barrier Reef
Dwarf Minke Whales seem to be everywhere, surrounding us. They are coming closer and closer with each swim past. I am overwhelmed by the striking white markings on their dorsal fins and the beautiful grey of their bodies. The Minkes swim with ease and gentleness, taking their time as they investigate the strange beings bobbing in the water. I have to keep reminding myself that these wild animals choose to swim with us humans in a vast ocean. Quietly holding onto the moving surface line, I marvel as one beautiful whale after another swims around me.
To me, their movements resemble a dolphin more than a whale, maybe because they both belong to the Cetacea order. Loosely translated, their family name Balaenopteridae means “baleen whale with a fin.” At any rate, I am excited to have a chance to be up close and personal.
It is exhilarating watching the whales underwater. Intently focused on one Minke Whale, I look over my shoulder to see three more even closer. I can barely contain my excitement as I watch a whale appear and make its way to the surface. Poking his nose into the air as if to observe all that is happening above the surface as well as below.
A scuba woman & a Minke Whale connect on the Great Barrier Reef
As the afternoon progresses, the seas become choppy, but the whales stay. Gradually snorkellers begin to leave the water. My skin is wrinkled by the salty ocean, but I can’t bear to leave while the Minkes are still present. Dwarf Minke Whales continue to swim by me, only a few meters away.
Then it happens – I look into the eyes of a whale. Time stands still as we connect. It is a life-changing moment, a feeling that will stay with me forever. My heart fills. The moment transcends time, a whole body experience. I lose myself in the whale’s eyes and soul. Gradually breaking eye contact, the whale swims directly under me. I am certain if I lower my arm, we will touch. I am one of the very privileged to have had a very close encounter with a Dwarf Minke Whale.
The sun begins to set, and I reluctantly drag myself out of the water, saying goodbye to my newfound baleen friends. I feel guilty leaving them as they seem to want to continue their visit. I have spent nearly seven hours with these friendly inquisitive whales.
A senior scuba diver, research and the Minke Whale Project
Relaxed after a delicious meal, we settle in for the evening as Dr. Alastair Birtles, the chief investigator and lead researcher for the Minke Whale Project, generously shares his knowledge and anecdotes with us. Based at James Cook University, the Minke Whale Project focuses on research into Dwarf Minke biology, their behavior, and the sustainability of swim-with-whales tourism.
A collaborative research effort between tourism operators and James Cook University educates tourists as they experience the whales in a safe environment. All licensed tour operators have a volunteer researcher from the Minke Whale Project on board.
Alastair stresses the importance of the combined conservation efforts of tourists and operators to protect the world’s only known predictable aggregation of Dwarf Minke Whales. He encourages us to be part of the research by contributing photos and observations to their database.
Dr. Birtles explains the complex coloration patterns of the whales. Color patterns differ on the right and the left side of the whale. To identify a whale, a complete ID is required (identification that includes both left and right sides). A partial ID occurs when only one side of the whale is recorded. With my newly acquired knowledge, I intend to try and identify different whales during our subsequent encounters. I am also fascinated to learn the whale’s pectoral fin and our hands contain the same bones.
What sound do Dwarf Minke Whales make?
Dwarf Minke whales are vocal underwater making a sound like the swish of a light saber from Star Wars. So similar, it has been dubbed “star-wars” vocalization. Spanning a broad frequency range, distinct components of the vocalization are repeated, lasting a few seconds to a few minutes. Frequency sounds can travel long distances in water and help the whales communicate.
When are Dwarf Minke Whales sexually mature?
Dwarf Minke Whales are sexually mature at 3-8 years of age and breed every 2 years in late winter to early spring in warmer waters. It has been speculated that the congregation of Dwarf Minke Whales in the Great Barrier Reef is for mating purposes. Apparent courtship behavior occurs when the whales swim belly to belly. After an approximately 10-month gestation period, a single calf is born, about 2 meters long and weighing around 450 kg. There are no known birthing grounds for Dwarf Minke Whales.
A scuba woman’s 2nd ecounter with Minkes on the Great Barrier Reef
My next encounter with the whales was as I surfaced from a dive and noticed the two swim lines out, snorkellers bobbing in the water. Anxious to get in the water, I had to stop to enjoy the view from the boat. It was a very different experience from being in the water with the Minkes but just as exhilarating. I can’t help but laugh as I watch the whales swim around the boat and snorkellers; they really do appear to be enjoying themselves and having fun.
My second and third encounters with the whales are equally thrilling. I bring the knowledge I absorbed from Alastair with me on the swims. I cannot manage a complete ID, but I definitely begin recognizing different whales and completing partial IDs. The Dwarf Minkes do not tire of spending time with us; all interactions are for several hours. Swimming with Dwarf Minke Whales is a privilege, something I will never forget.
Licenced snorkel and dive tours with Dwarf Minke Whales
My advice to anyone wanting to experience an interaction with these curious baleens is to book early. Only a few operators are licensed to conduct snorkel and dive tours to swim with the Dwarf Minke Whales. There is plenty to see on the liveaboards for both snorkellers and divers. I was surprised more than half of our trip were snorkelers leaving divers with ample room on the dive deck
Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, Divers Den, and Spirit of Freedom are all liveaboards permitted to operate snorkeling and diving charters with the Dwarf Minke Whales on the Ribbon Reefs. Divers Den also offers the PADI Minke Whale Awareness Specialty Course. The Dwarf Minke Whale charters depart from Cairns; trips range from three to seven nights.
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