Dwarf Minke Whales and their hero Dr. Alastair Birtles aboard Mike Ball Spoilsport

The Ribbon Reefs, Great Barrier Reef, off Queensland’s north coast, plays home to the inquisitive Dwarf Minke Whales each Australian winter. Being aboard the Spoilsport, Mike Balls’ very comfortable, custom-built dive boat, and swimming with Dwarf Minke Whales is an experience I will never forget. Doctor Alastair Birtles, the lead researcher of the Minke Whale Project, is also on board the Spoilsport. My encounters with the Dwarf Minke Whales is soul-touching; my encounter with the knowledgable and gracious Dr. Alastair Birtles is life-changing.

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Dwarf Minke Whales on the Ribbon Reefs Great Barrier Reef

Aggregating on the Ribbon Reefs, Great Barrier Reef each winter, the season to swim with Dwarf Minke Whales is short, between June and July. Few operators are licensed for “swim with whales tourism,” a very popular liveaboard, so be sure to book early; there is often a 12-month wait list. I have been counting the days to the Minke liveaboard, watching the weather, following Mike Ball’s reef reports, and viewing footage from previous trips. I can barely wait to be up close and personal with the whales. I am not expecting to be inspired by the wonderful Dr. Alastair Birtles.

Dwarf Minke Whale in blue water, Ribbon Reefs
Dwarf Minke Whale on the Ribbon Reefs

Aboard Mike Ball’s the Spoilsport, swimming with Dwarf Minke Whales

Mike Ball’s Spoilsport is the perfect vessel for our liveaboard. It soon becomes home with comfortable cabins, delicious meals, and a spacious dive deck. Our cabins are easily accessible from the dive deck with a hot shower and air conditioning. Photographers have ample room for their camera equipment, the crew is always on hand to help, and gearing up is easy.

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Mike Ball offers the option to dive on nitrox when you book. Whenever I do multiple dives, I choose Nitrox, as it helps with fatigue and gives senior scuba women longer dives with shorter surface intervals. PADI offers a specialty course, PADI enriched air (nitrox).

A senior scuba woman aboard Mike Ball's dive boat the Spoilsport
A senior scuba woman very excited to be on the Ribbon Reefs

Dwarf Minke Whales and their hero Dr. Alastair Birtles aboard Mike Ball

On board the Spoilsport to share his knowledge and study the Dwarf Minke Whales, Dr. Alastair Birtles’s approach to conservation is measured and genuine, his knowledge undeniable. Dr. Birtles only wants the best outcome for the marine animals he studies. Alastair also recognizes tourism’s value in supporting his conservation and research efforts. Responsible for the Code of Behaviour around many tourism and animal interactions, the protocols he has instigated make for an enjoyable experience, keeping both animals and humans safe. Through him, I have learned and broadened my understanding of conservation and my role in preserving and protecting the reefs and their inhabitants.


Dr. Birtles one of the first scientists to discover the Dwarf Minke Whales on the Great Barrier Reef

One of the first scientists to discover the Dwarf Minke Whales on the Great Barrier Reef in the 1980s, Dr. Birtles was born in England, initially studying zoology at Oxford University. Already committed to the environment, Alastair spent much of his youth traveling and working in developing countries. I imagine a young Alastair backpacking, studying, teaching, and enjoying nature. The outdoors, his home, the beach, his bedroom. Passionately sharing his knowledge, lecturing in the evening, his suit carefully rolled up in his backpack to prevent creases before retiring back to the beach for the night.

Dr Alastair Birtles looking at a laptop
Dr. Alastair Birtles

Dr Alastair Birtles Swim with Dwarf Minke Whales Tourism on the Great Barrier Reef

Alastair later studied marine biology at James Cook University and is now based in Townsville. A forerunner in finding the delicate balance between sustainable tourism and conservation – whale sharks, sharks, whales, dolphins, turtles, and dugongs have all come under his protection. His considered approach has broadened my understanding of conservation and the importance of protecting our reefs and their inhabitants. The Minkes are incredibly lucky to have Dr. Birtles in their corner of the ocean.

Dr. Alastair Birtles on the top deck of  the Spoilsport
Dr Birtles watching for Dwarf Minke Whales

Mike Ball’s Minke Whale expedition visits many incredible dive sites on the Ribbon Reefs. Any scuba woman would love diving Lighthouse Bommie, the famous Cod Hole, and Steve’s Bommie. In his seventies, Doctor Birtles is still an active diver(something else to be admired). Rather than dive these stunning and pristine dive sites, Alastair elects to remain on the top deck watching for Dwarf Minke Whales. He feels an obligation to the Minkes; his commitment is undeniable.

A scuba woman, giant potato cod at the Cod Hole, Ribbon Reefs.
A scuba woman at the Cod Hole

Dr. Birtles’s gentle manner reflects his respect and love for these unique animals. After more than twenty years of studying the Dwarf Minke Whale, Alastair still considers his interactions a privilege. His evident love, sensible approach, and care for our aquatic world is impressive.

Interacting with Dwarf Minke Whales on the Great Barrier Reef

Our interactions with the Dwarf Minkes are at the whale’s discretion. The protocols are straightforward –the whales must approach the boat and us. It is illegal in Australia to swim toward a whale. When the Minkes are in the area, we quietly slip into the water, holding onto lines from the boat. We wait and hope for an encounter. The rules are firm; at no stage are we to swim or dive after the whales. Luckily, the Dwarf Minkes are curious and choose to spend several hours swimming around the boat and interacting with us.

Alastair outlasts us all in the water. The detail of his research and the data he collects is astounding. Alastair values our inclusion, asking us to donate any photos or videos we take to the Minke Whale Project. The hours and hours of footage will keep many graduate students busy for a very long time.

Alastair talks of the whales as friends, distinguishing their markings and personalities with affection. Later as we relax in the comfortable saloon, Alastair explains his drawings, which he completed during our encounters; I am amazed by their detail. The Spoilsport is moving, the line is moving, the water is moving, you are moving, 6-tonne Dwarf Minke Whales are moving around you. Somehow Alastair manages to note the Minke’s features and record their behaviors and characteristics. Our encounters often last for hours, the ocean at times choppy. Alastair not only remains in the water with his friends, the Minkes, he also completes comprehensive depictions identifying individual whales.

Dwarf minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) underwater in the Great Barrier Reef
Dwarf minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) underwater in the Great Barrier Reef

Partial and Full ID’s Dwarf Minke Whale Research

Under Alastair’s guidance, I begin recognizing different whales’ markings and excitedly complete a partial ID. (identifying one side of the whale). It is a complicated process; each dorsal fin is like a fingerprint, with no two markings the same. The left and right sides of the animal differ, complicating the identification process. Identifying and matching both sides of a Dwarf Minke is a complete ID, something I couldn’t quite manage. Approximately one-quarter of whales sighted each year have been sighted in previous years. Many approach different vessels throughout the Dwarf Minke season.


Listening to Alastair talk, I am struck by the kinship. He knows many of the whales intimately, regaling us with a story of a whale he met years ago named Trumpet. They crossed paths another year, and he chuckled as he relayed her provocative tummy roles. Apparently, she was quite an exhibitionist, earning her the nickname Strumpet.

Mike Ball's custom dive boat, The Spoilsport on the Great Barrier Reef on a cloudy day
The Spoilsport on Ribbon Reef #10

Doctor Alastair Birtles does not believe the Minkes recognize him. I am not so sure; they are obviously curious, intelligent creatures. If he can identify them, I think they can remember him; they indeed stayed around even when Alastair was the only person left in the water. I personally believe Strumpet was showing her pleasure at seeing him again.

The Dwarf Minke Whales are on the Great Barrier Reef Ribbon Reefs

There are two species of Minke Whales; the Northern Minke Whale/Common Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) and the slightly larger Antarctic Minke Whale/Southern Minke Whale. (Balaenoptera bonaerensis). Dwarf Minke Whales are believed to be a subspecies of the Common Minke Whale and are found in the Southern Hemisphere. A baleen whale, Dwarf Minke Whales, are the 2nd smallest whale, the Pygmy Whale being the smallest.

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The lead researcher of the Minke Whale Project, Dr. Birtles, ensures research is about the safety and well-being of the whales. Collecting data and information for the Minke Whale Project is never to the whale’s detriment. Researchers know the Minkes aggregate in the warmer waters of the Ribbon Reefs for 6 to 8 weeks in winter before disappearing into the blue. Wanting to track their migration Alastair waited years until a smaller dart was developed, minimizing any discomfort to the Minkes. Gathering their data and learning the Dwarf Minke Whales travel to the Antarctic, they acquired the information they needed and stopped the darting.

Sunset on the Ribbon Reefs
Sunset on the Ribbon Reefs

A Scuba Woman & a Minke Whale connect on the Great Barrier Reef

The whale encounters are indescribable, magnificent, more than anything I could have hoped for….. and I was hoping for a lot.

At one point, I look into the eyes of a whale. Eye-to-eye contact with a Dwarf Minke Whale is something I will never forget. 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 confident 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.

I also have moments listening to Alastair speak so genuinely. His approach to conservation has inspired me. The research is important – the animal more important. He also understands the importance of managing tourism around these encounters and has set guidelines to ensure a positive experience for both animal and human. He is a gentle man, with an enormous reverence for all that this wonderful planet has to offer.

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 could not fault Mike Ball Dive Expeditions and have booked a year ahead for their Turtle Spectacular.

To learn more about the Dwarf Minke Whales visit minkewhaleproject.org and Dr Alastair Birtles

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Published by emptynestdiver

Learning to dive in my fifties has been a great adventure, I am a senior scuba diver but young at heart.

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