Underwater encounters with whales are very rare unless you travel to destinations where they gather to feed or breed. But even then these large marine mammals are often very shy and most encounters are very brief. However, there is one member of the whale family that seeks out boats and snorkelers – the wonderful dwarf minke whale.
The dwarf minke whale is the smallest member of the baleen whales, growing to only 8m in length. This species is 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.
These small whales are very different to their larger cousins, as when in reef waters they are strangely attracted to stationary boats, often hanging around for hours and even days. This has allowed dive operators, with special swim-with-whale permits, to place snorkelers in the water with these curious mammals for some remarkable encounters.
While dwarf minke whales can be seen almost anywhere on the Great Barrier Reef over winter, they are most frequently seen on the Ribbon Reefs, especially in June and July. During this period the liveaboard boats that operate to these remote reefs can almost guarantee a close encounter with a dwarf minke whale.
One of the boats that operates to this area each week is Spirit of Freedom. I recently joined Spirit of Freedom for a three day Ribbon Reefs trip in late July in the hope of a dwarf minke whale encounter, and can honestly say I had a whale of a time.
After boarding the 37m long vessel in Cairns in the morning, our first day saw us diving off Cairns at Norman Reef. We did two wonderful dives at a site called Troppos, seeing a great variety of reef fish, reef sharks, turtles and stingrays. Overnight we headed north, to the heart of the Ribbon Reefs.
The next morning I woke to find us moored at Steve’s Bommie and the news that a dwarf minke whale was already circling the boat. I was keen to jump straight in, but trip director Lucy Hutchinson said we would do a dive first and then snorkel with the whale. The dive at Steve’s Bommie was sensational, 30m visibility, schooling reef and pelagic fish, plus a great assortment of marine life. I even saw the dwarf minke whale swim by at the edge of the visibility.
After the dive it was minke time. After a briefing about dwarf minke whale procedures – no splashing, no diving, just hang onto the line and the whale will inspect you – the crew fed out a surface line for us to hang onto.
I silently slipped into the water and made my way to the end of the line. After ten minutes and no whale a few people headed in for breakfast, but I stuck it out and was rewarded ten minutes later when the whale finally decided to have a look at me. It was an incredible sight, the 6m long whale silently gliding by. Over the next hour the whale made another nine passes, allowing me to closely observe, photograph and study this majestic mammal.
I was not the only one closely studying this whale as in the water with me was Martha Brians, the senior research officer for the Minke Whale Project. Martha was videoing the whale with a special rig to determine the size of the whale and also record the distinctive patterns and scars that help to identify individual whales. The research project, with assistance from charter boats like Spirit of Freedom, has been on-going for almost 30 years and shedding a little light on these mysterious cetaceans.
All too soon the encountered ended, and it was time for another great dive at Steve’s Bommie. Heading further north we had brilliant dives at Google Gardens and Challenger Bay. Another dwarf minke whale was spotted, but it didn’t come in to play. On some trips two, four or a dozen whales can come in to circle the boat, and often snorkelers exit the water cold and tired before the whales have lost interest.
The next day we dived a dwarf minke whale hotspot, Lighthouse Bommie. This towering pinnacle was a great dive with schools of trevally and snapper, reef sharks, turtles and olive sea snakes. Upon surfacing I learnt that two dwarf minke whales had been spotted. Unfortunately, these whales were a little shy, and after an hour in the water they only came by for one quick look.
Our last two dives were at Dynamite Pass and the famous Cod Hole. Both dives were incredible, but the over-friendly potato cod of Cod Hole were the highlight. With our dives finished we headed to Lizard Island for a barbeque dinner, and the next morning reluctantly flew back to Cairns on a wonderful low-level flight.