Words // Dr Olaf Meynecke & Luke Sorensen
Photos // Dr Olaf Meynecke
She soars from the depths, gliding slowly like a colossal ship from some cult science-fiction film. Her dim and shadowy shape appears hazy in the distance, obscured by the light-filtering ambience of the deep Pacific water.
You know something is approaching and its coming for you – you can feel it in your bones. Slowly her lines become defined as she seeks you and inches closer. Your heart is racing, your primary instinct is demanding you to fear and flee this leviathan, yet something halts your nervous thoughts. A sudden rush of wonder and thrill and great accomplished fulfilment washes over your soul – is this what enlightenment truly is? This is me and I’m swimming with a whale.
With the recent announcement from the Western Australian Government that they will be soon allowing people to experience swimming with humpback whales, the spotlight is again aimed at the debate on whether other states should follow their lead, and if in fact the practice itself is safe and of sound moral, ethical and safety standards.
Nine’s 60 Minutes program recently broached the issue which earned mixed responses, but overall it ignited the debate and the imagination of tourists, locals and ocean lovers far and wide.
Gold Coast based Dr Olaf Meynecke – one of Queensland’s leading active whale scientists and marine mammal experts – recently undertook several expeditions off the Queensland coast to investigate the behaviour of the lesser-seen Minke whales. His work alongside these graceful swimmers has opened a door to perhaps an opportunity of a different kind, one that would eliminate the TV screens and magazine spreads from the equation and bring people literally face to face with their own marine wildlife story. But it has also raised many questions and concerns, as tourism operators elsewhere in Queensland and Western Australia scramble to dangle tourists off a rope into the path of a 35-tonne creature to make a few bucks.
Dr Meynecke has been investigating other options and undertaking further observations into the practicality and nature of the idea – an idea that he says is equal in opportunity as it is in moral concern and physical danger.
“We’ve already done two trips to investigate minke whale behaviour off the Great Barrier Reef. These particular whales have a few aggregation sites near Lizard Island during June and July every year,” he says.
Researchers from James Cook University have spent the best part of the last decade working to find out more behavioural insights into these amazing creatures. Despite their growing database of knowledge, little is still known of the migration pathways, breeding grounds and dietary make-up of what is the smallest baleen whale on earth – the dwarf minke whale.
Dr Meynecke believes not only is the research an opportunity for scientists to grow their technical knowledge of this species, but that it also presents an opportunity for a more sustainable and plausible educational tourism experience, one that could see holiday-makers and locals getting into the water, up close and swimming alongside these much smaller whales. He says it’s an experience that could expand people’s philosophical and ideological understanding of the animals as well as the technical scientific understanding.
“As they have been seen in the southern ocean, close to humpback whales, it is safe to assume that they are taking a similar migration route to that of our well-known humpback whales, although the minke is thought to pass up the coast a little further offshore than their humpback cousins. They also pass the Gold Coast, but likely further off the coast,” he says.
“An Antarctic minke whale – a larger type of minke – was killed in a Gold Coast shark net last year, so it shows us they are coming here. However, it is also very unusual for this species to come that close to the coast.
“One key interest of mine with this species is in regards to the feasibility and practice of actually getting in and swimming with them as a tourist attraction. This activity has been undertaken from Cairns for a few years now with only a couple of operators licensed to do so, under a strict set of protocols of course.”
Swimming experiences with humpback whales were first advertised in Queensland last year, and have since been explored by several operators applying similar methods to those used in the minke whale program – however they are dealing with much – and we really mean it – much larger animals.
In observing the separate behaviours of dwarf minke whales and humpback whales, Dr Meynecke says he was able to isolate some interesting similarities, but also some strong differences between the species.
Similar behaviours include spy hopping or rather ‘head rising,’ breaching, site or belly presentation and the mugging of boats – where whales congregate and hang around to closely investigate vessels and their occupants.
Swimming with the minkes does seem to have some advantages over the constraints associated with the larger humpbacks, and they have shown a patient and sustained interest in sharing the water with people so far, says Dr Meynecke.
“The dwarf minke whales are fast swimmers when they choose to move, but at the aggregation site we use they seem to more often rest and socialise,” he said.
Dr Meynecke explains how approachable humans must be for the minkes. “Almost all of the pods are often larger than six animals per pod and they actively approach the boats and swimmers.
“Their swimming speed around us was exceptionally slow, and at times they even had their eyes closed when swimming by,” he said.
Dr Meynecke is excited when he tells us just how amazing the experience is, explaining that the curiosity of the animals is evident, spending as much as several hours at a time peacefully alongside the boat and swimmers.
He admits that, of course, each visit is not a predictable encounter, and like most nature-based experiences, you have to wait at times.
“It does require some good patience and a calm attitude from the swimmers’ end of things – to wait patiently in the water until the minke whales decide under their own terms to come closer … then all of a sudden they seem to be almost within reach and you are really up close with them and sharing the ocean,” he tells us.
Dr Meynecke reveals the humpback whale experience is often very different, citing that even when the humpbacks are curious, it’s not common to see them hang around a boat or people for more than 5 or 10 minutes at a time. He says a lot of humpback-watching experiences off the South East Queensland coastlines end with one brief visit from a pod or two, and then the humpbacks move on.
“Only in breeding areas where the humpbacks are staying for longer times and don’t move on as much – in places such as Tonga or Hawaii – is there a chance to really swim for periods of time with them.
“The downside at these places is that the boats still have to approach the whales and more often than not place the people in the whales’ path or nearby. At times it is safe to assume the interaction is not necessarily mutual or chosen by the humpback whale,” he said.
Dr Meynecke’s summary is one of caution and optimism combined – he believes that applying the minke whale methodology to the much larger and less predictable humpback whales is not appropriate. He is joining with others and calling for tighter regulations and limits on it.
“I don’t think it is practical and I support my colleagues’ statements from a recent article in The Guardian – that there is a considerable risk associated with swimming with humpback whales. This is particularly when people are put out on a line from a boat in the coastal waters we have around here,” he said.
“I also do not see how this can be consistently achieved other than for operators to actively breach the enforceable regulations requiring a 100m distance.
“The proper interaction can only happen if the whale approaches the swimmers but I am afraid it will tempt operators to deliberately place their vessels and swimmers in the path of the whales – these whales are migrating, not resting.”
The scientist then laments, “Leaving this emerging industry unregulated and unsupervised is calling for trouble.” //