Swim with Minke Whale Expedition, Great Barrier Reef

July 7, 2010

Dwarf minke whales visit the tropical waters of Far North QLD for a few weeks each winter. These little whales (averaging about 6m in length) are unique in their behaviour to search out and engage with boats and snorkelers/divers, earning them a reputation as the world's friendliest whale.

The team at Eye to Eye Marine Encounters (previously Undersea Explorer) has been carrying out join tourism-research whale expeditions to study these amazing animals in the wild for the past 15 years and were instrumental in the development of a Code Of Practice for in-water dwarf minke whale interactions.

With a strong focus on sustainability, education, fun and premier wildlife encounters, Eye to Eye Marine Encounters goes above and beyond to provide their guests with unforgettable marine adventure.

The team awoke to a group of 6 minkes milling around the boat - their eagerness to interact palpable and spilling over to those on board. While the excited guests began gearing up, Dr. Alastair Birtles (chief scientist of the Minke Whale Project) jumped into the water, taking up his usual position on the 'minke line' (a rope that everyone must hold onto during these interactions to ensure our movements are predictable for the whales) laden with camera equipment, slates, pencils and data sheets (a tough job but someone has to do it!).

As time passed, and the whales' trust in their human playmates grew, they came closer and closer with each pass. Eventually, some bold individuals were approaching to within a few feet – an incredible and unforgettable experience. Throughout this interaction other individuals continued to join the group, peaking at 40+ whales! Such an experience set a new record not only for max. number of animals ever seen but also for the length of encounter – an unbelievable 11 hours straight!

It was hard to determine whether these curious little whales were more interested in humans or each other, but there is no doubt that both parties thoroughly enjoyed their time together. Guests watched in awe as the whales preformed a mesmerizing dance of twists, turns and arches - a secret language choreographed by Mother Nature. This performance also came with a soundtrack - an otherworldly stream of grunts, squeals and belches (which were amplified by the water and could be felt as deep vibrations throughout the body), which communicated a wealth of secrets that we humans were not privy to.

Scientists believe that the majority of dwarf minkes involved in these interactions are young adults - the equivalent of 'teenagers' that come to the warm GBR waters to court and learn the ways of the world. Our experience definitely backed this theory and at times we seemed to be caught in the middle of a 'social mixer' for whales! It goes without saying that everyone present felt extremely honoured to witness this age-old rite of passage.

With the arrival of dusk (~6:00pm), Dr Birtles was finally forced to leave the water which signalled an end to the longest and most populous minke whale experience on record (with Alastair racking up a new record of 11 hours spent with the whales - without even leaving the line for a drink or snack!). 

An expose of this exceptional expedition was featured on the Channel 7 Sunday Night Program pand can be seen on youtube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ahlj8cPX-J4

For more on minke whales check out this page: http://www.minkewhales.com.au/Swim_with_whales.html

Locations visited

Lizard Island


Whales, Dolphins & Seals 6 species
Northern Minke Whale, Dwarf Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) 40 Most ever minkes and longest encounter on record!
Long-snouted Spinner Dolphin (Stenella longirostris) 1
Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis) 1
Irrawaddy Dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) 1
Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) 1
Indo-pacific Hump-backed Dolphin (Sousa chinensis) 1
Squid, Cuttlefish and Octopus 1 species
Cuttlefishes (Sepiidae) 1
Seabirds 4 species
Brown Noddy (Anous stolidus) 1
Black Tern (Chlidonias niger) 1
Little Tern (Sternula albifrons) 1
Lesser Frigatebird (Fregata ariel) 1
Sharks and Rays 4 species
Blunthead Shark (Triaenodon obesus) 1
Black-tip Reef Shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus) 1
Stingrays (Dasyatidae) 1
Grey Reef Shark, Graceful Shark (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchoides) 1
Bony Fish 13 species
Bullethead Parrotfish (Chlorurus sordidus) 1
Black Anemone-fish (Amphiprion melanopus) 1
Australian Moray (Gymnothorax cribroris) 1
Moorish Idol (Zanclus cornutus) 1
Two-spot Damselfish (Chrysiptera biocellata) 1
Bluespot Butterflyfish (Chaetodon plebeius) 1
Bleeker's Parrotfish (Chlorurus bleekeri) 1
Barrier Reef Anemonefish (Amphiprion akindynos) 1
Big Longnose Butterflyfish (Forcipiger longirostris) 1
Pink Anemonefish (Amphiprion perideraion) 1
Common Coral Trout (Plectropomus leopardus) 1
Big-eye Tuna (Thunnus obesus) 1
Humphead Maori Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) 1
Marine Reptiles 3 species
Olive Seasnake (Aipysurus laevis) 1
Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) 1
Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas) 1



Jen M. on September 9, 2011 about Swim with Minke Whale Expedition, Great Barrier Reef

Amazing experience! This trip was by far the best thing Ive ever done. The crew were extremely knowledgeable and respectful of the whales and made sure that we were all well briefed on 'minke etiquette'. Our good manners underwater meant that the whales trust in us grew over time and eventually lead to them approaching within a few feet of us! To be that close to a large wild animal is an experience that will stick with me forever. I think everyone should do this at least once (if not more!) in their life.

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