SNORKELLING WITH HUMPBACK WHALES, MOOLOOLABA, QUEENSLAND
It was a beautiful day for snorkelling with humpback whales off the magnificent Sunshine Coast. The sky was azure blue and the ocean was calm as we headed out of the Mooloolah River. We were on board “4 Shore” with a crew of 5 including Dan, son of Phil Hart, owner of Sunreef and the entrepreneur responsible for this Australian first. Whale watchers and snorkelers were a mix of tourists and media personnel – fifteen in total.
We headed east from the river then north when suddenly the skipper shouted “Whales!!” That was the trigger for a military style call to action as Dan deployed the 30 metre safety line out the back of the boat for snorkelers who were already briefed, pumped and reading to slip into the water.
We had been allocated into groups – group 1 was ready in wetsuits, complete with snorkel, mask and fins.
Crew had attached shark guards to ankles and suddenly it became real, we were about to enter the big blue in the middle of a shipping and humpback whale highway to snorkel with one of the largest animals on the earth.
HUMPBACK WHALES AHOY!
Humpback whales pass our shore from June to late October each year as they move north to return from end destinations on the Great Barrier Reef to the whale watching hot spot of Hervey Bay. It’s an annual migration from Antarctica through the Southern Ocean to warmer waters of the Tasman and Coral Seas. Humpbacks do not feed during the migration as they are on track to give berth to young and nurture calves in the relatively warm waters like Hervey Bay where they are less likely to be affected by predatory orcas and great white sharks.
Sunreef operate with protocols established by snorkel encounters with minke whales further north. The boat comes to a halt about 100 metres from the whales and snorkelers rely on the natural curiosity of humpbacks to swim towards them. Sometimes whales did, sometimes they didn’t.
When they did, a group would lower themselves into the refreshing 21 degree centigrade open ocean water, find a place on the safety line and keep heads down in anticipation of a once in a lifetime encounter.
Humpback whales are very inquisitive and they will approach boats to investigate. If you are lucky, they might spy hop to get eye to eye contact, perform tail slaps, pectoral slaps, breaches and even a dip under a boat to surprise all on board as they forcefully exhale and fill the air with sound and vapour.
Then it happened. Two whales changed their course and came over to within about 20 metres of us. They slowed right down. The visibility in the water was better than 20 metres and when one turned I could see a massive glow of white from its underbelly. They kept moving and on two occasions they approached the boat and passed under our keel. What thrilling moments. This was an unforgettable close encounter.
On local diving trips I have often heard whale song carried through the water and felt the sound so intensely that I expect them to appear at any moment. My closest previous encounter was off Mozambique in 2012 where I was the only one in the water to experience the awe and wonder of a mother and calf heading south at the end of the season. They are massive, unhurried and graceful. Interestingly, I heard no whale song while I was in the water this time. Perhaps our whales were females and juveniles with no males in pursuit?
We were lucky enough to see eleven or twelve whales in all and 4 Shore was positioned for eight water entries. Excellent considering this is very early in the season and humpbacks are on a mission to continue north, not to loiter on the Sunshine Coast. Later in the year I expect the humpback whales to be much closer to shore and moving more slowly with calves and guardians to display very different behaviours. That would deliver more opportunities for snorkelers to see nurturing behaviours.
Females with calves might seek out Sunreef’s boat as a strategy to shield themselves from the unwanted and persistent efforts by males wanting to mate and separate mothers from their young. Anything could happen, history is being experienced here and stories of the up close and personal kind will be told.
SUNSHINE COAST, AN AUSTRALIAN FIRST
This venture is an Australian first for snorkelling with humpback whales and it has taken two years to get to this point. This first season will have a steep learning curve for Sunreef as a family owned and operated business and for the scientists and whale volunteers from University of the Sunshine Coast who can observe and record whale data on every Sunreef whale snorkel charter.
I was impressed. The adventure ran smoothly from the 8:00 am start at Sunreef to the jubilant return by lunchtime. Briefings were short, clear and understood. Instructions were easy to follow and the atmosphere was upbeat and respectful of the whales. Food parcels in blue plastic bags were unexpected but appreciated. Some tourists and media personnel had a whale experience of a lifetime and those who didn’t see whales while they were in the water were caught up in the euphoria of those who had.
And the season has only just begun. I will return later in the season and several of the tourists who were on board said that they would do the same.
Thumbs up Sunreef, you have a professional operation that promises to improve the Sunshine Coast as a destination. We are indebted to you for the risk and vision required to get this world class experience happening. This is a win-win for everyone, Sunreef, the local sunshine coast community and for international tourists, as this WILL become a world attraction.
[Words and photos by Tony Isaacson]