Swimming with Whales: Dwarf Minke Whale Research Expedition

July 6, 2013

In the Great Barrier Reef off Far North Queensland, a very curious annual event occurs. For just a few short weeks in June and July, the Ribbon Reefs are privy to the only known predictable aggregation of dwarf minke whales in the world. The dwarf minke is a species that was only discovered in the 1980’s and is thought to be a sub species of the northern hemisphere minke, but as of yet is undescribed. Scientists are currently unsure of why the whales come here every year, but one thing seems certain; while they are here, they are very interested in us. During the season dwarf minkes appear to actively seek out vessels in order to have interactions with snorkelers in the water, resulting in an extraordinary wildlife encounter that happens nowhere else in the world. These encounters enable to scientists to begin filling in the knowledge gaps of the newly discovered species, and try to solve the mystery that is these small enigmatic whales.

In July of 2013 I joined a unique collaboration of scientists from the Minke Whale Project of James Cook University, and adventure tourism operation Eye to Eye Marine Encounters headed up by the legendary John Rumney, on Undersea Explorer (UE) for one week to help study the population dynamics and behaviour of the dwarf minke whales. The whole reason this unlikely expedition could take place at all, is and always has been thanks to the paying guests, who’s tickets fund the places on the vessel for the researchers to come along in the first place. Eye to Eye are the original eco tourism operation and have had such huge success that they are now in their 18th year of running swim with the minkes expeditions.

Our particular journey began on the 6th of July in Cooktown, QLD, and UE had already been out for 3 weeks with other groups swimming with the whales and collecting invaluable data. The guests arrived in the evening, and after some dinner and a minke talk from Dr. Alistair Birtles of the Minke Whale Project, we were on our way to Ribbon Reef no. 10, the largest reef in the ribbon group at roughly 25km long, and known minke hot spot.

The morning of the 7th found us in Challenger Bay at the southern end of ribbon reef no. 10, and everyone got in the water for his or her first dive/snorkel of the trip. The first site of the trip did not disappoint, with sightings of huge barracuda, coral trout, a small flowery cod, barramundi cod, beautiful corals, and a large school of trevally circling beneath the boat. But we had not lost site of the reason everyone was here, and that was to find the whales. So once everyone was out, we began our journey to a pinnacle in the lagoon of ribbon no. 10 called lighthouse. This site is known for it’s excellent minke encounters on previous trips, and this time was no different. Within minutes of arriving at the site a dwarf minke whale joined us, and we all caught our first glimpse of the very elusive dorsal fin that would be missed but for a blink. The minke circled the boat a number of times then disappeared before we could have an in-water encounter. After the excitement of seeing our first whale passed, we got in the water to dive the lighthouse pinnacle, and saw my first olive sea snake swimming off into the depths. Lighthouse bommie was also home to at least 1 lionfish, multiple species of anemone fish, feather stars, schools of brightly coloured anthias, and was frequently visited by a number of turtles. After the dive we returned to Challenger Bay for another dive/snorkel to see some Chinese footballers hunting in the dim light of dusk, and 4 green turtles, one of which was getting cleaned by a wrasse, and another which was curling up on a patch of coral, settling in for the night.

The following day saw us heading back to lighthouse bommie to try our luck again, and this time, luck was on our side. 4 dwarf minke whales began circling the boat shortly after our arrival and this time we were ready. Courtney, one of the crewmembers, swam out holding onto the ‘minke line’, which was attached to the stern of the boat, and she acted as an anchor so that other people could enter the water and spread themselves evenly on the line. The idea behind the minke line is that by holding onto it, you make your movements predictable. This helps to build the whales confidence in approaching you and can sometimes result in very close passes within a meter, a pretty thrilling experience! While in the water with the whales we were able to see some very amazing behaviours, including belly presentations which allow us to determine the sex of the whale, head-rises and spy hopping, motor-boating and bubble-blasting. I personally had some spectacular encounters with one particular individual, where twice it spy hopped right next to me, and on another two occasions the whale would appear to line me up at the surface of the water and motorboat directly at me then at the last minute dive beneath me. And the really amazing thing is that the whole time this is happening you can actually see the whale watching you. It is in full control of what it is doing and as such you know that every movement and every close pass is completely intentional. It is a truly humbling experience. In the 3 hours that I spent in the water during this encounter we were visited by a number of other animals including grey reef whalers cruising past, olive sea snakes surfacing for a breath, and even a couple of manta rays, gliding around on the ocean floor about 30m below.  When the encounter was over we headed back to our base in Challenger Bay for a snorkel/dive at a site called ‘the monolith’ which is a single colony of coral about 25m in length, and we spotted out first hawksbill turtle of the trip, and a beautiful scribbled leatherjacket.

That night one of the visiting researchers, Dr. Russ Andrews, who was visiting from Alaska talked with us about his work with marine mammals and telemetry, and also told us about their plans to tag the first ever dwarf minke whale on this trip. So little is known about this newly discovered species of whale that being able to tag one to find out where they go when they aren’t on the Great Barrier Reef will be a very exciting and useful piece of knowledge to have.

The next few days were full of diving snorkelling and swimming with the whales. We headed north to the top of ribbon no. 10 to the cod hole, after stopping along the way for a quick dip with the minkes, and after seeing the incredible amounts of white water heading through dynamite pass, decided to turn around and head back south to the protection of Challenger Bay. We dived and snorkelled pixies pinnacle then did a drift snorkel through pixies gardens, and overnight we headed further south towards ribbon reef no. 5 and a site called clam gardens. Despite the less than desirable weather conditions of the day we still managed to find a blue spotted lagoon ray hiding under a coral ledge, and also ran into a school of about 50 grazing bumpheaded parrotfish, much to everyone’s delight. Once we were out of the water and preparing to head to our next site, all plans were put on hold as a pod of at least 5 minke whales came to visit. Out on the line we went again, noting behaviour and taking photographs and videos that would later be used by the Minke Whale Project for photo identification purposes.

Eventually we were all called out of the water, as it was time for the researchers to attempt tagging their first whale. After some time on the water waiting for the perfect opportunity to attach the tag to the whale, the weather conditions got the better of them and they decided to call it quits for the day. We were getting close to the end of the trip and had still not tagged any whales and everyone was feeling that it might not happen at all on this particular trip. But that night, our researchers had some good news; another research vessel was in the area and would be picking them up the following day to take them out for 5 days to try and get some tags on the minkes. And that vessel was none other than Whale Song! I was ecstatic to hear this news as Whale Song is the research vessel owned and operated by Curt and Micheline Jenner of the Centre for Whale Research in Perth, WA, and I had spent about a month with them earlier this year recording cetacean acoustics in the southern ocean. The CWR team were currently heading north along the east coast of Australia and we would be crossing paths the next day in the Agincourt reef system, which is the reef that I am usually working on when I’m not out chasing whales.

So the following morning had as waking up at a site I was familiar with called ‘castle’ in Agincourt reef. On our snorkel/dive we saw 2 white tip reef sharks snoozing on the sand, a couple of massive giant sweetlips and a school of about 100 bumpheaded parrotfish. Once we were all out of the water we watched the beautiful white and green ship that is Whale Song roll on in and anchor behind us. Courtney made runs in the tender dropping of the researchers and all their gear, and on the last trip I quickly ducked over for some hello’s, some hug’s and then some goodbye’s. It was lovely to see all the crew again, even for just a few moments, and I sincerely hope they have better luck with getting some tags on than we had on our trip. Mich even told me that they had been hearing the dwarf minke whale’s ‘boing’ vocalisation all the way up the coast. Very exciting stuff!

Once we had farewelled our whale researching friends it was time to head south to Opal reef for our last snorkel/dive, and what a beautiful place to finish it. We got in at a site called SNO, which is another reef I work on, and the coral cover is second to none. We spent the afternoon moored at SNO, watched the sun set on the horizon and on our trip, as tomorrow morning we would be arriving at Yorkey’s Knob, the Undersea Explorers final destination, and saying goodbye to our new friends. During our week on the Great Barrier Reef we saw a total of at least 20 whales, had roughly 10 hours worth of encounters, and had the adventure of a lifetime. Thank you so much to everyone who makes this research possible year after year, and here’s hoping that we can continue to learn more about these beautiful, inquisitive animals for many years to come!

Visit the Eye to Eye Marine Encounters Wildiaries page to hear more about their adventures in the coral sea!

Locations visited

Ribbon Reefs

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