Marine Mammal Research.com
EYE TO EYE WITH A DWARF MINKE WHALE
July 12, 2011
As I cling to the rope at the surface of the water I realize I have stopped breathing – I am excited beyond measure and scan the abyss eagerly for whales. Suddenly I see a flash of white and a large form begins to materialize out of the blue. Soon, the full torpedo-shaped body is revealed as a 6.2m female Dwarf minke whale glides up to me, moving through the water with perfect grace. Then she turns, her thoughtful eye fixing on mine before swimming the length of the rope, enrapturing each of us as she passes. A chorus of whoops and squeals follows as our excited group of snorkelers revel in what we have just experienced.
As the boat pulls away from the dock I am suddenly gripped by the realization that I may have just made a terrible mistake. Am I ready for this? 4 days at sea with a group of strangers? Jumping into the water with some of the largest animals on the planet? I must be nuts.
We steam into the darkness as the comforting glow of Port Douglas fades to pinpricks of light and I realize that there is no going back now. So I grit my teeth, descend to my cabin in the belly of the ship and eventually fall asleep, carried away by the gentle rise and fall of my bed beneath the waves.
I have joined a Swim With Minke Whale trip with Eye to Eye Marine Encounters, a locally owned and operated ecotourism company that helped pioneer this industry. With 17 years experience conducting these expeditions in the northern Great Barrier Reef they are the world leaders in sustainable whale interactions and have a reputation for being the best in the business. As a Port Douglas resident I have had years of hearing other people talk about their amazing experiences with Dwarf minke whales and decided it was about time I find out what all the fuss was about..….
I awake on the first morning to glass-out seas (apparently an oddity at this time of the year). I feel suspended in space as my brain tries to make sense of this immense distance and colour and I am unable to determine where the sky ends and the ocean begins. After an extensive briefing about snorkeling/diving guidelines and Swim With Minke Whale protocol (the main point being that the encounter is totally on the animals terms) we grunt, heave and squeeze ourselves into neoprene wetsuits. As I jump head first (literally) into the sea all I can think about is my heart pounding in my chest and the weird rasping sound coming through the snorkel – am I doing this right? But soon I focus on my surroundings and forget to worry, instead becoming hypnotized by the magical new world before me.
The amount of life down here is mind-blowing. Everywhere I look there are fish wearing impossibly coloured costumes and busily going about their business. From picking delicately at a branch of coral to swimming in a school like synchronized ballerinas the reefscape offers viewers a kaleidoscope of colour, shapes, textures and sizes.
After a few more snorkels in this wonderland I feel confident and excited in the water. I have even mastered the very unladylike process of ‘wetsuiting up’ (hint: a plastic bag on the feet helps enormously in slipping into my underwater garb). I am one of the first people in the water at each new dive site and can even identify certain types of fish. On day two, as Im sitting on the top deck feeling like quite the salty sea dog the Captain suddenly yells out “MINKE STARBOARD SIDE…..ABOUT 10m OFF…… COMING THIS WAY!” This is what we have been waiting for.
Suddenly it’s ‘action stations’ as the crew and Minke Whale Project researchers deploy ropes and assemble their photographic and scientific equipment in the blink of an eye. They don their wetsuits with astonishing nimbleness and speed and jump overboard to engage the minkes’ interest, essentially acting as ‘whale bait’. And sure enough the animals respond. After a few suspension-filled moments, chief researcher Dr Birtles pops his head out of the water and yells “3 animals right underneath me”. Yes – it seems the whales are here to play! The rest of excitedly suit up and jump in, ready for the experience of a lifetime.
As I cling to the rope at the surface of the water I realize I have stopped breathing – I am excited beyond measure and scan the abyss eagerly for whales. Suddenly I see a flash of white as a large form begins to materialize out of the blue (I later find out that the bright glow that I spotted is the minke whale’s shoulder patch – one of the many distinctive markings that makes these whales the most highly patterned baleen whale in the world). Soon, the full torpedo-shaped body is revealed as a 6.2m female glides up to me, moving through the water with perfect grace. Then she turns, her thoughtful eye fixing on mine before swimming the length of the rope, enrapturing each of us as she passes. A chorus of whoops and squeals follows as our excited group of snorkelers revel in what we have just experienced.
Over the next 3 hours, the minkes (who have now grown in number to at least 7) continue to circle, coming closer and closer with each pass. We are spellbound and the whales are obviously enjoying their time with us too. On several occasions I find myself watching an animal right in front of me only to turn around and find another one hovering at my back! Later on, back on board I mention this to the crew who swear that the minkes do this on purpose. It’s almost like they are playing a joke on us and it makes me appreciate their intelligence and wonder at just what is going on behind those grey eyes…
Whatever it is the whales see in us, I can promise you that being with them is a profoundly humbling experience. All the apprehension I felt leading up to this moment dissolved under the meaningful gaze of the Dwarf minkes. In its place I felt joy and peace at this unique commune with nature.
Another guest by the name of Richard Groom nailed this sentiment when he wrote: “As the whales glide beside & below us there is an intense emotion of awe, majesty, calmness, safety, compassion, quietness, love, inquisitiveness, & assuredness while at the same time being totally helpless & at the mercy of the whales & the ocean, & as a guest in their realm. This feeling leads to gratefulness & humbleness to be in the presence of such a magnificent animal who is wanting to make contact with mankind.”
Richard went on to call this feeling ‘minke mellow’ - a state that we can now tap into in our daily lives and which I wish everyone in the world could experience at least once. Maybe it is only through this kind of intimate wildlife experience that we can finally understand our connection with whales and strive to live in harmony with them in the future.
To check out Eye to Eye Marine Encounters dates and availability for swimming with minke whales go to: http://www.marineencounters.com.au/itinerary_minke.htm