Swimming with Whales

Jakkie writes…

What an absolutely INSANE experience we’ve just had! We swam with wild humpback whales, each the size of a school bus! 

Every year, between May and October, the whales on the east coast of Australia migrate north to warmer waters to give birth to their young, then they swim back down the coast again with their new born calves. Hervey bay is a perfect place for them to rest as it’s protected by Frazer Island, Australia’s biggest sand bank and so the area acts a bit like a nursery for them. The whales hang out there for a few days on their way up the coast and then on their way back down, so it can become quite crowded! 

Hervey Bay is the perfect place to get up close and personal with these gentle giants. The day we went for our ‘Swim With Whales’ experience, the water was clear and the whales were all there almost as if they were waiting for us. What I love most about these whale encounters, is that the whales choose to have the encounter with us, not the other way round. When our boat stopped in the middle of the ocean, we let the whales know we were there, by waving and singing loudly (not a pretty sound I might add), then within minutes, a couple of Humpbacks swam over to the boat to check us out. They poked their noses up and out of the water to have a good look at us, then they circled around the boat, so this was our cue to jump into the water and get up close and personal with them. 

We quickly donned our snorkel and masks, then I was the first one in the water! The two whales came right up to me and swam just inches from me, going under me, around me and looking curiously at me. Bearing in mind, these beautiful creatures are 25 Tons each and over 15 metres long, so at one point it did feel slightly disconcerting. By this time, a few others were in the water with me and we all joined hands to make a human chain so that we were more compact in the water.  A couple of people found it all too scary and scurried back onto the boat. Me? I was the one right at the front nearest to the whale, opened mouthed in awe (which incidentally wasn’t really conducive to snorkel wearing).

For the benefit of the people who were freaking out by being so close to these almighty creatures, our skipper yelled out to us from the boat, ‘It’s OK, they won’t harm you. I’ve taken 3000 people out into the water with Whales and not one person has been harmed’. Just as he said that, the man next to me was lifted out of the water by a whale tail!! The man was not the only one to be surprised, the whale was so shocked by what had happened that it swam quickly away as if to say, ‘YUUUCCKKK, I’ve just touched a human!!’ Apparently, according to the skipper, the whale was a juvenile and still learning spacial awareness skills and was clearly mortified that he had touched one of us. The whale soon came back to hang out with us, although he kept more of a distance. The man who was lifted was fine, in fact he was so exhilarated by the experience, he was hoping it would happen again!

Despite their massive size, humpback whales are very sensitive creatures and have the same emotional intelligence as humans. It has been discovered that whales have the same spindle neurons as humans. These are specialised brain cells that are involved in processing emotions such as empathy, intuition, feelings for others and gut reactions. Spindle cells are also responsible for speech and helping us interact socially. This may explain why there have been many recorded accounts of humpback whales saving the lives of seals, dolphins and even humans from sharks and Orca attacks.

These beautiful intelligent giants were hunted almost to extinction during the 19th and early 20th centuries, their populations are thankfully slowly recovering.

While the populations have grown and humpbacks have been taken off the endangered species list, the worldwide humpback population is only at 40 percent of what it was before the whaling era. Whaling was banned throughout the rest of the world in 1966, however Norway, Iceland, and Japan still sadly practice the slaughter of humpback whales.

Why the whales in Hervey Bay like to interact with humans no-one will ever truly know. I’m hoping they know we love them and I’m hoping that they have forgiven us for our brutal behaviour towards them. I also hope they know we respect them and support them in their quest for life.

If you would like to join me on this truly magical experience with these awesome gentle giants, here’s a video I made of the swim.

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