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Coming to Western Australia’s coast: swimming with humpback whales

Starting in August, tour operators on Western Australia’s Coral Coast will offer travelers a chance to swim with humpback whales.

It doesn’t mean you’ll get to touch them, but it does mean you’ll be closer than ever to watch the 40- to 50-foot mammals as they rest during their long northbound migration from Antarctica.

Humpbacks, which were once an endangered species in Western Australia, congregate at the Ningaloo Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. More than 30,000 whales will gather and pass by the reef between July and October.

Licensed operators will offer tours from August through October during Australia’s winter and spring. Prices vary by operator starting at approximately $200 per person.

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Does this encounter harm the whales?

Western Australia’s Department of Parks and Wildlife officials said by email that the agency consulted with whale swim operators in Tonga and Queensland, Australia, before allowing a trial run at the Ningaloo Reef.

It also contacted tour operators in Exmouth and Coral Bay who had had years of training and experience with in-water interactions with large marine mammals. (Swimming with whale sharks in Australia began in the mid-80s.)

The trial is restricted to the Ningaloo Marine Park, which includes the reef, because officials don’t want to disturb migrating whales that rest and have calves in nearby areas such as Exmouth Gulf.

Here’s how the swim works:

Boats must stay more than 100 yards away from whales. Five swimmers and one guide with snorkels are allowed to be in the water at one time.

“The trial will not allow visitors to swim with calves or pods containing a calf or calves. Operators will not be able to use hydrophones to play back whale song to attract whales to the tour boat,” according to Parks and Wildlife’s rules.

Allan Bowe pioneered swimming with whales in Tonga with Whale Watch Vava’u in 1993. He quickly learned that the humpbacks didn’t like the noise a scuba diver makes while breathing underwater. Once he swapped his tank for a snorkel, they calmed down.

Dan Hart, owner-operator of Sunreef Mooloolaba, introduced humpback whale swims in Queensland in 2014.

“Sunreef’s Swim With Whales Experience is conducted 100% on the whales’ own terms,” he said by email.

Info: Western Australia Coral Coast


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