Find out what it is really like to swim with humpback whales in Ningaloo Reef.
I was sitting at the back of the boat. Nervous – but in a good way. I had a banana grin from ear to ear as I was on edge in both a literal and figurative sense of achieving a bucket list dream: a swim with humpback whales.
It was finally my time to have a splash of a lifetime – pun intended – and I could not wait to have this surreal wildlife encounter in my own backyard.
Western Australia has been conducting these larger-than-life swims with the humpback whales along the Ningaloo Coast from Coral Bay and Exmouth since 2016 with the trial period running until 2023. The World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef is a special place for it too, one of the rare spots in the world to swim alongside the ocean’s big three: manta rays, whale sharks and of course, humpback whales.
How I made my humpback whale swim happen
The only way that you can have an epic encounter with these goliaths of the sea is on tour. These are, after all, one of the largest animals to roam the Earth, so both swimmer and marine life wellbeing are paramount with experts onboard interpreting whale behaviour. (Humpback whales can grow up to 19 metres in length and weigh up to whooping 36,000kg, so there is no room in the ocean to mess around with them!) Two marine biologists onboard provide a thorough briefing of how to safely and responsibly swim with the humpback whales. At any given time no more than nine people are allowed within 30 metres of the humpback whale in the water including two highly trained tour guides – thank goodness!
I was joined with fellow thrill sea-kers keen to have this lotto-winning moment with nature. We also looked like a party of human seals with everyone donning two black wetsuits for extra warmth. Yes, we were brave enough to agree to have the biggest swim of our lives but no, not courageous enough to show skin when it came feeling the fresh ocean cold! Brrrgghhh!
I spy with my little eye humpback whales – and plenty of them!
Soon after we had left the Learmonth Jetty in Exmouth, whales were spotted as if almost on cue. Hats off to you, Mother Nature! The ocean’s mobile water fountain made its presence known with its blowhole shooting water high into the air. It wasn’t just one; several whales were spotted blowing water both close to us and in the distant horizon along the way up the Ningaloo Coast. Easy, breezy whale spotting at its finest!
We got lucky sighting a family bonding session from afar with a whale and its calf making their grand entrances out of the water then plunging back in: quite the dip tease, I thought. Sometimes it was a case of blink, and you’ll miss it with these wayfaring giants. As the adult whale was with its calf, it was considered a no-go.
Whales were spotted dipping in and out of the water in a vertical carousel-like motion. It was mesmerising just seeing all this oceanic commotion around us. Many of us went full paparazzi mode happily snapping away at these gentle creatures.
Were these the whales we will be swimming with?
We were eagerly watching one whale dip in, particular in and out for some time, with our expert guides analysing its activity more so to determine its conduct and if it would be safe for us to interact with.
Game over – or was it?
Once the whale breached, it was game over. This whale was not to be our synchronised swim buddy, much to the boat’s dismay, since it was thrusting its huge two-toned black and white head out from the deep-sea. Amazing to witness but not so to team up with for an aquatic dance number. The show must go on, and of course, there would be many more whales in the sea. Over 40,000 humpback whales migrate along the west coast each year, and with the aid of a whale spotter plane above, we were in for a good chance of seeing more. And we did.
I don’t think I have ever gasped so much in my life—fortunately, the right kind. I was so engrossed watching the whales perform their acrobatics with such force, agility and might. And now was going to be swimming within their vicinity too? Insane!
After the spotter plane spotted the next whale, we were on the move – and fast.
As the crew onboard analysed the whale’s actions to decipher if they would be safe to swim with, questions were swirling around in my mind.
How long would we have to wait? How close will we get to it? Will it be singing its whale song?
With putting your bets on nature, you are never guaranteed. But when the apple of your eye, well, one of the world’s biggest animals in close proximity, it is something truly extraordinary.
Related reads: How To Swim With Humpback Whales In WA’s North
Soon enough, the crew members shouted for us to get to the back of the boat equipped with snorkel and fins. This was going to be our moment.
Lined up like ducks, we waited at the back of the boat for the next prompt. My heart was racing with adrenaline as we manoeuvred the boat closer to the whale. It was a solid cliff-hanger minute until we got the go-ahead.
The boat crew announced as us whale watchers were now to transition to fully-fledged whale swimmers. We hurriedly jumped into the water and swam our best Olympic time to follow the tour guide to whale glory.
The in-water tour guide instructed us. I quickly put my snorkel in the water to watch the whale, possibly swim under our human chain. However, it was now on the move in the other direction.
“LOOK UP – LAND! LAND! LAND!”
I frantically lifted my head above water to look in the direction of land where the whale had now appeared. I was a safe distance away from it, but it was indeed a wow moment just being in the whale’s orbit. My head was floating like a coastal buoy watching the whale crisscross the seas. Bop, bop my head went floating above the waves as I had my unbelievable meet and greet with the whale. Holy moly these creatures are massive!
Another group soon had their chance with the whale an hour later, with the whale swimming right underneath them. Lucky ducks! The whale swim soon followed with an afternoon snorkel session, exploring the vivid marine life and corals of the Ningaloo Reef.
One last blowhole was to go off – a bottle of champers – with the crew raising a glass to celebrate our stints with the whales. Each whale interaction is different, and it’s the star attraction – the whale – that determines the nature of it.
I left the boat happy that day with a bucket list dream ticked off. That banana grin I spotted that afternoon, I can assure you was much larger than any whale tail sighted in Exmouth.
Experience the giants for yourself
Ningaloo Whale Shark Swim – Book your swim with the humpback whales today from $410 per adult and $380 per child.
Now accepting family bookings for the term 3 school holidays.
Guest numbers are limited per tour, and demand for spaces is at a premium, so bookings are essential.
Tour includes snorkel hire (mask and fins), wetsuit hire, morning and afternoon tea, gourmet lunch, free pick up/drop off accommodation pick up from Exmouth and more.
For more information visit their website ningaloowhalesharks.com
Feature image: Ningaloo Whale Shark Swim
See more: Western Australia travel
Julia was a guest of Ningaloo Whale Sharks and all thoughts and opinions are that of her own.