Sunday 15 July 2012

Minke magic

This time last week I was swimming with dwarf minke whales in far north Queensland. I've swum with marine mammals before: 300 dolphins off one of my favourite eco-towns, Kaikoura on New Zealand's South Island, and with sea lions in the Galapagos. This was different, incredible in a different way, partly because for a while it looked as if it wasn't going to happen at all...

Lovely Lizard
Not much is known about dwarf minkes - first seen from dive boats in the 1980s, they were recognised as a new sub-species only in 1985 and the first permits to swim with them were issued in 2003. This year only two operators offered live-aboard trips to see them; I went with Eye to Eye Marine Encounters, out of Lizard Island, an hour's flight north of Cairns.

From Lizard, we cruised for a couple of hours to the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef, specifically Ribbon Reef 10, one of the spots minkes gather every June and July. No one knows why they come, or where they spend the rest of the year. What is known is that they seem as curious about us as we are about them.

Spot the minke
Before we could swim with them, of course, we had to find them. As fate would have it, my trip was one of the roughest Eye to Eye has ever had; for three of our four days, gale-force winds whipped the sea into a lamington of white-caps (and I popped Travacalm pills like Tic tacs) which made it even harder than usual to spot minkes.

They can be up to 7 metres long, but their dorsal fins are the size of bottlenose dolphin fins, they don't linger on the surface when they come up to breathe and they don't raise their tail flukes (like other whales) when they dive.

Swimming with potato cod
That's nature, and part of the experience of spending time with wild animals. It also enhanced the "expedition" feel of our trip.

We sat on deck watching for whales (fortified by cinnamon shortbread, thanks Chef). Went "extreme snorkelling" in waves big enough to bodysurf and currents that swept us about like flotsam. Swam with other creatures: green turtles, potato cod, sea snakes, reef sharks, Nemo-like anemonefish, spinner dolphins.

A beautiful dwarf minke
We also learned about minkes. Each Eye to Eye Marine Encounters trip has at least one researcher on board who studies not only the whales but our interactions with them; this is the only place in the world you can swim with minkes and there's a strict code of practice to ensure all interactions are on the whales' terms. Our resident researcher was Dr Alastair Birtles from James Cook University (in Townsville), whose affection for these "beautiful but enigmatic little whales" as he calls them, was infectious.

Swimming with minkes!
It was day 4, our last day, when someone shouted from the upper deck, "Minke!" We pulled on our wetsuits, put on masks and snorkels, slipped into the water and gazed into the blue.

They came one by one at first, then in groups, getting closer the longer they spent with us. One did a tail-stand a few metres from us, and a slow, mid-ocean pirouette. Another (see pic below) surfaced near me. At one time I counted eight minkes around and below us.

It felt surreal to be so close to these gentle giants. Unlike more boisterous dolphins and sea lions, the minkes were stately and serene as they glided slowly by, looking at us with large, brown eyes. "There's no other large animal on Earth that keeps going around for hours and hours, looking at you," said Alastair later.

Eye to eye with a wild minke
Our "in-water encounter" lasted almost nine hours (from about 9am to almost 5pm; we climbed back onto the boat only to scoff lunch and rehydrate) and featured as many as 16 minkes.

To cap it off, Alastair made us all honorary Friends of the Minke Whale Project that night, for our perseverence. Actually I think the three days of anticipation before we saw the whales made it all the more special. Well played, minkes.

PS: For a virtual "swimming with minkes" experience, watch Dr Dean Miller's 15-minute doco A Whale of a Time (Dean was on our boat too).

Newsflash: While we were swimming with minkes last week, South Korea announced plans to resume "scientific" whaling of them. I'm happy to report that they've now reversed that decision, in the face of strong international opposition.

Thanks: To Maui Jim for the polarised sunnies they gave me a few weeks ago (for my Kauai trip) - they're ideal for minke-spotting, as the crew of our boat well know: they all wear Maui Jims, as Maui Jim sponsors the Minke Whale Project. Way to go....

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