Swimming with humpbacks is Ningaloo’s newest tourist attraction

By Shannon Verhagen 15 August 2016
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Ningaloo Reef is world-renowned for its whale shark and manta ray experiences – and now humpbacks are being added to that list.

VISITORS TO EXMOUTH now have the chance to swim with humpbacks, after a trial tour operation started earlier this month.

The trial will run for three months – from August to October – to determine whether the operation is viable as a permanent tourist attraction for Western Australia’s Coral Coast.

The whales migrate through the Ningaloo Marine Park on their journey from Antarctic feeding grounds to warm, temperate breeding grounds in Broome – a round journey that sees them cover about 16,000km.

humpback whales swimming

Swimmers have the opportunity to observe the marine mammals and also hear whale song (see above video). (Image courtesy Ningaloo Whaleshark)

Ningaloo Marine Park coordinator Peter Barnes says Department of Parks and Wildlife is working with independent experts from Murdoch University, Curtin University and the University of Tasmania to monitor the behaviour of the whales throughout the trial.

“We’ve put together quite a comprehensive program of research and monitoring,” Peter explained. “It’s very much at the forefront of our thinking to minimise the impacts or have minimal impact.”

The monitoring program includes aerial flights across the marine park to identify critical habitat as well as mothers and calves (which are not to be swum with), and monitoring behaviour – such as breeching, breeding rates and tail slapping – from research vessels on the water as the whales are interacted with.

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“We’ll be looking at their behaviour and whether they get distressed, or sometimes it is a positive reaction and there is an attraction to the boat or vessel,” Peter said.

A set of strict guidelines is also in place – outlining how close vessels and swimmers can get to the whales, how many people can be in the water with them and how long they can be in the water for – to protect the whales.

Tours at full capacity

While the region’s tour operators are seasoned in taking tourists to swim with the world’s largest fish – whale sharks – and manta rays, 15 licenced vessels have now added humpback whales to their schedules.

Each day, spotter planes are sent over the park to identify pods exhibiting passive behaviour, called ‘logging,’ where the whales are resting, and once in the water, Matt Winter – owner of tour operator Ningaloo Whaleshark – says it is important the whales control the interaction.

“We don’t swim with the whales, they swim with us,” Matt said.

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He explained that tours run for the whole day, giving staff time to educate swimmers in the proper etiquette before entering the water. “These are massive, wild animals that have the potential to cause massive harm so we need to be respectfully sharing the water that they live in,” said Matt.

“We approach the whales as gently and as quietly as we can – no talking. Our job is to be quiet and respectful.”

Not only do swimmers have the opportunity to observe the marine mammals, but also to hear whale song (as can be heard in the above video) – and Matt says the experience has proved popular, with every tour since the first one on 2 August at full capacity.

“Their whole bodies are almost shaking,” he said. “Sometimes they’ll be crying, sitting at the back of the boat, speechless. It’s pretty cool being able to spend our lives giving people these experiences.”

Transforming the town

If successful, there is potential for a second three-month trial in 2017, and if all goes well next year, the swims could become a permanent Ningaloo experience – one that Matt says will have huge tourism benefits.

“We’re transforming about a five-month season suddenly into seven to eight months of operations,” he said. “If we can make this work it will seriously change in turning Coral Bay and Exmouth into serious tourist destinations.”