What it's like to swim with humpback whales

How to get up close to the gentle giants this whale-watching season.

When the opportunity to swim with humpback whales through Sunreef, Mooloolaba, arose my first thought was a resounding, “Yes!”.

My second thoughts were, “How does this work? Is it safe?”, after all, these are wild animals which often weigh more than 45 tonnes and interactions with them are restricted by law.

Sunreef was the first operator in Australia to offer a swim-with-whales tour and is one of only two companies offering the experience in Queensland.

Before the tour, our skipper Ben provided a comprehensive safety briefing and explanation of how the experience would play out. 

He emphasised the tour was completely on the whale’s terms and we would remain on the boat if a whale we encountered appeared to be aggressive or fearful.

After donning 5mm wetsuits (a godsend against the cool ocean breeze) and grabbing flippers, a mask and snorkel, we boarded Wild One and cruised out of the Mooloolah River into the Coral Sea.

Whale breaching in front of Glasshouse Mtns 1 - photo by Katie Jackson

With the Glasshouse Mountains as a backdrop we kept our eyes peeled for the tell-tale signs of humpback whales – a tail splash, a tower of blowhole spray or a dorsal fin jutting above the surface.

After an hour of searching a whale suddenly popped up just metres in front of our boat. Ben quickly brought the boat to a stop at a safe distance as we clamoured to take photos of the marine giant while our guides Ruby, Nick and marine biologist Elisha determined whether it was safe to enter the water.

Unfortunately, the whale may have been startled by surfacing close to our boat, so we were unable to enter the water.

From that first sighting the excitement among the boat’s passengers was palpable. For many of us, myself included, it was the first time we had been up close to a whale and we couldn’t wait for more.

A few minutes later one of my fellow passengers spotted another dorsal fin above the water and this time we were given the OK to swim.

We scrambled to put on our mask, snorkel and flippers and assembled on the boat’s sideboard with our feet in the water while Ben moved the boat into position.

Then it was time to hit the water. We slipped into the ocean (surprisingly the water wasn’t cold) and our guide Elisa led us close to the whale. 

A diver swims beside a whale.

It’s difficult to describe the majesty of being less than 5m from such a massive creature. As we watched, it blew a tower of water metres into the air before diving below the surface. Although the underwater visibility wasn’t great, we watched it glide away, its white flanks and fins almost luminous against the inky water.

After clamouring back on board Wild One (by far the most difficult part of the tour) we started the lookout again, each of us unable to wipe broad grins off our faces.

We were able to enter the water another two times and on our third swim were lucky enough to encounter a mother and calf. I’ll never forget the sight of two dorsal fins and arched backs, one large and dark grey, the other much smaller and lighter in colour, breaching the water just metres away.

It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will treasure.

Sunreef offers swim with whales tours from Mooloolaba daily until mid-October. RACQ members save on whale watching cruises with Sunreef.