Cries of, “Thar she blows!” are dim echoes of the 1830’s when whaling was acknowledged as Australia’s first primary industry. An era when, from shore-side whaling stations established along the country’s eastern seaboard, catcher vessels would put to sea to hunt and kill the huge creatures during their annual migration northwards.
To-day, in a more enlightened age, whale-watching is again back in vogue as several of Australia’s established live-aboard dive vessels take passengers on a dive trip with a difference.
Acclaimed as one of the finest diving areas in the world, the Great Barrier Reef’s outer edge, to the north of Cairns, features a 128-kilometre stretch of individual coral heads known as the Ribbon Reefs. Here, at the meeting point of the Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea where underwater visibility is seldom less than 30 metres, huge gorgonians, electric hued feather stars, sea whips, and black coral trees act as focal points for a teeming variety of coral reef fish, and where the large pelagics like barracuda, tuna, and sharks are always to be found.
It’s also where, during the southern winter months of June and July, sightings of migrating Minke whales are at their most frequent. An added bonus for live-aboard dive-boat passengers, who not only have the opportunity to experience for themselves one of diving’s most sublime moments – an in-water encounter with a whale – but whose observations can help assist in our scientific understanding of these delightful and intelligent creatures.
Named after a Norwegian whaler, Meincke, the Minke whale is – at about 11-metres in maximum length – the smallest of the seven great whales; a size advantage that initially, during the hey-day of whaling, worked in its favour. Previously considered uneconomical to harvest, the whaling fleets only turned their attention to the Minke when other whale stocks became depleted; a situation that eased in 1986 when the international Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on whaling.
Since then, and despite its status as a protected species, the Minke continues to be harvested by Japan and Norway, who argue that the small numbers taken by them each year for ‘scientific’ research pose no threat to the Minke’s existence because of its abundant population, estimated by some sources to be in excess of 1,000,000 creatures world-wide.
A baleen whale, (one that feeds by drawing in through its mouth huge quantities of water which it strains through a series of bony plates that trap the small creatures that comprise its main diet), the Minke spends the summer months in the huge krill feeding grounds of the Southern Ocean before migrating northwards to breed, an annual pilgrimage of instinct that brings this coast loving species of whale into Australia’s eastern waters from May through to August each year.
Tending to travel either singly or in small groups, the Minke is a fast swimmer, easily keeping pace with vessels cruising at 13 to 16 knots. More inquisitive than most of its family, Minkes’ regularly approach vessels and divers, apparently as curious and as interested in us as we are in them. Highly acrobatic, they are often observed leaping out of the water like a dolphin and even, on occasion, seen ‘spy-hopping’, quietly sticking their head out of the water for a quick examination of any nearby vessel and its passengers.
While sightings occur regularly when vessels are underway, it is only when the engines have been stopped at one or other of the preferred dive sites that the whales venture closer in; an added attraction for divers who, having seen and admired the creatures from the surface, now have the opportunity to viewed them in all their majesty in their true environment.
Although seemingly intrigued by the behaviour of divers the whales tend to maintain a caution zone between the divers and themselves, rarely making a direct, touching distance approach. Whether this timidity is caused by the exhaust bubbles, or by of the apparently aggressive attitude of divers who, once they sight a whale underwater, have a tendency to swim towards it as rapidly as they can, is unclear.
Although the best way to view the creatures up close is to don a mask, fins and snorkel and, holding on to a moored vessel’s streamed safety line, float above them while they circle and glide beneath and around you, there is nothing else in diving that quite prepares a person for that moment when they first see, taking shape against a background of blue, one or more Minke whales silently approaching.
The initial impression of size soon fades when you gaze into their eyes and see, looking back at you, a warmth and intelligence unlike that of any other animal. Described by some divers as being a profound and spiritually moving experience, and by others as inspirational, words fail to convey the mixture of feelings and sensations when a diver first makes contact with these creatures in their own environment.
“It is”, says one dive operator, “all part of the Minke Magic.”
The above article first appeared in Asian Diver Magazine in April 1997.