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Whale Watching (With a Side of Swimming) on the Sunshine Coast

For years, going diving with humpback whales has been on my bucket list. Ever since I first saw Darren Jew’s exceptional underwater captures and realised that diving with these giants of the sea was a possibility — in a way that does not harass them — I’ve been enchanted by the idea. Unfortunately, there were two barriers blocking me: (1) the Tonga dive trip is prohibitively expensive, especially with the camera gear involved, and (2) I don’t actually have a scuba dive license.

The Sunreef Whale Swimming Boat

The Sunreef whale swimming boat.

So, when I found out that a law change made it possible for Sunreef to start offering similar experiences in Australia, I couldn’t sign up quickly enough. How could I pass up on the experience to get up close — possibly even within meters — to wild whales in a location only an hour away from home?

I was initially scheduled to head out to sea on the Ekka public holiday (a random Wednesday public holiday we have in mid-August here in Brisbane). The boat didn’t go out that day, courtesy of the strong winds and high swell common to south east Queensland in August. Three more times I was scheduled to meet the whales, and three more times the weather and other factors didn’t play nice.

Mum & Calf, Courtesy of Sunreef

What I was hoping to see. Photo courtesy of Sunreef.

Finally, on a perfect day in early October, all of the elements came together and I, somewhat in disbelief, suited up in an always-attractive wetsuit and walked onto the small Sunreef dive boat. 20 other people joined me, plus our crew of:

  • Dave – the captain and a keen whale watcher who has spent many years tracking their movements along the Queensland coast
  • Katie – our very enthusiastic guide who would be in the water with us
  • Isaiah – our second, almost-as-enthusiastic guide who would point out where we needed to go once in the water

The excitement on the boat was palpable as we crossed the Mooloolaba bar and headed out to sea, hoping to find a few of the migrating giants. This excitement was slightly tempered by the fact that we were handed shark shields — little devices that emit a pulse that should keep the sharks away, at least when we were in a group — to wear around our ankles.

Also, as our dive boat carved through the rolling waves, I quickly came to the conclusion that I was very happy the previous trips had been cancelled. My stomach could hardly deal with the small rollers of a calm day; I would have been miserable from the outset if we’d tried to tackle anything rougher. Maybe there are a few reasons why I don’t have my scuba license yet.

Shark Shield

A shark shield around a fellow swimmer’s ankle. I guess I was happy we had them, but I wasn’t happy of the reminder of sharks…

Unlike some operations, which employ helicopters to spot the humpbacks (or the whale sharks on Australia’s west coast), Sunreef operates from knowledge of previous whales’ behaviour and recent sightings — with some sneaky looks at where Whale One, Australia Zoo’s boat that is guided by aerial sighting, is headed.

On our trip at the beginning of October, we didn’t have any problems with this approach, mainly because it was the height of whale season and also the time when mothers were migrating very slowly back to Antarctica with their newborn calves. Our first stopping point — the HMAS Brisbane, which was sunk in 2006 and is now one of the most popular diving spots in SEQ — didn’t yield any results, but we quickly found our first pod only a short distance away.

Our First Pod

The first pod we spotted, swimming with Mount Coolum visible in the background.

Katie excitedly pointed out the whales as Dave steered our boat in parallel to their course, always staying more than 100m away from them to give them as wide a berth as possible. Unfortunately, the whales didn’t make Dave’s job very easy, since they zigged and zagged madly. One minute they were heading south and the next they were heading northeast…but they were always going at a fair speed (at Dave’s estimate, at least 8 knots).

We all quickly realised that their behaviour meant we wouldn’t be getting in the water. We wanted to find whales that were going at a significantly slower speed (which usually happens when a mother and calf are in a pod) so we would have a chance of seeing them before they swam off at a speed we could never keep up with. We wanted whales that might be curious enough to have a bit of a gander at us! Plus, these whales were on a mission, and we didn’t want to interrupt whatever that mission might have been.

Fins Underwater

A pretty common view underwater with a bunch of whale swimmers.

They weren’t on so much of a mission, though, that it stopped one of the whales from doing a full breach just as we thought we’d lost them for good. Most of us were staring at the coastline picking out landmarks when she breached; I turned my head to see a huge creature seemingly suspended in the air. Pictures of a whale breaching are incredible; seeing it in person is just unbelievable. An animal that large should not be able to fling its entire body out of the water, but somehow it can…and for fun too!

It took quite a bit of careful navigating and searching the seas for the crew to find our next pod of whales, but when they did, we could tell straight away that this pod was different. Katie was bouncing around the boat as she told us all to get ready so we would be ready to jump in at a moment’s notice.

The Snorkelers

Katie and the first of many snorkelers to jump in for our first swim.

When that moment came, mayhem broke out. People waddled around the boat in flippers, trying to get in the water as gracefully and as quietly as possible so as to not stress the whales. As soon as I was in, I dunked my head under, frantically searching for any sign of a whale, yet knowing that if there was a whale around, I wouldn’t have to search at all.

Poking my head above surface, I could hear Isaiah yelling out to Katie. The whales were circling the boat from a distance of about 20m, so Katie waved us all towards her and we began swimming as quickly as we could, battling the rolling waves to make any headway at all.

My Brother Snorkeling

I may not have been successful at getting good underwater photos of whales, but at least I got this wonderful shot of my brother.

As one of those rollers came towards me, I popped my head above water to see if the massive dorsal fins of the humpbacks were visible above the surface. As the wave rolled towards me and pulled me up over the crest, I got an awe-inspiring sight.

Seemingly right in front of me were the two whales, the visible portion of their backs (that is, not very much of them at all) dwarfing the size of the nearby swimmers. I’ve always found whales impressive from the confines of a boat sitting high above the waterline; this was another thing entirely. They made me feel like a tiny speck; and had they been facing me, that’s probably exactly what I would have looked like to them.

Diving Deep

A much closer version of what Katie could see far below us. Photo courtesy of Sunreef.

Unfortunately, that would be my last sighting of this pod. They continued to circle the boat for a time before one of them dove deep below us; Katie could pick out the white lines of her stomach far below us but the rest of us could only see sunrays shining through the deep blue sea water.

Once all three of the crew lost sight of the pod, we all gathered into a group and, once the boat moved closer, climbed back aboard. This was the roughest time of the trip; between trying to hold on to the boat as it rolled back and forth in the waves and trying to keep my breakfast down once I was in the boat (which a few people were not successful at doing), I was struggling. Even as we pulled up alongside another pod, I found it difficult to move my eyes off the horizon.

The Pod of Seven

A few of the seven-strong pod we saw at the end of our trip.

It quickly became evident that this was a massive pod; at one point, Katie managed to count seven whales. These guys were also moving at quite a quick clip, but as we were nearing the end of our allotted time, she decided we should have one last crack at it. Flippers, mask, and snorkels were all thrown back on and the swimmers flopped back in (although there were quite a few less this time around).

Unfortunately, not even Katie was able to catch up with the whales. All she saw was a tail fin in a sea of churned up, bubbly water; the rest of us were too late.

Overall, I suppose some people would call the trip a disappointment. After all, we didn’t see the whales underwater, and that’s what we’d paid to see. I definitely felt a pang of that — a sadness that we had missed out on something big. That said, we still had a fantastic day of whale watching, and I had that one moment of feeling unimaginably small and very much in awe. For me — once I got back on land and felt more myself — that was enough to redeem the day. I had a great morning with a fun crew, and next year I’ll be back for more.

Three of Seven

Three whales in the pod of seven, all swimming in a row.

My brother and I were sponsored on this whale swim by Sunreef. I went as a media photographer in hopes of getting underwater shots of the whales. Even though this was a sponsored trip, all opinions stated here are my own.

Sunreef offers multiple whale swims per day in whale season — that is, from the end of July until the beginning of November. Tickets cost $114pp and the trip is three hours in duration. Because no more than 20 people are taken on each boat, they book out quite quickly, so book early. Also, be ready to be flexible with dates because you could get unlucky with the weather like I was!

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