Is this the world’s most exclusive wildlife encounter?
Consider this: 36 years of discovery, seven licences granted, four liveaboard dive tours available and maybe – just maybe – 700 people per year get to have the most magical, tingly, awesome underwater encounter in Tropical North Queensland.
The minke whale was first recorded in 1981 by Rob Prettejohn after he dismissed the finned creature he spotted as an orca and then plunged into the waters of the Great Barrier Reef to document his first encounter with the odd creature. (Rob is today the owner of Thala Beach Nature Reserve, a gorgeous resort near Port Douglas.)
Rob’s precision drawings, (above), along with field notes, were sent to the Curator of Mammals at Queensland Museum asking what it was. The reply:
Your accurate and clear description of the whale you saw makes it possible to be confident about its identification. Almost without doubt it is a minke whale.
Right there a new whale species, now known as the dwarf minke whale, (“an unfortunate name as they are not in any sense ‘dwarfs’,” says Prettejohn) was known and swimming with them has become one of the most elusive yet sought after nature experiences in the world.
Each year between May and August, these minke whales congregate in the remote Ribbon Reefs off Cooktown – and nowhere else. For just a few weeks a year, a handful of tourism operators open their liveaboards to this relatively new natural encounter.
Here’s how to do it
The key is to book early. With just four liveaboard vessels and a six-week season, your options are tight:
- Eye to Eye Marine Encounters – best for the citizen scientist as profits are channelled into further minke research
- Deep Sea Diver’s Den – a 16-dive expedition
- Spirit of Freedom – the largest vessel with swishes cabins; and
- Mike Ball Dive Expeditions – a veteran dive boat where the hearty food almost eclipses the marine experiences
All have one thing in common: passionate crews that are almost evangelical about the minke experience. To see what happens on a liveaboard, check here.
I chose Mike Ball Dive’s 10-dive encounter on the boat Spoilsport. I’m a lapsed diver; It’s been 25 years – and just a handful of dives – since earning my licence so this is going to be a mix of snorkelling, sun tanning and scuba.
Luckily the standard cabins come with comfortable metre-wide single beds, plenty of drawer space (that no-one uses) a tight but functional bathroom, and the most delicious meals, served five times a day. This is my home for the next three days.
You can gauge how good a holiday will be by the way it starts. And it doesn’t get better than an eye-popping, low-flying joy flight over the world’s greatest reef system from Cairns to Lizard Island where a dinghy waits to squirrel us away to Spoilsport and an incredible buffet of food.
The wind suddenly whips up and from there it’s a two-hour “brutal” trip in 25-knot winds to our first dive site.
Dive site 1: The Cod Hole
I’ve snorkelled Thailand, Malaysia, Fiji and much of the Great Barrier Reef but nothing is as good as this. It’s a 1920s circus down there. Blue and yellow acrobatic fish toss and tumble against a backdrop of hydrangea-coloured corals doing the Charleston in time with the tide: jiggle, jiggle, kick left and then jiggle, jiggle, kick right.
This is the opening scene to Nemo, only none of the characters can talk. Or at least I don’t understand them.
Hidden in a shallow channel between two bommies*, I spot a pair of sweetlip, their canary yellow tips with black and white striped flanks remind me of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Complete with a perfect trout pout, they do little, but they attract a lot.
A quick nap and a two-hour chug later and we come to our second dive site – still a snorkel for me. The light is fading and the water is cooler. It’s winter in the tropics and I’m reluctant to go in.
But it is so worth it. If the first site was a circus, this one is a mad whirlwind of the creatures found only in Dr Seuss books or Alice in Wonderland. Instead of going down the rabbit hole, I’ve duck-dived down a wacked-out world of crazy colour, organic contours and rhythmic fish gymnastics.
Gnarly hard coral with crazy purple-tipped hair flies in all direction, massive outbursts of mustard-coloured brain coral meet soft tan corals and big, black fish chip away like woodpeckers against the coral. There’s a cadenza of noise and business happening here. Every fish has a role. And no one minds my presence.
It’s down to just the two of us. The dive instructor and me. The rest have bolted into the blue and a tanned, young Brit has decided to reintroduce me to diving. The last time I donned a suit and a tank, he wasn’t even born, but Ollie will have none of that. He thinks I’m ready for a resort dive.
He (of the 20-something invincible mindset) gives me two points to remember:
1. Don’t stop breathing; and
2. Don’t resurface faster than your own bubbles.
The theory is a breeze, but the doing is a head spin. I slowly let the air out of my vest and submerge to the point of “NO!”.
I panic and jab a few “up up up” signals but Ollie overrides it. Patiently we practice releasing air from the mask, losing my regulator, finding it and then sucking through it. Ollie has calmed me. And he nods that I’m ready.
Ollie holds my hand. Or rather, I hold his. Kind of like a prison guard grips a fugitive. I am umbilically corded to him as he guides me over to the Lighthouse Bommie until I forget that I really am an oxygen-breathing creature.
Lighthouse bommie is like a 16-metre high-rise tower populated by the oddest of odd residents that change ‘fashion’ at each floor. First, there are a proud and mighty lionfish. Then a little lower is a sea squirt, a cute white thing stuck to a rock with a pretty pink frill known as a sailor’s eye. Ollie grabs the white board and furiously writes down a description. Apparently, I’m looking at the biggest single-celled organism in the world.
There’s also fish… lots of them. Sweetlip, parrot fish, clusters of yellow fish and of course, trevally, hanging in the backdrop watching me, in the same way I watch the cricket: oddly bored.
I’m so lost in awe that I forget my seven-metre limit. Ollie taps me that it’s time to go back up for food and a long dream through the night.
Ribbon Reef Number 9.
It might sound like a bad album out of the ’80s, but Ribbon Reef Number 9 is the reason we’re here. It’s a known playground of the minke whales – for just six weeks a year – and we are one of the fortunate few hoping to tick an encounter with one off our bucket list.
It’s been 10 years since the dive industry banded with researchers to lobby for tourists to “swim with the minkes,” although Richard Fitzpatrick, a Cairns-based marine biologist and an Emmy-award-winning filmmaker is adamant it’s not “whale watching”, but “people watching”. The minkes are in control, he says, and they decide if they want to swim into the declared 100-metre radius. Or not.
In the last six years, Minke Whale researchers have recorded some 1500 hours of minke encounters, most around the Lighthouse Bommie with the average encounter lasting 84 minutes.
After two days of anticipation, we spot the fins. We could be in luck.
Our cruise director Kerrin has three rules. “Do not wave, do not get excited, just stay calm,” he advises as we plunge off the back of the boat and grip onto a rope like last week’s washing.
Let’s be serious, Kerrin! How calm do you think I can be when a nine-metre fish with a head bigger than my own chubby body comes up to me? There’s also a 15-knot wind around, choppy seas and I’m feeling very front loaded.
My mind gets a little desperate after a solid half hour of bobbing.
How do you call a whale? Can it understand whale speak? I’ve watched Nemo. Like if I go, “here minke, minke, minke, come here before I sinkie, sinkie, sinkie”, will one come to me?
The water is slightly hazy, and I’m feeling bilious from the washing machine action and I flip over on my back to clear my mask. Returning to the uncreatively named ‘dead man’s float’, I nearly gag. There in front of me is a massive submarine with fins and white stripes around them. There’s barely a movement. Hardly a flip of the tail and it’s gone – like a ghost. Did I really see it?
I wait again and she reappears from my right (I decide it must be a woman with sleek curves like that!), this time with a mate in tow. We lock eyes – I know we do because she twists her body and exposes her brilliant white belly to maintain our line of sight. She’s playing with me. Eying me. Kind of how a bloke eyes you in a bar (or at least they did 20 years ago. Anyone eyeing me now just wants to mug me).
Over and over for the next hour or so, my minke eggs me to release the line and swim after her. It’s ethereal. It’s effortless. It’s out of this world. And it’s a very private encounter.
Something powerful had just happened and I call it quits and go quietly to the cabin to think it over. My co-divers are more resilient and stay for another 30 minutes, each claiming even closer encounters than the one I had (I think they’re hardly fisherpeople!). Still, I sleep on it all.
It’s hard to get excited when you’ve ticked the number 1 thing off the bucket list but the next day the reef serves me another ace. I’m at Ribbon Reef Number 2 at Steve’s Bommie, a brilliant dive site named after a bloke who died. We’re not sure who he was, but it’s clear that it’s not Steve Irwin. This Steve must also have been a top bloke for someone to go to all that effort to build a plaque and bolt it to the sea floor 25 metres below. The site is full of macro marine life. Mighty, mighty lionfish, reef sharks, stonefish (yech!) and nudis. It’s a wonderful tribute to the unknown diver and three days of strange encounters.
I want this experience to continue, but it’s the end of the minke season and I have to wait another year, says, one of my colleagues, or get my scuba suit down to Hervey Bay where two operators have been given the all clear to swim with the humpbacks.
Sheesh. I’ve got the seven-metre whales down pat, why not try a bigger 12-metre baleen?
*A “bommie” is a derivative of an Aboriginal term for a submerged pinnacle of which there are many in the region.