This was the highlight of my trip to Australia, possibly the highlight of my life. The reason why I wanted to do this road trip was for the possibility of seeing these majestic animals. There are only a few places on this beautiful earth where you can legally swim with humpbacks. The most well known place is Tonga (which is still very high on my bucket list). But a few years ago, Australia announced it would be offering a permitting system for select tour companies to swim with whales. There are strict regulations on how close the boats can go to the whales, how many people, timing, etc. But they had success the first year so the permits were allowed once again in 2018. There are a few companies that do a similar tour, but we lucked out because the company we chose was the only one who went out on the day we had free. There was also high wind during the week we were in Exmouth, so the days after us had to cancel our tour. I was worried that our tour was going to be cancelled, but kept a positive outlook saying if it was meant to be it will be. I highly recommend the tour we went on. it was pretty expensive, but they really do everything possible to get you in the water with humpbacks, and have really good lunch and the staff was super friendly. We went with Ningaloo Whalesharks https://www.ningaloowhalesharks.com/swim-with-a-humpback-whale.php
which was almost $300, but we figured for this once in a lifetime opportunity, it was totally worth it. The best part is this company has there own spotter plane, which helps the boat find the whales, and then helps the swimmers get closer to the whales. We got picked up at around 7:30 AM from our hostel. Another girl from our tour group joined, Grace, and we all piled into the bus where the tour leader talked about the history of Exmouth and information about the animals we might encounter during the day. The bus ride was about 30 minutes from the pier, so it is definitely important to look for tour groups with free transport.
We got on board and were given coffee and tea, which was prefect because it was a “chilly morning”. Keep in mind I get cold easily, so maybe it was around 70 degrees F. We met the crew and were given a breakdown on how the day would go. The first snorkel of the morning was on the reef. There was a pretty strong current from the wind so it was a drift snorkel. So the boat dropped us off in one spot and picked us up at another. The water was pretty cold, so the snorkel was only around 20 minutes. We saw some beautiful rays, tons of masked pufferfish, and even a turtle.
Next was time for the humpback whales! We were split into three groups, and because we were with Grace and we were all sharing a photo package, we were added to her group and were the first ones in the water with the whales, which was super lucky for us. How it worked was the spotter plane would give the captain directions on how to bring the boat in front of the whales swimming direction. There are strict rules that you can’t swim with mothers with calves, so we were swimming with adult groups. The boat drops us off quite a way in front of the whales. Then one of the staff in the water with us has a radio to speak directly with the pilot of the spotter plain. They are telling the group to swim towards the land, or to swim towards the sea, in hopes of intercepting the oncoming swimming whales. It was such an exhilarating feeling. I really don’t think I have ever swam faster in my life. Kicking with all the power in my legs and constantly looking around for that dark shadow coming towards us. That’s when I heard the words “Down! Look down!” I put my face underwater and saw the oncoming whales. Three huge creatures swimming directly towards us. My heart raced with exhilaration and I couldn’t help but let let out a squeal of excitement. That’s when I noticed that the whales were coming directly towards us. I was nervous wondering if I should swim out of the way or what I should do. But as animals generally are, they were just curious on what we were and wanted to check us out. The most magical moment was being eye to eye with this one extremely curious whale, who stopped and stared at us. Looking at its massive features and body gestures was a moment when I truly realized how intelligent these whales are. They are playful, inquisitive, smart, massive, and so beautiful. I expected the whales to pass by us, and continue on their way. But we were so lucky that these whales were so curious by our presence that they looped back around, circling around for quite some time.
When the group of whales headed into the blue, our group of snorkelers were laughing and screaming with excitement. The tour leader was yelling “This is why we do this, how incredible was that experience” We all were so stoked, and sharing our incredible moment, that I forgot to look under the water. The tour guide, who knew about my love of sharks, pointed out a shadow below us. It was a bronze whaler shark, a species I got to see in South Africa this year. We were all looking down below us when Grace screamed “Lyndsey, Look to your right!” I shifted my head and directly next to me was a massive humpback whale. It was the same group who were returning to check us out one last time. They circled around a few times, coming within a few meters of us. Until they finally departed.
When we returned to the boat, we were all giddy with excitement. I don’t think I have ever seen David so excited. And I don’t think I had ever been so moved by an underwater experience. Which is saying something because I get quite emotional while snorkeling because I always feel so at home. But I think these lifechanging moments with wild animals is what is my motivation to work hard as a marine conversationalist and do everything in my power to protect the beautiful animals of this Earth.
The other groups unfortunately didn’t get quite as good as an encounter, but they both were able to see them in passing, so everyone was excited on board. Some groups took a few attempts in the sea until they came close enough the whales to see them, but eventually they all had success. We had by far the longest and closest encounter, which I feel so blessed about. Life is so good, and I really believe if you constantly put out good vibes, things are more likely to work out in your favor. It was an incredible day! We had an amazing lunch on board, and then finished up the day with one last snorkel on the reef. We didn’t see any megafauna like the day before, but it was nice to see some coral and clear water. Overall it was a great day.
We returned to our hotel, dropped off our snorkeling gear, then headed to the town center to do some souvenir shopping. In the evening the whole tour group got in the van and watched the sunset at the famous lighthouse, the Vlaming Lighthouse. It was a wonderful evening, and we watched so many whales breaching in all directions. Sometime there would be many simultaneously leaping into the air, it was quite a sight.
After the sunset, we went on a mission to find dingos and kangaroos. We failed finding dingos but had success with kangaroos. It was the best day ever. For dinner we returned to the hostel and had pesto pasta. We went to bed for another early morning, it was time to head back to the long drive to Exmouth.