Exploring Ningaloo Reef – swimming with humpback whales on Australia’s west coast

The sky above had turned a steely grey, a typical winter’s day on the docks of Elizabeth Quay, Perth. But my attention was firmly on Aboriginal Nyungar elder Walter McGuire, sporting a wiry silvering beard and a chest as broad as any rugby player. After daubing our hands and cheeks with ochre, he gently wafted the fire pit, poking shards of balga tree bark into the embers and sending up thick scented tendrils of smoke.

“Kaya noonooka yaarkin niche ngullaka boodja (Welcome to my home country),” he beamed. “Walk in a circle through the smoke; this will bless you and keep you safe on your onward journey.” We would be needing it, for we were on our way to meet some local giants.

Until now, Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef has been synonymous with whale sharks, the mammoth spotted fish that swim near the water’s surface, hoovering up plankton and krill.

But humpback whales also cruise this UNESCO-listed coastline, migrating north from the food-rich Southern Ocean to the warm breeding grounds off the coast of Kimberley, Australia. Until recently, interacting with the ‘humpies’ incurred a A$10,000 fine, but as of August last year that is no longer the case. Now, travellers to Western Australia have the chance to share the waves with them, an experience previously only found at three other locations worldwide: Tonga, the Dominican Republic and Queensland.

Personally, I’d always envied these aquatic transients, able to slip between two worlds with the flick of a tail, breaching the waves one minute, then diving to a realm of giant squid and mystery the next. It’s no wonder that whales have long captured our imaginations. Even the Nyungar have a Dreamtime (creation myth) story about these cetaceans. The legend goes that the karda (goannas) and the nyingarn (echidnas) – who were responsible for all spirits that passed on – saw the whales and asked them for their help.

“We need to get all the little spirit children back to the land, otherwise they will be trapped under the sea,” they pleaded. The whales replied: “We will make sure there’s a spirit child in every calf born and return them when they die.” That is why, the story tells us, when a whale is at the end of its life, it will often strand itself on the sand, bringing a spirit child back to land. Now it was time to finally meet these leviathans on their own turf.

“Just sign your life away here,” grinned our skipper, Murray, shades glued to his face, “then we’ll get going.” He handed me a clipboard loaded with disclaimer forms, grabbed the helm of Wave Rider and powered us toward the ‘Humpback Highway’ that traces the continental shelf.

“Outside the reef, there’s not much distance between us and Madagascar,” he quipped, almost salivating at the lure of open water. His company was one of only eleven operators to be given trial licences for humpback-snorkelling trips by the Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW) in 2016.

This year, they expect a similar number, as the trial enters its second term. Also on board was marine biologist Natalie (Nat) Yeates. As well as having a couple of freediving championships to her name, she had swum with plenty of megafauna before, but reserved her awe for the humpbacks, her eyes often widening as she described them.

“Whale sharks are cool, but they’re predictable,” she reasoned, as I noticed the image of one tattooed on her foot. “But humpies can fight, breach and change direction. The experience is more interactive.”

But it wouldn’t be a free-for-all. To explain the rules, Nat and underwater photographer Jana put on a puppet show, employing a humpback whale soft toy and G-men figurines to demonstrate the strict interaction rules the DPaW have implemented to protect the whales.They’re much more stringent than those put in place for encounters with whale sharks, which are classified as fish.

“Five swimmers (not ten) are allowed in the water. We must keep a distance of 30 metres (instead of three metres), and we are never allowed to swim with mothers and calves,” explained Nat. “Also, the skipper can only make three attempts to get swimmers in the sea with the same pod. After that, we’ll go and find another group. We put the wellbeing of the creature above everything else.

The humpbacks interact with us on their own terms. It’s different here than in other destinations around the world,” she finished, proudly. In Tonga, for instance, the whales tend to be more stationary, which allows for closer interactions. But operators there will often break the rules by slapping the water’s surface to attract whales or wedge the boat between cows and calves, so that they will have to come closer to the vessel in an attempt to reconnect with each other.

At 10.30am, the spotter plane went up, a black dot against a crystal blue sky. “Jacob, the pilot, is only 19,” marvelled Nat. “He’s a complete plane buff. He got his license before he could even drive. We call the plane Ninda, the aboriginal word for ‘cloud’.” Jacob’s voice soon crackled over the radio, reporting that all the pods in our vicinity had calves.

The mothers use the reef as a protective wall to shield their infants from predatory pods of orcas, which cruise the coast looking for a struggling snack. We headed north instead, passing a shimmer of beach on our right and a calf trying to impress its mum with a few fin slaps, its tiny flipper pathetically patting at the water’s surface.

Eventually, we got the nod that a male was nearby. Suited and booted in our snorkels and fins, we waited for the call. “Group one: go, go, go,” the call went out. We slipped off the back of the boat into the deep water and dutifully wiggled after our guide, Julian, like a raft of obedient ducklings.

“Stay in line with me. Don’t spread out, otherwise you’ll make it feel trapped. And no freediving, swimming after the whale, or selfie sticks,” he had warned us beforehand. I pushed my head below the waves and zooplankton dusted my mask.Then I heard something remarkable: the crooning song of a male, its deep bass notes making my heart hum.

But we couldn’t see him, so we lifted our heads and looked enquiringly at Julian. “He must be resting on a sandbank some way off,” he shrugged.

We tried to follow the music, but the whale swam away before we could approach. Back on board, I noticed another vessel following us at a distance. “Who’s that?” I asked, jerking my head in the direction of our aft.

“It’s an independent research vessel with biologists on board. They monitor the behaviour of the whales – breath rate, spy hopping (raising a head out of the water), tail slapping – to determine whether or not the tourists are having a detrimental effect on their migration. At the end of the trial period, they’ll modify the behaviour of the boats if necessary,” explained Nat.

Suddenly, a huge female, as large as a bus, corkscrewed through the water’s surface some 30 metres from us and flopped onto her back, sending up an almighty fountain of water. The group collectively gasped, but we were all longing to get back in the water.

The tours have come at the right time for the area. Revenue from the oil and gas mining industry is in decline, and humpback snorkelling could boost local coffers significantly, Nat explained.

“At first, I was against it, but if the whales don’t want to interact, they won’t. They can out-manoeuvre us like that,” she said, snapping her fingers. Local operators are happy to ride the wave of development, too.

Once, Exmouth was known only for its Second World War military base and gaggle of caravans. Now, it has a slow-drip coffee van, a new marina surrounded by swanky homes, a luxury hotel and the Ningaloo Centre, an interpretative space being built on Murat Road that will house research, education and tourism facilities when it opens in April. What the visitors and local community get out of the tourism is clear, but I wondered about the creatures themselves.

On our first night in Exmouth, I met Dr Peter Barnes, the Marine Program Coordinator for DPaW, and asked him how the whales benefitted. “A recent survey has seen humpback numbers recover from 10,000 to 30,000 thanks to stricter whaling regulations,” he explained. “And a percentage of each swimmer’s fee goes to help marine park management and education. As yet, there’s no ‘citizen science’ programme – where visitors upload their whale photos onto a website to help us ID them – but it’ll be encouraged in the future.”

Back on the boat, the prospect of a spot of ‘citizen science’ seemed light years away. All throughout the day, the radio crackled with reports of just-missed sightings while the crew brimmed with ever-grander tales of encounters – “Yesterday we saw an orca pod attack and eat a tiger shark.”

But as the light faded, so did our chances. “All you can do is ask for some good humpback ‘juju’,” shrugged Nat. I took a swig of Ningaloo Nectar (a local water) and stared out at the sea. A bottlenose dolphin hydroplaning on the waves alongside her pup lifted my spirits, but all my hopes were pinned on tomorrow.

Back on land and en route to Sal Salis, our beachside camp in the Cape Range National Park, we passed an echidna crossing the road, its protruding snout stained black at the tip like a pencil dipped in ink. All around was fascinating wildlife, except where I wanted it to be. Among the dunes, our luxury tents lay camouflaged against a mix of spinifex mounds and scrub populated with blushing galahs and shy wallaroos.

As the sea air rustled the lounge tent, we dined on Moreton Bay bugs (lobster), red emperor fish and local wine. Just 2km behind the camp lay Mandu Mandu Gorge, an ancient riverbed that you can trace on foot and is populated by black-footed rock wallabies and fossils. But my thoughts were still back out at sea with the whales.

The next morning, I was woken by the faltering song of a shrike. I unzipped my tent and saw splashes on the blue horizon. Humpbacks were breaching. I watched from the beach and hurriedly munched my muesli. It was a good sign.

We drove back to the dock and, this time, boarded the Ningaloo Discovery catamaran. Deckhand Rachel handed us our equipment. “The tabs on your snorkel mouthpiece have no nutritional value, so please don’t bite them too hard,” she teased.

Outside the reef, the water morphed from cerulean to indigo, as the ground dropped away to depths of a thousand metres or more.

Something moved on the surface. “A scalloped hammerhead,” Rachel casually confirmed. The species list out here is as long as a fishing line: turtles, dugongs, tiger sharks, minke and Bryde’s whales and countless dolphins, including a newly classified species only recently identified – the Australian humpback dolphin.

It was then that a dark shadow glided nearby. “A manta ray,” someone squealed. We threw on our gear, plopped into the ocean and ogled the winged creature up close, but there were still no suitable whale pods.

By late afternoon, we were beginning to lose hope when, suddenly, the call went up: “Whales behind us. Group one, go.”

As we jumped, dead ahead were five huge bachelors, their rounded hulks barrelling straight towards us. I scrambled to pull on my mask and pointed my face downwards once again. There was one, cruising 30 metres below, his white barnacled belly half turned towards me.

I strained to peer through a soup of zooplankton and saw what I’d been yearning for: a Mona-Lisa-esque half smile and one giant wise eye trained on me. Then, it was gone. I had never been happier to be ignored by a male, and as we flopped back onto the deck, John, a traveller from the USA, ripped off his mask, exhilaration splashed across his face.

“Time seemed to slow – that was such a rush,” he cried.

As the engines spluttered into life, I thought how much sweeter the experience had been for knowing that our fees had contributed to the protection of these creatures, and how it had been worth the wait to see a humpback on its own terms.

The town of Exmouth has a lot riding on the success of its trial humpback tours. But despite the pressure, it’s pleasing to see the whale’s wellbeing is still the most important part. The future here looks bright, blue and barnacled.

The author travelled with Austravel on a seven-night trip to Perth and the Coral Coast, which costs from £2,479 per person. This includes a three-night stay at the Alex Hotel in Perth, two nights at the Sal Salis Wilderness Tent and two nights at the Mantarays Ningaloo Beach Resort in Exmouth, with a day’s tour swimming with humpback whales.

Main image: A humpback whale breaching in Australia (Dreamstime)