Its actually really simple. You don’t get to swim with a whale unless that whale chooses to swim with you!
Entering the ocean to attempt to swim with a whale is something available only in a very few places around the world – most in Sanctuary Zones or National Parks such as the Ningaloo Marine Park. Such tours provide the opportunity to experience something truly magical, to get so very close to a humpback whale in the open ocean, and hopefully even get to look them in the eye! They have very specific regulations that serve several purposes, including protecting the whales from harassment, and the swimmers from danger, but also to provide the foundations of sustainable, successful encounters.
To ensure a successful whale encounter, we have to interact with the whales on their terms and make sure we don’t disturb them. Humpbacks are inherently curious animals, so they may choose to approach us in the water for a closer look. Though it’s important to remember that whales exercise extreme caution to be able to survive and protect their pod, so they will react if they feel threatened in any way.
Swimming with a whale is far from guaranteed. As with any wildlife, the possibility for an encounter is very much on their terms, no matter how hard our crew works to make it possible. Therefore we ask all guests to fully consider this potential outcome before booking.
The good news is that there are ways to successfully swim with whales, and we follow procedures that are used in a variety of locations around the world. The approach that Ningaloo Whale Shark Swim uses to invite humpback whales to engage with our groups of swimmers, is called a ‘Soft In-Water Whale Encounter’ (SIE).
Soft In-Water Whale Encounters
SIEs are like meditating – a peaceful, quiet and calm approach makes the encounter far more likely to be successful!
Step 1 : Spotter plane
How SIEs work in reality start 1000-1500 feet in the air, way above your boat, the ocean and the whales. Our spotter plane’s pilot will locate humpback whales at rest, or moving lazily through the ocean, for our Skipper to approach and attempt to drop our swimmers onto.
(The plane performs another important function in making sure that we don’t approach a pod if it includes a calf – we ensure that we absolutely minimise disturbing mothers and calves off the Ningaloo as much as possible at all times.)
Whales that are cruising with a purpose, or involved in rowdy behavior or surface displays, are not candidates for an in-water encounter – whilst resting, singing or courting whales most definitely are. Our experienced pilot and crew will not only be providing you with opportunities to observe the whales from the vessel and educating you about the display behaviours you are observing, they will also be preventing wasted time by not imposing ourselves on uninterested whales – something that is better for both tour participants and the whales! The best way to successfully encounter some humpback whales is to not get in the water with them at all!
Step 2 : Tour Boat into Contact Zone
Your skipper will then bring our tour boat into the designated Whale Contact Zone, as designed by Department of Parks and Wildlife. Depending on the behaviours of the target pod, your skipper will be attempting to drop you a respectable distance ahead of where the whales are swimming, so they swim up to you.
Step 3 : Whale swimmers enter the water
Your in-water guide will have you and the other Whale Swimmers in your group (maximum of five Swimmers in any group) with your fins and masks (and wetsuits if needed) on, ready to go at your Skipper’s command. (No SCUBA diving, or motorised underwater devices, is permitted.) You will all then enter the water as quietly as you possibly can.
Each of you will be wearing a through-water communications receiving unit attached to your mask, whilst your in-water guide will be wearing a send/receive unit. The pilot and skipper will then talk your guide in the best possible location as you swim through the water towards the whales.
Step 4 : Swim to 30m from whale(s)
Your in-water guide and photographer will then slowly and peacefully lead you to within 30m of the whales, with everyone in the group focussed on absolutely minimising noise, frantic movement or splashing as you swim.
If we get it right, and the whales are in a tolerant / sociable mood, they will accept us into their environment. If not, they will move away and we will return to our tour vessel to try again with another pod.
Therefore the most important requirements for you to follow when participating in the tour, is to snorkel without causing major splashes, be quiet throughout the whale interaction, and be able to move swiftly through the water if required by your guide. These actions are necessary from the moment you enter the water, up until you leave the whale interaction zone.
(To be fair to all Swimmers on the tour, anyone unable to follow these requirements will be removed from their group until all other Swimmers have swum with a whale, with no refund being payable – so please consider this once again when booking!)
If the whales are feeling sociable, at this point you will quietly float on the surface of the ocean, observing the bodies, fins and spume of these massive creatures that are just 30m / two humpback whale body-lengths away from you. (To give you an idea of how big they are, adults regularly weigh 35 tonne (or 350 big male humans) and grow to lengths of 40 feet (or a full-sized Transperth bus.) You may also be surrounded by whale-song, which can be almost deafening up close!
Step 5 (hopefully) : Whale approaches group
Then, if we are fortunate, a whale will become curious about the little blobs floating in the ocean near them (the blobs are you and your group!) and come over for a closer look. This then enables us to watch with wonder as they swim underwater near us. Your photographer at this point will be doing their very best to get the best possible high-rez portrait shots of you with a whale, whilst continuously minimising any perceived threat that may cause the whale(s) to break from the interaction.
No swimmer is permitted to duck-dive below the surface during the whale interaction in case this makes the whale(s) feel threatened.
Step 6 : Return to Vessel
After 20 minutes of interaction, your guide will motion for the group to quietly back away from the whale and return slowly to the vessel. After exiting the water onto the vessel’s marlin board, the next group of Swimmers will then enter the water for their chance to swim with these whales.
So rather than this tour being perceived as us attempting to swim with the whale, in reality it is the whale choosing to swim with us. The encounters have to be, and should be, very much on their terms rather than ours, where they are responding to our invitation to come for a shared encounter.
Aggressive swimming, speeding vessels and getting too close to the whale always results in a similar outcome – the whales feel threatened as dive down into the blue or they speed off in the opposite direction.
Soft In-Water Whale Encounters are a passive approach that puts hopeful whale swimmers within 30m of an appropriate whale, with the whale then setting the distance, mood, speed, and length of the encounter.
Our priority is to ensure that any perceived threat to the whale is minimised, therefore the whale feels comfortable enough to have a close and calm encounter.
One of the ways in which we can encourage this is by staying together in a small group, allowing the whale to approach us out of curiosity.
Humpback whales are (massive) wild animals that can act defensive and protective when threatened. No one can predict the outcome of an attempted Soft In-Water Whale Encounter, however by using this approach we can to maximise the likelihood that you will get to swim with a whale, and a whale will choose to swim with you.