The only way to have a successful in-water interaction with a humpback whale is if the whale chooses to interact with you!
In-water interactions with marine mammals is a highly regulated industry with specific regulations to protect the whales from harassment, keep the snorkelers safe, and also to maintain sustainable and successful encounters. The opportunity for humpback whale interactions is a rare privilege, available only in select locations globally, and we are fortunate to have such a unique opportunity on the Ningaloo Reef. Interacting with a humpback whale underwater is a truly magical experience.
An in-water interaction with a humpback whale is never guaranteed. The possibility of an encounter with a wild animal is always on their terms. We remind our guests to consider this before booking. (See our ‘Humpback Whale No Sighting Guarantees’ page for more information on this.) Please don’t let this scare you off though, as attempting the interaction is a memorable experience in itself!
There are ways to improve your chances of successfully seeing a humpback whale underwater. We follow regulations put in place by our governing body taken from studies of other tourism operators around the world. To ensure a successful whale encounter, we must interact with the whales on their terms and minimise any disturbance to them. Humpback whales are inquisitive animals that may choose to approach us in the water. They are also very protective and will react if they feel threatened in any way, which is why it’s critically important to follow directions from the crew.
Low Impact Whale Interactions
The approach that Ningaloo Whale Shark Swim uses to invite humpback whales to engage with our groups of swimmers, is called ‘Low Impact Whale Interactions’.
The steps are outlined below:
1. Spotter Plane
Our pilot flies up and down the Ningaloo Reef to locate potential humpback whale pods for our tour boat to attempt an interaction with.
The spotter plane is a crucial element to our procedure – it not only directs us to suitable whales, but also lets us know if an optimal interaction is possible and that there are no undersized calves with the pod.
We use our own Spotter Plane, rather than sharing one with other tour boats. Whilst its far more expensive to have our own plane, we do this to maximise the likelihood of our guests interacting with a humpback whale during their tour – not sharing the pod with other tour boats is an important part of this.
2. The Contact Zone
Once a suitable humpback whale pod has been found, our skipper will usually manoeuvre the vessel towards the humpback whale pod. Once within 150m of them, we enter the Exclusive Contact Zone as designated by our Interaction Protocols. The Skipper will confirm after evaluating the pod for a time that a safe interaction is possible and likely.
3. Guests Enter the Water
While the boat gets into position, your group of swimmers will be asked to sit on the marlin board at the back of the boat with your mask, snorkel and fins on, ready to go. When we are in position for your drop, you will be told when to enter the water. Your group will all then slide off the back of the boat into the water with your in-water guide and our onboard photographer accompanying your swim.Its critical to do this as quietly and calmly as possible.
4. Getting Into Position
Your in-water guide uses a waterproof radio to receive directions from the pilot and skipper on how to get to the target location that will maximise the likelihood your group will successfully interact with a humpback in-water. This part of the interaction may require you to kick for a reasonably long distance or swim fast to make sure your group gets to the right location. (Remember, these are wild animals that don’t swim in a straight line. Even after all of the effort, sometimes the whales will swim away and choose not to interact with us.)
If the whales maintain their course and your group is in the right position, when the pod of whales is 30m away you have entered the humpback whales’ contact zone and your chance of a successful interaction has dramatically increased. It is critically important for snorkelers to minimise any splashing, noise or frantic movements as the whales swim by us, and be ready to swiftly move as needed if the whales change direction.
To ensure every group’s chance of interacting with a humpback is maximised, anyone unable to follow these requirements may be required to remain onboard during in-water interaction attempts with no refund payable.
5. The Interaction
Every successful in-water interaction is different, depending on the humpback whale pod encountered and their individual behaviour. Usually you will see one (or more!) 35-ton creature appear out of the blue swimming beside you. If the water is deeper, they may swim underneath the group for a top view. If you’re lucky, they may even become curious and circle back around for another look! Either version you get, you’ll be amazed and humbled by their sheer size and effortless movement, and majesty. Many of our guests describe this as a life-changing, unforgettable experience.
At this moment, your onboard professional photographer will be busy capturing as much photo and video they can of the amazing encounter. Your in-water guide will be constantly monitoring the behaviour of the whales and the movements of the snorkelers.
During the interaction in the contact zone, snorkelers are not permitted to swim towards the whales, or duck-dive below the surface to the whales. Either of these behaviours may cause the whales to feel threatened, so increase the risk of both injury and the whales swimming away from the group. It also means we may have to prevent the swimmer from re-entering the water to attempt another interaction if they represent a risk to their group.
6. Return to Vessel
After the humpback whales have left the contact zone, the spotter plane will inform your in-water guide and the skipper will begin to manoeuvre the vessel towards your group.
Once back on board safely, the pod will be reassessed for suitability before the second group of swimmers will attempt an interaction. Sometimes the pods will turn to deeper water or change their behaviour after an interaction, making them less suitable. If they are still deemed suitable, the second group of swimmers onboard will then make their way to the marlin board to get ready for their drop.
‘Low Impact Whale Interactions’ are a passive approach that puts hopeful snorkelers within 30m of an appropriate whale, with the whale then setting the distance, speed and length of the interaction. Humpback whales are wild animals and can act defensively when feeling threatened. Our priority is to ensure that any perceived threat to the humpback whale is absolutely minimised to ensure the whale is calm enough to have a close and safe encounter.
The outcomes of attempted ‘Low Impact Whale Interactions’ are varied. However, by using this approach we can maximise the likelihood that you will get to interact with a whale, safety and enjoyably. We do need your cooperation throughout for this to happen.