Due to a short season, the remote location on the Great Barrier Reef, and just seven licences approved for swimming with the minke whales, only a few hundred people experience this natural encounter every year.
For the first time, a new (Virtual Reality) VR brings a taste of this rare experience to global screens.
For the past six weeks, hundreds of dwarf minke whales congregated in the remote northern parts of Queensland's Great Barrier Reef, having longer-than-usual face-to-face interactions with a few hundred lucky nature lovers.
According to Dr Dean Miller, a Port Douglas-based marine scientist and filmmaker, the 2017 minke whale season went “through the roof” with minkes arriving in great numbers and interacting with humans for extended periods of time.
“We saw up to 30 dwarf minke whales in the water at the one time, approaching snorkelers and wanting to socialise,”
“It shows that the population is very stable. The whales were as inquisitive as always and were incredibly active during the encounters,” said Dr Miller, who added that “It was one of the best seasons we've had.”
The Great Barrier Reef is the only place on the planet where adventurers can hold onto a rope and watch the underwater antics of dwarf minke whales. Ever since the first licenses were granted, swimming with minke whales has become one of the world's best and longest wildlife encounters.
For the first time, this incredibly rare event is now accessible to a global audience thanks to a newly developed virtual reality (VR) experience. Nature lovers can log on to the Queensland YouTube channel from their mobile and use the screen like their own goggles, moving it around to get a 360-degree view of the underwater action.
Dr Dean Miller created the virtual reality with the intend to inspire more people to visit the Great Barrier Reef to encounter these animals in their own habitat.
“There is nothing else like it on the planet,” said Miller. “It's the curious nature of the minke whales that make this experience so rare and sets it apart from other whale encounters.”
“Dwarf minke whales are considered the friendliest animals on the planet. (In one swim), we can have over 20 animals come and seek out human interaction for up to ten hours at a time. It is something everybody should experience. It will change your life forever.”
Janelle Toby, a Ballina resident and recent passenger on the Mike Ball Dive Expeditions agreed that the curious nature of the whales made a big impact on her.
“It's a treat to be that close to something that big and that magnificent,” Ms Toby said of the seven-metre long baleen.
“The best thing about it is that they are coming towards you. You are just out there floating in the ocean and they are choosing to hang out. It's great.”
First discovered in the mid-1980s, the Great Barrier Reef is the only known predictable gathering of these whales in the world and scientists such as Dr Alastair Birtles from James Cook University believe it also offers one of the longest wildlife interactions.
“There is no other wildlife interaction that lasts as long, where the animals come as close, and it's absolutely up to the animals themselves,” said Dr Birtles.
“There's no inducement; they're not fed in any way. They just come in because they are so extraordinarily curious about us.”
Swimming with the minke whales is a true eco-experience. Funding generated from the tourism enterprise is used to support the Minke Whale Research Project while swimmers are also encouraged to upload their own underwater photos and videos to assist with long-term photo-identification studies and to provide additional resources to the project's scientists.
Four tourism operators, including Mike Ball Dive Expeditions offer liveaboard minke whale expeditions, as part of the seven licences approved by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to conduct swims with dwarf minke whales.
The appearance of the dwarf minke whale heralds the beginning of a five-month whale watching season along the east coast of Queensland. The most popular whale watching, in terms of numbers, is the Humpback Whales which migrate to the warm waters of Queensland between June and November every year. Hervey Bay, some 290km north of Brisbane is best known for the calm waters that create both a breeding ground and a nursery for the migrating whales.
Click here to view the VR experience. Mandatory credit: Dr. Dean Miller.