There are not too many wild animals with whom you can (or would want to) get up close, but whales are the exception, and a known for a placid and often curious nature.
Snorkelling with these gentle mammals has, in recent years become a possibility and a bucket-list experience – just make sure your operator of choice is licensed and follows their own country’s regulations for an experience that is good for you and the whale.
Here’s where you can get on or under the water with whales, whether you’re looking for a one-off one-day excursion or a longer liveaboard with multiple encounters.
Hervey Bay, Queensland
Hervey Bay Dive Centre owner Ed Gibson describes Fraser Island as a ‘speed bump’ on the humpbacks’ journey north from Antarctica.
“When they get to the island, they slow down and spend an average of two-three days wallowing around, basically having a holiday,” he says.
There are four operators in Hervey Bay that offer snorkelling with whales in the crystalline water just off Fraser Island.
Earlier in the season (June, July, August), the juvenile whales visit, followed by the mums and calves in September, then the veterans toward the end of the season (September-October).
While sightings are not guaranteed, there’s a pretty good chance of some in-water interaction at this popular whale meeting spot.
Cost: From about $195 for a day excursion
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Posted by Sunreef Diving on Thursday, September 1, 2016
Tahiti, South Pacific
Whales come to rest in the islands on their migration from July to November, often with newborn calves. One of the advantages of swimming with them here is the balmy, tropical water temperature and pristine clarity.
Tours are usually about four hours long, with 12 people. If you reckon that a single day’s encounter won’t be enough or want a more intimate experience, there are also a few luxury liveaboard options, like Majestic Whale Encounters’ seven days of cruising and interacting with these gentle giants at a more leisurely pace.
Cost: From about $170 for a day excursion to $5600 per person for the seven-day liveaboard
Kingdom of Tonga, South Pacific
Protected from rough seas by islands and a prime chill-out zone for whales (as well as holidaymakers), Tonga is considered one of the best places in the world to swim with humpback whales.
Like Tahiti, the seasons runs roughly from July to the first week in November. October is said to be the best month to swim with newborn calves. However, research from Auckland University suggests that tourist encounters with mothers with calves might have a negative impact on both, so perhaps reconsider getting in the water with a calf and stick to swimming with mature whales.
Trips vary in length from a couple of hours to packages of up to a week (with land-based accommodation).
Cost: From about $400 for a day tour to about $1780 for a package for four nights liveaboard
Sunreef was the first to introduce whale swimming in Australia and is still the only licensed operator in Mooloolaba.
Its boats usually head to the waters about 10-15 nautical miles off the coast, to an area known as ‘The Whale Highway’, although owner Dan Hart says that during the calving period, the mothers bring the whales in closer to shore.
Swims are available to competent swimmers over the age of eight and visibility is generally pretty good, at about 10-15 metres. Usually the whales are in pods of three or four and they tend to be curious; in a recent encounter, Dan Hart says they spent 20 minutes hanging out with the humans.
Cost: From about $165 per person
Agincourt Reef, Queensland
This is the only place in the world you can swim with dwarf minke whales, with just a few operators licensed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to run small group swimming excursions to the Agincourt Ribbon Reef.
The whales migrate between May and August, with peak season and the most likely time to have interactions being June-July.
The minkes are a baleen whale, who filter their food through long sieve-like plates and grow up to eight metres long. They’re known for their inquisitive natures, often approaching swimmers and interacting for as long as 90 minutes.
Tours leave from Cairns and Port Douglas to the reef and there are also longer liveaboard trips for three nights or more.
Prices: From about $254 for a day tour. Check for 2020 prices for liveaboard as season has closed
For hardcore nature enthusiasts with healthy travel budgets, the frigid waters of the Norwegian fjords provide a unique experience – the rare opportunity to be one of a small number of people to get up close with the largest member of the dolphin family, the orca or “killer” whale.
On a liveaboard former whale research vessel, you follow the orcas as they hunt herring that migrate in the fjords along the Norwegian coast from November to mid-January (the trips are run in November, when there’s still enough daylight to be able to see under water).
A bonus is possibility of spotting the northern lights at this time of year. Numbers are limited to six guests and you’ll need to be a strong swimmer.
Price: About $10,000 for eight days