Whale interactions increasing under trial

Experiences: The number of people attempting to swim with a whale more than doubled over the trial period.
Experiences: The number of people attempting to swim with a whale more than doubled over the trial period.

Western Australia can now claim to be one of the premier destinations for humpback whale in-water interactions after three years of trials in the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Marine Park, according to the region's tourism authority, Australia's Coral Coast.

Two more trial years have been approved by the WA Government for 2019 and 2020; this year's season kicked off in Coral Bay on 1 July and in Exmouth on 1 August, with both locations running until 30 October.

Over the past three years, tour operators licensed to provide in-water interactions with whales have worked to improve the experience for swimmers and observers.

Techniques include locating whales through spotter planes communicating directly to the boat's head guide, direct radio contact between the skipper and the in-water guide via radio, and on-board drones, all increasing the success rate of interactions.

Regulations for licensed operators participating in the trials also allow vessels to approach to 75 metres from the side of resting whales when attempting an in-water interaction and 150 metres in front of travelling whales. This also provides a better experience and close-up view for observers.

In 2018, 272 tours were conducted which is almost 40 per cent more since the trial began in 2016, with the number of people attempting to swim with a whale more than doubling over the trial period.

The interaction success rate also increased from 68 per cent in 2016 to 76 per cent in 2018.

According to Kylie Merritt from Coral Bay Ecotours, Coral Bay, since the season commenced on July 1 a number of interactions have occurred above and below the water.

"With three seasons of Humpback Whale in-water interactions under our belt, our experienced skippers and crew are confident that we can provide our guests with the best possible chance of an amazing interaction with the Humpback Whales," she said.

Sarah Ellis from Ningaloo Discovery, Exmouth, reported the addition of in-water communications directly between spotter plane pilots and head guides has increased their interaction success rate to 90 per cent.

"Many of our professional and experienced crew are now in their third and fourth season and have a wealth of knowledge and experience to ensure the best possible interactions with these amazing gentle giants of the sea.

"Our sailing catamaran has low noise and disturbance levels allowing no impact on the whales as a result of guests entering the water," she said.

Debbie Ferguson from Exmouth Dive & Whalesharks Ningaloo said "managing the number of swimmers on the boat to two groups of seven also ensures the opportunity for more than one swim with the humpbacks".

Humpback whales, having a wide geographic range, are found in all the world's oceans. Australia is one of only three countries in the world where you can swim with humpback whales. There are three locations in Australia including the Ningaloo Marine Park (Exmouth and Coral Bay) in Western Australia.

The licenses are issued to existing and experienced whale shark tour operators who have been taking consumers to swim with or observe whale shark interactions for many years in the Ningaloo Marine Park.