Noosa: Hanging with Humpbacks

Much like our cetacean friends who travel north for winter, we migrate up to Queensland when the mercury starts to remain consistently below double digits in Melbourne. And for the first time, we decided to actually go see the humpbacks – in fact, we went swimming with them!

I’d heard you could swim with whales in Tonga, but I had no idea we could do it here in Noosa, Australia – no passports or visas required – with Noosa Wave, just off Gympie Terrace.

With this in mind, we got our wetsuits on, tucked snorkels and flippers under our arms, and boarded the boat early in the morning with zero expectations. The brand new, cheerful yellow boat seats around 25 passengers, and on this overcast day, there were 11 swimmers and perhaps 8 who were going to remain on board. Our skipper Andrew explained the safety features of the boat and important things like how to flush the marine toilet, then it was time to leave!

Skipper Andrew with his cheery yellow boat (on a sunnier day)

After expertly navigating our vessel across the tricky sands of Noosa Bar, Andrew took us along the picturesque coastline of Noosa National Park before turning the boat around to look at the waves crashing around the jagged rocky cliffs of Hell’s Gate. Then we headed out towards the horizon, all eyes peeled for dolphins, turtles and of course, whales.

We stopped for a couple of minutes at a spot off the coast where a friendly bottlenose dolphin had stolen the show the day before. No dolphin, no whales. Then we kept going a bit further out and still…nothing. By this time, I was starting to think that we might not see anything and have to come back another day.

Then…whoosh…a spout! A fin in the air. And then a cheeky tail, slapping the surface of the water. The humpbacks were here!

Our swim guide Fin (the best name ever!) told us to get ready, and one by one we slipped off the side of the boat quietly into the water. The whales – three of them – were swimming under the boat, surfacing every so often to show us their magnificent tails, their great white bellies and tips of their big barnacled noses. Those in the boat – who opted to stay dry – went into a photographic frenzy.

The group in the water rushed over towards the trio of humpbacks, a clumsy jumble of arms, legs, fins and snorkels. But it wasn’t necessary – this particular group were curious about us, inquisitive enough to keep circling us and the boat so eventually you didn’t even have to move in order to view them gliding past gracefully below or beside you.

The entire time, they sung their hypnotic song, comprised of a mournful keening sometimes, spirited chirps and often, playful barks – almost like puppies. We had heard snatches from the boat, but underwater, their music was far louder. And it was their constant singing that made us aware of where they were – and that they, not us, were the ones in charge of their watery domain.

Like elephants on land, these marine giants were able to approach us surprisingly close – not the other way around – and manoeuvre past without so much as brushing us with their enormous flippers and tail fins. When one popped up right next to us, it carefully broke the surface of the water, twisting its magnificent body to make sure it didn’t touch us.

After an hour in the water – it felt like mere minutes – we had to leave and it took a whole day before my great big grin wore off.

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