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Swimming with humpbacks begins at Ningaloo Reef

Swimming with humpbacks begins at Ningaloo Reef
August 18, 2016

Visitors to Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef now have the chance to swim with humpbacks, after a trial tour operation started earlier this month.

The trial will run for three months - from August to October - to determine whether the operation is viable as a permanent tourist attraction for Western Australia's Coral Coast.

Through the winter an estimated 30,000 humpback whales head up the coast of Western Australia on their journey from Antarctic feeding grounds to warm, temperate breeding grounds in Broome - a round journey that sees them cover about 16,000 kilometres.

With Ningaloo Reef world-renowned for its whale shark and manta ray experiences, the Western Australia Government is running a three month trial at the marine park in Exmouth to determine whether such an operation is viable as a permanent tourist attraction.

Ningaloo Marine Park Coordinator Peter Barnes says Department of Parks and Wildlife is working with independent experts from Murdoch University, Curtin University and the University of Tasmania to monitor the behaviour of the whales throughout the trial.

Barnes explains “we’ve put together quite a comprehensive program of research and monitoring.

“It’s very much at the forefront of our thinking to minimise the impacts or have minimal impact.”

The monitoring program includes aerial flights across the marine park to identify critical habitat as well as mothers and calves (which are not to be swum with), and monitoring behaviour - such as breeching, breeding rates and tail slapping - from research vessels on the water as the whales are interacted with.

Barnes added “we’ll be looking at their behaviour and whether they get distressed, or sometimes it is a positive reaction and there is an attraction to the boat or vessel.”

A set of strict guidelines is also in place - outlining how close vessels and swimmers can get to the whales, how many people can be in the water with them and how long they can be in the water for - to protect the whales.

While the region’s tour operators are seasoned in taking tourists to swim with the world’s largest fish - whale sharks - and manta rays, 15 licenced vessels have now added humpback whales to their schedules.

Each day, spotter planes are sent over the park to identify pods exhibiting passive behaviour, called ‘logging,’ where the whales are resting, and once in the water, Matt Winter - owner of tour operator Ningaloo Whaleshark - says it is important the whales control the interaction.

Winter explained “we don’t swim with the whales, they swim with us.

“These are massive, wild animals that have the potential to cause massive harm so we need to be respectfully sharing the water that they live in.

“We approach the whales as gently and as quietly as we can - no talking. Our job is to be quiet and respectful.”

Not only do swimmers have the opportunity to observe the marine mammals, but also to hear whale song.

If successful, there is potential for a second three-month trial in 2017, and if all goes well next year, the swims could become a permanent Ningaloo experience - one that Matt says will have huge tourism benefits.

Image courtesy of Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef.






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