Swimming with whales: you must know the risks and when it’s best to keep your distance



Shutterstock/anna sanfeliu gozalvez

Chantal Denise Pagel, Auckland University of Technology; Mark Orams, Auckland University of Technology, and Michael Lueck, Auckland University of Technology

Three people were injured last month in separate humpback whale encounters off the Western Australia coast.

The incidents happened during snorkelling tours on Ningaloo Reef when swimmers came too close to a mother and her calf.

Swim encounters with humpback whales are relatively new in the Australian wildlife tourism portfolio. The WA tours are part of a trial that ends in 2023. A few tour options have also been available in Queensland since 2014.

But last month’s injuries have raised concerns about the safety of swimming with such giant creatures in the wild.

Close encounters

Until recently, you had to travel to Tonga, Niue or French Polynesia for similar humpback whale encounters in Oceania. Or you could swim with other species, such as dwarf minke whales on the Great Barrier Reef.




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But when we interact with wild animals there is always a risk to safety, especially in challenging environments such as open water.

Whales, like other wildlife, may behave unpredictably. Active surface behaviours such as breaching, tail and fin slaps present a significant risk for swimmers and whale watchers.

Four drawings of a humpback whale.
A humpback whale (1) breaching, (2) head lunge, (3) tail slap and (4) pectoral fin slap can all be a danger to people close by.
Chantal Denise Pagel, Author provided

In one of the WA encounters, the nursing female was reported to display pectoral fin and tail slaps. These are potentially threatening due to the size (up to 16 metres long) and power of humpback whales.

These behaviours are frequently observed in social interactions between humpback whales and can present a severe risk of injury to anyone close by, with potentially life-threatening results.

A recent study of the impacts of swimmer presence on humpback whales off Réunion Island (on Madagascar’s east coast in the Indian Ocean) confirmed a high occurrence of aggressive and/or defensive whale behaviour.

The researchers observed flipper and tail fluke swipes and thrashes – sudden movements of a whale’s extremities – especially in mother-and-calf pairs.

A humpback whale slaps its pectoral flipper and splashes the water
Active whale behaviour is exciting to observe, but that flipper can pack a powerful punch.
Flickr/Michael Dawes, CC BY-NC

Keep your distance

While the reasons for the Australian incidents are still unclear, a possible explanation could be that the swimming groups approached the whales too closely and ignored the signs the whales did not welcome visitors.

Maintaining a safe distance should be required of any tourists interested in seeing or getting close to unpredictable wildlife, especially in unfamiliar environments.

We cannot expect tourists, who are often first-time whale swim participants, to be able to read and interpret whale behaviour. So it is vital that crew members are skilled and experienced and can end an encounter if it needs to be.

Knowledgeable in-water guides are indispensable in commercial swim-with-whales programs. Yet this is often not a requirement by organisations issuing licenses for such activities.

For example, permits in New Zealand require “knowledgeable operators and staff”, but there is no requirement to have guides in the water during the encounter. People interested in swim-with-whale encounters should choose tour companies that provide in-water guides who join them in their adventure.

We should also question whether interactions with female whales caring for newborn calves should be allowed. Best-practice guidelines advise against interactions where calves are present.

A mother humpback whale underwater with her calf.
We need to be extra careful when near a mother humpback whale with her calf.
Shutterstock/Lewis Burnett

Recent research in the popular whale-swim destination Tonga showed mother-and-calf pairs avoid about one-third of tour vessel approaches by diving for longer periods.

Yet surface resting times are critical for calves. Any decrease in time spent resting for mother-and-calf pairs can affect a calf’s growth rate, overall fitness and chances of survival.

Similar observations were made in Réunion. Three out of four (74%) mother-calf-pairs changed their behaviour to avoid swimmers.

Safety first: for whales and swimmers

The Pacific Whale Foundation is undertaking a study to assess the impact of swimming with humpback whales in Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia.

This research is to monitor the behaviour of humpback whales, providing critical insights into whether tourism activities add stress to this recovering population.




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But research into the suitability of wildlife species used for commercial tourism operations and their health and safety provisions still lacks fundamental depth.

In highly interactive tourism activities such as swim-with-wildlife programmes, tourists should receive education about the risks involved in these “bucket list” experiences. This should include information on animal behaviour and the potential consequences for swimmers.

Furthermore, training tour operators to identify behaviours that may indicate disturbance or have the potential to be harmful to clients is an important additional step towards safer interactions.The Conversation

Two images of a humpback whale breaching the water and one of a whale tail raised above the water.
Humpback whale breaching and tail slap.
Flickr/Grant Matthews, CC BY-NC-ND

Chantal Denise Pagel, Doctoral student | Marine Wildlife Tourism Professional, Auckland University of Technology; Mark Orams, Acting Dean, Health and Environmental Sciences, Auckland University of Technology, and Michael Lueck, Professor of Tourism, Auckland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Long Distance Hiking/Bushwalking


The links below are to a number of articles that take a look at long distance hiking/bushwalking, including a number of walks in the USA and the United Kingdom.

For more visit:
http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2015/apr/17/pacific-coast-trail-long-distance-hiking-men-women
http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2015/jan/19/top-10-long-distance-hiking-trails-us-california-oregon-texas
http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2014/nov/06/walking-guides-uk-long-distance-footpaths-grand-union-canal
http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2012/may/13/exmoor-somerset-walk
http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2012/may/13/lake-district-cumbria-walk

Yacaaba Headland Walk


Kevin's Daily Photo, Video, Quote or Link

I ran out of time yesterday to post about my walk up Yacaaba Headland and how I only just avoided being in a storm that was moving in. So today (it’s actually the 27th July 2012 as I type away) I must get two days of posts done, even if I slip this one in back in time, so to speak (as you can with the post time when posting).

BrunchSo I decided to do the Yacaaba Headland walk just before lunch and had lunch in the carpark, while reading the paper. Nothing too healthy – I tend to eat far too much junk when I’m on holidays. So it was a bacon & egg roll, as well as a couple of potato scallops and some chips (and coke of course) See Picture at Left. It was really brunch and I needed the energy boost to accomplish the walk. Sounds…

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Holiday Update


My latest holiday plan has gone flop – the back packing holiday is a no-goer. Reason? It would seem from all reports that the Tops to Myalls Heritage Trail has been abandoned, with parts of the route now so overgrown as to be unrecognizable. I have been told of walkers in recent times having to back track a fair distance when the way ahead was no longer able to be walked. So as disappointing as it is I have abandoned the trail myself and will now do something else.

With time running out for a settled option, I have decided to fall back on an earlier idea and that is to visit the Cathedral Rocks National Park and possibly do some further walks at the Dorrigo National Park. I have booked a vehicle (car rental) for the trip so things are fairly settled now as far as the destination is concerned. I am now going to put some meat on the bones of my idea and draw up an itinerary, Google Map, etc. So some real detail of what I plan to do will be coming over the next few weeks.

This isn’t going to be an expensive holiday or a long one, but is mean’t to be a simple time-out break and one that will allow me to plan some much bigger holidays for later in the year and into the coming year also.