Swimming with whales in the Sunshine Coast – the ultimate adventure

Swimming alongside one of the world's biggest animals in the waters off the coast of Mooloolaba proves to be a once in a lifetime experience.

Encounter a gentle giant in the deep waters along the Sunshine Coast.
  • Sophia Auld
  • May 2019

I’ve waited to do this trip for about five years, so when the first sighting comes less than 500 metres offshore, my heart races with excitement. I’m one of the first to slide into the water from the rear duckboard of the catamaran but I have to contain myself – we must be gentle to avoid frightening them.

Yes, them. A pair of humpback whales. I swim hard after our guide, breathing fast through my snorkel. Then I see it – a huge, white-grey mass drifting in front of me.

It’s an adult female (an experienced eye that knows what to look for can tell males and females apart) and time seems to stop as the whale passes me. I can practically hear my heart pounding with the excitement and it’s almost impossible to resist the urge to edge closer – but I hang back out of respect for this wild creature. Then, as suddenly as she appeared, she gives one swoosh of her enormous tail and swims away. I lift my head from the sea and squeal with delight, looking around for my daughter to ask if she experienced the magic, too.

Strict regulations need to be followed to ensure swimming with whales is a safe experience for everyone
Strict regulations need to be followed to ensure swimming with whales is a safe experience for everyone.

Only 20 minutes earlier, I was donning my wetsuit and strapping a shark-repellent device to my ankle while the crew explained the rules for interacting with these majestic mammals – in their habitat, we are only visitors.

I’m on board a catamaran, part of a group of just 20 people who have come out on a sunny winter morning to the Mooloolaba wharf for their chance to swim alongside whales.

Diving company Sunreef Mooloolaba opens in new window offer this amazing experience throughout the whale season. Their cruises go for about four hours and whale sightings are common. The encounters are entirely on the whales’ terms, though, so there are no guarantees (but the operators will kindly allow you to rebook at a 50 per cent discount if you’re not lucky enough to see any). Fortunately for us, there are whales aplenty.

Every year between April and November, humpback whales migrate north from Antarctica to sub-tropical waters to mate and give birth, in a journey spanning up to 10,000 kilometres.

It's a privilege to be in the presence of these colossal creatures
It's a privilege to snorkel amongst these colossal creatures.

From July to October, these massive creatures – they can grow up to 16 metres long and weigh an average of 30 to 40 tonnes (roughly the size of a fully-loaded semi-trailer) – come close to shore at Mooloolaba, sometimes stopping to give birth and frolic with their young, making for spectacular displays of breaching, blowing, spy-hopping and tail-slapping.

Our skipper soon spots a solitary whale doing just that – tail-slapping – and everyone rushes to the bow for a better view. Unperturbed, the whale continues raising its tail fin high, before slapping it down hard, making a “boom” as it hits the water. A crew member speculates that this whale is close to birthing and may be flailing with labour pains. Our noisy group are silenced by the sight. I reflect on what it would be like to give birth alone, in a sea filled with predators that might devour my newborn in an instant.

On the opposite side of the boat, a second whale quietly blows as it hovers on the surface, surrounded by a pod of dolphins. In over 25 years of diving, I’ve never seen so many mammals in one place. I could watch them all day. These cruises are conducted with extreme sensitivity towards the wellbeing of the giant animals and because the whale is thrashing in the water, we’re not allowed to swim here.

Sunreef's tour boats head out to the best whale watching hotspots
Sunreef's tour boats head out to the best whale watching hotspots.

We leave in search of others but I don’t get to swim with any more whales. I do, however, get to eavesdrop on their conversations. The high-pitched screeching and clicking I hear are the whales singing, along with dolphins chattering. The loud, haunting sounds make me wonder what the whales are communicating. Male humpbacks only sing these complex and beautiful songs in warm waters where they breed. They include recognisable sequences of squeaks, grunts and other sounds.

As we warm up on the deck in the winter sun, I feel privileged to have witnessed these beautiful creatures in the wild. Looking out across the ocean and then over to my daughter, who is busy searching the blue for those enormous tails, I feel wonderfully small. Neither of us will forget this moment.