Close Encounters

Close Encounters

Swimming with dolphins is a popular and well-established experience. But what about swimming with whales?

Swimming with Whales – Organised Tours

In 2015, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported on the emergence of tour operators offering the experience. A quick internet search will bring up many companies promoting such tours. But is it really a good idea?

Tour operators are keen to give reassurances that the venture, if well organised, is very safe. But whale-watching tour operators, deep sea divers and conservation experts suggest that companies offering swim experiences understate the potential danger to participants. A conservation scientist, Wally Franklin, points out a direct risk from the whales, as well as indirect danger: “There’s a high risk involved particularly when you are dealing with young whales, which are still learning to be whales. The other risk factor is that sharks do follow humpback whales…” he said in an interview.

A sharp knock from a stressed whale thrashing its tail presents an obvious danger to snorkelers underwater. Whales may breach the surface, unaware of accidental injury they may cause. Additionally, other sources point out that whales can carry diseases transmittable to humans – for example brucellosis, which is passed on through the secretions of marine mammals.

As well as potential danger for human swimmers, the whales themselves can be threatened by people swimming near them. Transmission of disease works both ways, and whales could be at risk of contagion from humans. Added to this is the stress caused to whales by unfamiliar circumstances (humans swimming round and near to them). Whales’ vital energy stores can be used up in the effort to avoid swimmers and boats approaching them. Researchers think this disruption of their natural behaviour can particularly affect mother and calf. Recently, a set of new guidelines has been issued by the World Cetacean Alliance, promoting a set of rules designed to protect the marine mammals.

Accidental Encounter

Occasionally, incidents are reported of whales and humans coming into chance contact while swimming. In December 2018, a YouTube video was shared, showing biologist Nan Hauser and a humpback whale in waters off the Cook Islands in the South Pacific.

Ms Hauser, the president of the Centre for Cetacean research, was diving with a camera to capture footage for a nature film. A humpback whale swam up to the biologist, nudged her forward with its closed mouth, and enclosed her under its pectoral fin. At one point it even used its back to try and push her above the water. Ms Hauser reported after, “I was prepared to lose my life. I thought he was going to hit me and break my bones.”

However, she suffered no more than scrapes and bruises. When she reviewed the video footage from her camera, she was amazed to see that all the time there had been another sea creature in the shot – a tiger shark. Although there has been much discussion as to what the whale’s intentions were, Ms Hauser is convinced that the humpback whale was protecting her from the predatory shark.

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