Eye to Eye Encounter – 4

Whale © Lydia Gibson

(If you missed it, start from part 1)

Day 2 – Dancing Minkes and Tall Tales of The Sea

Waking up was slightly surreal, the engine was roaring, the boat was rocking – I couldn’t believe it we had been travelling all night – we were now 9 hours away from the mainland. We had arrived at a place called Light House – years of data collection from tourism boats and scientific research has shown that this is the hotspot for Minke whale activity. Expectations were running high – we were all to look out for a fin slicing the surface of the water or that signature blow as the whale exhales a lung full of air into the atmosphere.

Minke whale11.00am and the doctor shouts Minke! The rope is deployed, I am literally bursting at the seams to jump into the water.

That’s it, I’m in, I move to the end of the rope and then out of the corner of my eye I see it – a minke whale! My heart skips a beat! This is something I have dreamed about since I was a little girl.

And it’s coming closer, I stop still in sheer amazement, this whale is about 6 metres long with at least 6 cookie cutter marks on its back – a sign that these whales are regular visitors of the Coral Sea.

It’s is not long before the whales seem to have called in their comrades to look at the strange spectacle of six humans hanging on a rope. At one point there is up to 10 whales coming at us from every which way – it utterly amazing. After each pass their confidence appears to build and the closer, more magical the encounters are.

I try my best to photograph their left and right flanks for photo-identification and to keep still so others can do the same.

My fingers are shriveled liked prunes from being in the water so long when I start to feel the pinch of the cold – just as I think about heading back in one of the most memorable encounters begins.

Minke

In the corner of my eye I see a large whale is powering along, moving using its tail to push its self through the water column and it’s making a bee line right for me! The whale approaches is a metre away – I look up to John Rumney who’s watching from the back of the boat. It’s like in a pantomime, he’s shouting,“it’s behind you!”. “I know,” I shout back, she is quite hard to miss.

Minke

Soon she is right beside me, presenting that wonderfully bright white underbelly and spinning on her tail – pirouetting like a ballerina – the trade mark of the one and only balletic Dwarf Minke Whale – Pavlova

Minke

To be honest I am so astounded, blown away that the thought of taking a photograph or filming the spectacle is the last thing on my mind, instead it will be forever engraved in my memory. After her little spin, Pavlova (still to be confirmed) exhibits a behaviour termed by Minke Whale biologists as motorboating. A rare behaviour where the ‘whale near horizontal, breaks the water surface and its snout and the upper part of its head is maintained just above the water surface while slowly moving forward.’ She then moves off, but as if unsatisfied with the last encounter she comes back again for another closer look – another belly presentation, another little motor around and off she goes.

Minke

I hear cheers from the back of the boat as those that have got out of the water earlier shout with amazement. Richard Fitzpatrick, captures the encounter on camera from aboard the vessel, my heart is pounding and I’m quite dumbfounded about what has just happened. You just can’t help but wonder what’s going on in a whale’s mind when it acts like that, how do they perceive you and what, if anything, was it trying to communicate?

Once again I am reminded just how little we know about the marine environment and its inhabitants, an underwater world of mysteries yet to be solved. Our scientific understanding is certainly growing and technologies to study it are advancing fast, but perhaps not fast enough to fully grasp the extent of how much we are impacting it.

Minke

Come evening time we are all exhausted from the days activities, we fill out the data sightings sheet, record all the whale behaviours we had seen and start to revel in each other’s stories and experiences from the marine realm. As always Richard Fitzpatrick keeps us gripped with all the stories of near death experiences he has had as well as fascinating facts about marine life that only someone that lives and breathes the ocean life can experience.

He told us about some of his unique shark encounters and gives us a sneak preview of some of the footage on sharks that he has put together for a new documentary soon to be aired in Australia in October.

9.00pm and I am out for the count – until another day.

Continue on to part 5

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