There's a lot of different tour companies when it comes to diving the Great Barrier Reef. There's a variety of boats ranging from half day trips to liveaboard multi-day trips with several dives a day, some go to one area, some go to another area, this section of the reef is known for one thing, that section is more popular (does 'more popular' mean over-visited and destroyed?). Some websites advertise that they're more environmentally conscious, while others try to optimize timing (and cost).
If you put too much thought into it, it can become overwhelming very quickly! Although there was a company or two that seemed to have been able to lower the cost and provide more of a budget trip, Anna and I were afraid of what that meant when it came to diving. Too large of a boat with too many people all getting seasick? It was easy to imagine the horror stories we had heard.
So we committed to spending a bit more money in hopes of a better experience. Then I found a company that had a special permit allowing swimmers to be in the water (with snorkel gear) when there were minke whales nearby! Suddenly the question of money didn't seem relevant anymore, how could we turn down the possibility of being in the water with whales?!
We closed our eyes, handed over our credit cards to Deep Sea Divers Den, and let the reality sink in as we booked the trip aboard Taka. We were going diving on the Great Barrier Reef. With whales. Well, with the possibility of seeing whales anyway. We crossed our fingers. Or the Swedish version, we held our thumbs.
We then anxiously counted down the days while we made our way up the rest of the coast towards Cairns. We'd booked the trip almost a month away so that we had better chances of seeing some Minke Whales, since their migration through the Great Barrier Reef is June-August.
So. Fast forward a month of waiting and we were finally on the boat! The trip started in the evening of the first day, with motoring out away from Cairns and towards the Outer Reef and Ribbon Reefs where we'd be doing most of our diving. The crew gave us the rundown of the plan, the boat we were on, and the schedule for each of the days. We'd be aiming to do 5 dives a day, for 3 (very full) days to get as much diving in as possible. We were on the boat a total of 4 nights, but only 3 full days.
Each day we'd wake up to a schedule written up on the whiteboard that looked something like this.
Wake up call
It was a pretty flexible schedule allowing for if whales showed up or if weather conditions changed.
They also gave us the minke whale talk, explaining how there was a good chance we'd see them, but they couldn't guarantee it. When a whale is spotted, they'll get another crew member in the water right away, and then if the whale sticks around and is seen again, they'll make the announcement and we can all get suited up into wetsuits and snorkel gear and get in the water with as little splash as possible. We were then required to hold onto the rope that was out, ideally spaced out along it, and try not to move as much as possible. The whales would be curious, but more skeptical is someone is flailing and splashing their fins about.
We all went to bed that first night super excited about the possibilities of what we'd see over the next couple days and yet, not quite ready for that 6am wake up call (or at least I wasn't).
When the wake up call came, it came with the phrase "Wake up. Whales are here." Repeated as they knocked on all our doors.
Wait. What? They're here? No..they're just trying to get us up. That's clever. But maybe. Whales are here?
Although I didn't hurry, I didn't exactly take my time rolling out of bed, throwing on the bathing suit and stuffing contacts in my eyes before heading upstairs. And sure enough, half the people were already in the water, the other half still struggling and hopping about trying to get wetsuits on and masks fitted. The sun wasn't even above the horizon yet, but the whales were here!
There were three whales swimming around us. They'd pass by and then circle back to get another look. It was an incredible feeling to see these guys swim by, and then because they wanted to, swim by again. They stuck around for over an hour, and eventually we were ready for breakfast (and getting cold from just floating) and got out of the water; I'm sure they would have stayed a lot longer if we'd stayed in the water with them.
Minke whales are one of the smallest whales in the baleen whale family, but they can still be up to 35' long. Small for a whale, but still giant when you see them swim by just a few meters away!
After the first whale encounter we were all required to fill out survey information sheets that described our experiences, how many whales we saw, how close they were, any specific behavior we saw, etc. Taka (Deep Sea Diver's Den) is able to have a permit for us to be in the water with the whales under the condition that we are helping 'research' and 'gather data' for the whales, since so little is known about minke whales. Although I didn't really trust my judgment in being able to say the whale was '3' meters away, I certainly did the best I could and was willing to submit any pictures I took of the whales for the researchers to try to identify them based on their coloring.
Some whales were just curious and would swim back and forth, checking us out. One time we were joined by this playful whale that was just having some fun being a whale...
The rest of the trip blurred together of putting wetsuits on and taking wetsuits off, only to put them back on again, diving and whales. I was also doing my Advanced Open Water Certification which meant getting together with other students and discussing the lessons, taking quizzes, and doing specific skills while on the dives to show that we've mastered 'peak performance buoyancy' or 'navigation'. We also did a deep dive where we went down to 90 feet (similar to Adrenaline's Dive).
Anna and I were able to dive together some when I wasn't doing skill dives, which was neat too. We saw turtles, moray eels, cuttlefish, puffer fish, and clown fish. And of course so many other fish that I didn't recognize having never swam with them before.
We also did a couple of night dives as well. Not quite as scary as I thought, but I still wasn't a huge fan of it. Perhaps that's because the first night that we did it, our group ended up getting split up some when someone wasn't paying attention, so then the rest of the dive was just stressful in trying to keep track of everyone and then it's hard to relax and look for lobsters and sharks. The second night we did a 'shark dive' where our plan was to (intentionally) try to find some sharks. No such luck. But I was ok with that; I'd rather see them when it's daylight instead of when they're hunting at night. Other groups seemed to have lots of luck with the night dives, coming back with all sorts of stories of creatures they saw (or fish they saw get eaten). So perhaps I was just always pointing my flashlight in the wrong direction.
One day while we were travelling to the next spot we were joined by some dolphins. That was just amazing. They must have heard the boat in the distance and came RACING over to join us in front of the bow.
There was one special dive that we did as a group...this place was known as Cod Hole, home of the very large and somewhat friendly potato cod. We dove down and settled on the bottom in something resembling a circle with one of the instructors in the middle with a bucket of fish for the potato cod.
I'm not sure why there were no sharks attracted to the chunks of fish that were being thrown through the water for the potato cod, but the instructor went around the circle and fed the fish in front of each of us. The fish didn't seem to care for anything but the food and waited patiently each time for it's snack.
This fish was HUGE! The video of Anna and the fish shows the scale (no pun intended) of the fish.
There was an awesome group of people on the boat (luckily it wasn't even full) and we all got along really well, which was amazing. We'd usually end up sitting wherever there was an open seat available so we got to chat with everyone and there wasn't the annoying clique feeling that some large tour groups end up having (noticed that on my Fraser Island tour). We'd swap dive stories or just travel stories, or even stories of home since people were from all over. At the end of each day we were all exhausted though so we didn't really hang out too much before all heading to bed at the end of each day. Everyone looks out for eachother when they're diving, which leads to a sense of closeness on the boat I guess. No one really bragged about wildlife they saw that other people missed out on. Even the loveable “Shark Boys” that managed to see sharks on 90% of their dives were inviting other people to come dive with them and see a shark because they just always saw a shark.
There were a couple other people doing the Advanced Open Water class but luckily it was a small group.
Towards the end of the trip my ears started to bother me. Nothing major, but I'd certainly irritated it by doing all the diving in quick succession after not diving for a long time. I don't know enough about ears to say what the problem was exactly but just that it felt like I had water in my ear, not quite painful but certainly uncomfortable, and everyone told me I should probably not dive anymore. Only I could make that call and it was a hard decision. I did do one more dive (to complete my Advanced Open Water) but I couldn't enjoy it while worrying about my ears the whole time.
Without a doubt, the highlight on the trip was being able to see the minke whales swim by underwater again and again. And taking a million pictures of them, of course. In the end we ended up seeing 10 whales! In pairs or two or three usually. And they always hung out with us for as long as we were in the water with them, usually over an hour.
I never expected my Great Barrier Reef diving experience would be centered around minke whales, but I'm so glad I was there when they were migrating through and that it worked out that way! Taka was a great boat to be on, with an enthusiastic staff that loved what they did, which always makes a huge difference.
And now for some more whale pictures if you're not tired of them yet...
Photo credit to Anna and myself, but since we swapped and shared cameras, I cannot say who's is who's.