Western Australia’s Ningaloo Marine Park is to let visitors and locals swim with majestic humpback whales from next year.
About 20,000 people swim with whale sharks each year at Ningaloo through tours provided by businesses at Coral Bay and Exmouth. Whale sharks, however, are fish (the world’s largest fish) rather than mammals.
The humpback whale trial will begin next June and will aim to grow ecotourism in the region and provide more business for tourist operators at Exmouth and Coral Bay
Swimming with humpback whales is offered in only a few countries including Mexico and Tonga. It has also recently been introduced in Queensland.
WA Environment Minister Albert Jacob said he was excited to offer a new wilderness experience and expand the World Heritage area’s tourist season by providing the trial for existing licensed whale shark tour companies.
“Whale watching is an extremely popular recreational activity and this trial will allow people to gain further appreciation and understanding of humpbacks and also provide another world-class tourist attraction at Ningaloo,” Jacob said.
The Minister said the safety of whales and participants was a key consideration and strict operational guidelines would govern in-water interaction with humpbacks.
The WA Department of Parks and Wildlife would closely monitor and evaluate the trial program with real-time information from electronic monitoring systems already installed on vessels for whale shark operations.
“The results of the trial will determine how tours can become a permanent feature of Ningaloo and other areas of the State. I am keen to see if this has the potential to grow in the way that swimming with whale sharks has developed as a major attraction on the Coral Coast,” Jacob said.
The Minister said the west coast humpback whale population had steadily recovered since the end of commercial hunting of this species in Australia in 1963. (Commercial hunting of other whale species ended in Western Australia in 1978.)
Jacob said the population of humpback whales in WA was now the biggest in the world, with an estimated 30,000 whales migrating along the coast each year – “a true conservation success story.”
Tourism Council WA chief executive Evan Hall welcomed the trial, saying the tours would enhance WA’s reputation as a world-class ecotourism destination.
Humpbacks whales are ‘Specially Protected’ under the Wildlife Conservation Act 1950.
Edited by Peter Needham