Ask a Scientist: What is risky whale behaviour?


Australia just recently opened up to the possibility to swim with humpback whales, which are widely perceived as 'gentle giants'.

Swimming with whales is en vogue. The Kingdom of Tonga was one of the first incorporating this type of wildlife interaction within their tourism industry. Others followed, due to high demand. A possible explanation for the boom of swim-with-whales programmes is the wide distribution of photos and videos on social media, showing harmonic interactions between swimmers and humpback whales. Secondly, because we know more about their migratory routes, which often collide with popular holiday destinations. Whales are found closer to shore and therefore are more accessible because they are either moms or moms-to-be.

While many have fulfilled their 'lifelong' dreams of swimming with dolphins, there is the need for something bigger once it is ticked off the notorious bucket list. And tour operators deliver.

The latest nation to join the swim-with frenzy is Australia. And unfortunately, this did not end very well for several participants who engaged in this 'transformative' experience. They got hurt. Snorkelers participating got blindsided by highly threatening whale behaviour. Several people were hospitalised.

Unlike with shark diving, people do not necessarily expect that they may be in for some actual risk when they want to swim with whales. And how could they? Given that those images they find online are painting a different but unrealistic picture of inquisitive and inviting animals and that safety briefings still not cover animal behaviour to a satisfactory level.

So, what do we have to look out for when we are swimming with humpback whales?

1. Breaching - when whales start to lift their entire body out the water, it is definitely time to grab your fins and go (back to the boat!).

2. Tail slaps - when a whale slaps its tail repeatedly on the surface, it can be understood as a warning sign which you should take seriously without engaging in any swim attempts.

3. Peduncle slaps - similar to tail slaps, this one is a little more energetic. Here, the whale throws its tail out of the water and you surely do not want to get anywhere near this.

4. Pectoral slaps - the large 'wings' of the humpback whale are slapped on the surface. What may be used for communicating with other whales may put you at severe risk.

5. Head lunges - A sudden forward movement involving the head being lifted out of the water, often displayed in competition or when pissed off in general. You get the message.

As you can see, humpback whales can be pretty boisterous. There is a reason why they are among the most popular cetacean species to watch. It is because they are active!

Guides play a pivotal role in safe interactions with humpback whales. They need to be experienced folks who are able to 'speak whale' and able to tell when it is safe to enter the water and when animals should be left alone. Behaviour may suddenly change so ideally, you want to have guides who are focused (and not distracted by selfie-taking) and simultaneously have a good eye on the group. However, it is important that we provide people with information on animal behaviour so they are able to listen to their gut feelings. Usually, such feelings tell you whether a situation is safe or not. Remember that there are guidelines in place which are established from preventing you from getting too close. They do not intend to ruin the fun, but rather to keep you and wildlife safe.

What happened in Western Australia is unfortunate and extremely sad for the industry. Safety always comes first but when we choose to interact with wild animals in a very alien environment, there is no guarantee that such events won't happen in the future, especially since such interactions are now trending and more people than ever are putting their fins and masks on to swim with humpback whales.

To be honest, I never felt 100% safe with humpback whales. Not in a feeding situation in the fjords of Norway and not in clear waters around the Pacific islands when they are supposed to raise their young. They are, in general, quite extroverted, which always kept me thinking whether they are suitable for commercial interactions with people...