Heron Island, Queensland
Swim with Australia’s marine life
From snorkelling with whale sharks to getting up close to turtles and sea lions, plenty of “pinch me” moments await in Australian waters.
By Natasha Dragun
Home to the world’s only egg-laying mammals – the platypus and the echidna – Australian wildlife breaks many records on land. But our marine life is just as superlative.
From the world’s largest fur seals, to the migration of humpbacks and the greatest known congregation of dwarf minke whales, it’s all happening in Australian waters. The best part? You can swim alongside some of these majestic creatures with a handful of ethical eco-sensitive diving and snorkelling operators. Here’s how.
Swim with humpback whales
Get up close and personal
Every year, more than 30,000 humpback whales make the journey north from Antarctica along the east coast of Australia to the warm waters of Queensland's Fraser Coast and Sunshine Coast. Here, they mate, calve, and nurture their newborns – and you can join the action on guided snorkelling expeditions.
Australia is among a handful of countries where you can swim with humpbacks, allowing you to step off a boat, slide into the ocean and watch these gentle giants – some measuring 18 metres (60 feet) in length and weighing a staggering 30,000 kilograms (66,000 pounds). You might hear the males sing their courtship songs, and feel the pull of the ocean as they glide through the water; then, surface to watch them blowing their breath off your boat’s bow.
Splash around with whale sharks
Measuring up to 10 metres (32 feet) long, whale sharks are the largest fish in the sea. These enormous creatures are filter feeders, which means they sieve plankton through their gills come mealtime. And there’s plenty of plankton to be found on the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef during coral spawning season, which draws these dappled creatures en masse. Come mask-to-fin with them during a snorkelling tour from Exmouth; if you time your visit just right, you might even spot migrating humpback whales at the same time.
Go for a dip with Dwarf minke whales
Where: Cairns, Queensland
When: June to July
Looking for a unique adventure unlike any other in the world? Sign up to swim with dwarf minke whales. Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef is the ocean’s only known aggregation site for these mammals, and while they may sound small, they actually measure up to eight metres (26 feet) long! While they’re not likely to put on an aerial show like their humpback friends, dwarf minke whales are known to be very curious and love interacting with swimmers, so the best way to see them is with your head below water during a multi-day trip from the Northern Queensland hub of Cairns.
Take a plunge with Great white sharks
The Neptune Islands, off South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, set the scene for a swim that’ll get your heart racing. Great white sharks come here to feed on the resident fur seals, and you can safely glimpse these apex predators – which grow up to 4.5 metres (14 feet) in length – at close range from the comfort of a highly secure underwater cage. With no scuba diving experience necessary for tours departing Port Lincoln, a seven-hour road trip west of Adelaide, it’s an adrenaline rush you won’t forget.
Scuba with Grey nurse sharks
Where: Mid-north coast, New South Wales; Wolf Rock, Queensland
One of Australia’s most endangered marine species, the grey nurse shark is commonly found along Australia’s east coast. Its small numbers made it the first protected shark species in the world, but there are a few hotspots where scuba divers are incredibly likely to see them year-round. On the New South Wales mid-north coast, Seal Rocks (near Forster) and South West Rocks are the diving hubs you want to head to. Meanwhile, in Queensland, you can also spot these docile sharks on diving adventures off Rainbow Beach near Fraser Island in south-east Queensland, where they swim around Wolf Rock alongside mantas, eagle rays and leopard sharks.
Ride the waves with Dolphins
Where: Port Stephens, New South Wales; Bunbury, Western Australia; Port Phillip Bay, Victoria
When: October to April (New South Wales), November to April (Western Australia), September through March (Victoria)
Dolphins are friendly and inquisitive even when you’re watching them from a boat; when you’re in the water with them, you’ll fast become part of their pod. Port Stephens, 150 kilometres (93 miles) north of Sydney, is known as the country’s “dolphin capital”, with more than 140 bottlenose dolphins calling its immense harbour home, and pods of common dolphins often found just outside the bay. This is the only place in New South Wales you can swim with the magical mammals on an organised tour, but you can also meet them around Queenscliff in Port Phillip Bay, south of Melbourne, and in Bunbury, 170 kilometres (106 miles) south of Perth.
Frolic with Seals
Where: Montague Island, New South Wales
On the far south coast of New South Wales, the town of Narooma is the gateway to Montague Island Nature Reserve – a postcard-perfect location where you will not only encounter 90 species of seabird, but also swim with the Australian fur seal – the largest of its kind in the world. These charismatic creatures are as frisky as they are curious, so you can expect to have a few close encounters. Between May and November, you might also be lucky enough to spot southern right and humpback whales in these waters.
Bathe with Sea lions
Swimming with sea lions
Where: Eyre Peninsula, South Australia; Jurien Bay, Western Australia
While seals have small flippers and wriggle about on their bellies when on land, sea lions have large flippers that allow them to 'walk'. But when you meet them in the water, they’ll somersault and backflip and blow bubbles toward your snorkel mask – they’re so playful, they’ve been dubbed the “puppy dogs of the sea”.
The clear, sheltered ocean off South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula is a magnet for these gorgeous mammals, with particularly large numbers in Boston and Baird Bays. Jurien Bay, on Western Australia's Coral Coast, is also a great place to jump in the water for a playful encounter. This is a special experience; these creatures are endangered found only in South Australia and Western Australia.
Snorkel with Turtles
Where: Great Barrier Reef (Mon Repos, Lady Elliot Island, Lady Musgrave Island, Heron Island, Wilson Island), Southern Great Barrier Reef, Queensland; Lord Howe Island, New South Wales.
When: Year round on the Great Barrier Reef; nesting November to January, hatching January through to March; visiting Lord Howe Island, September to April.
Mon Repos, near Bundaberg, is the largest nesting ground for the endangered loggerhead turtle in the South Pacific. Green and flatback turtles also hatch and nest here, then flipper around the waters at nearby Lady Elliot and Musgrave islands. Heron and Wilson islands are equally important nesting grounds for greens and loggerheads. Suffice to say, it’s a turtle-fest in this part of Queensland, and catching a glimpse is not difficult during a snorkel or swim.
Meanwhile, in the sea surrounding Lord Howe Island, off the New South Wales coast, you’ll find a proliferation of green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles in the shallow lagoon, protected by the world’s most southern coral reef system.
Glide the currents with Manta rays
Where: North Stradbroke Island, Queensland; Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia
When: October through April
Off North Stradbroke Island, the Manta Bommie dive site (known as a bombora, or “bommie”) is an outcrop of coral or rocks that certainly deserves its name. At the end of their migration, these enormous rays come here to have their skin, gills and teeth cleaned by smaller fish.
During the season, you can expect to swim with up to a dozen of these graceful, barb-less creatures at any given time; they’re naturally curious, and will often come up to glide through your breathing bubbles, showing off in a procession of acrobatic moves. Given their wingspan of up to seven metres (23 feet), you’ll spot them readily, alongside wobbegong sharks, turtles and dolphins. Mantas are also a year-round feature on Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef.
Float with Giant cuttlefish
Where: Whyalla, South Australia
When: May to August
If you’ve ever picked up a cuttlefish bone from a beach – that white inner shell that resembles a mini surfboard – you’ll be quite surprised to see this marine mollusc in its full, water-bound glory. With intricate patterns and luminescent colours, giant cuttlefish are like kites of the sea, leaving a trail of drama as they congregate in the thousands and drift past snorkellers drawn to observe their annual Whyalla breeding grounds, 385 kilometres (240 miles) north of Adelaide. “Giant” for their species, these creatures can weigh up to 10 kilograms (22 pounds), and are masters of camouflage, changing both their appearance and shape to resemble their surroundings – whether rocks, sand or seaweed.