Heron Island, Queensland © James Vodicka/Tourism Australia
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
Where: Hervey Bay and Mooloolaba, Queensland
When: July to October
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 18m (60ft) in length and weighing a staggering 30,000kg (66,000lbs). 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
Where: Ningaloo Coast, Western Australia
When: Mid-March to mid-July
Measuring up to 10m (32ft) 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 (26ft) 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
Where: Neptune Islands, South Australia
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 4.5m (14ft) 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.
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, 150km (93mi) 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, 170km (106mi) 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
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 Bay and Baird Bay. 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 and 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
Queensland's coast gives visitors a few opportunities to swim with manta rays – graceful, barb-less rays with a wingspan of up to seven metres (23ft). Off North Stradbroke Island, mantas visit at the end of their migration (October through March) to have their skin, gills and teeth cleaned by smaller fish.
The idyllic Lady Elliot Island is home to mantas all year long, though winter (June to September) is perhaps the best time to see them in large numbers.
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
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, 385km (240mi) north of Adelaide. “Giant” for their species, these creatures can weigh up to 10kg (22lbs), and are masters of camouflage, changing both their appearance and shape to resemble their surroundings – whether rocks, sand or seaweed.