Most visitors to Western Australia between August to November go to watch humpback whales cavorting off the coast as part of the animals’ annual migration from the food-rich southern ocean to warmer waters to breed and birth new calves. 

Starting next week, however, there will be another way to experience these leviathans: in the water.

News from the Coral Coast/Ningaloo Reef area near Exmouth is that after a successful trial run of “swim with” encounters last summer and fall, the local government has greenlighted the activity to be offered annually. This means people now can visit Western Australia and pay outfitters to give them the opportunity to swim and snorkel with whales. 

As one might expect, rules governing these new tours are complicated—protocols put in place to make sure both animals and humans stay safe. 

First, each authorized outfitter can put a maximum of five people in the water at one time, providing an incredibly intimate experience. Second, visitors must take an orientation before they jump in and must work with outfitters to stay relatively quiet in the water so they do not startle the whales. Third, outfitters can’t approach moms with calves. Finally, unless they have received express permission to get closer, outfitters are required to stay at least 900 feet from the whales.

Even at that distance, being underwater near humpbacks is magical, almost other-worldly. Male whales communicate with “songs” you can both hear and feel. The 40-ton animals glide around like dancers beneath the surf. If you’re lucky, you might even spot one breach, or jump out of the water. 

Tours range in price from $125 to $599 per person and range in duration from two hours to all day.

The new tours represent the latest development in an area that has seen many changes regarding the ocean and the animals living in it. 

Humpback whales previously were considered endangered along the Western Australian coast, but conservation efforts in the past decade have boosted the mammal group’s population in the area to around 30,000. What’s more, whale swims were restricted until 2016, when UNESCO officially listed the region as a public diving site.

In addition to the new whale swims, the Ningaloo Reef also has become a popular destination for spotting and swimming with whale sharks—the largest fish in the sea. These animals frequent the area between March and July. Exmouth holds an annual whale shark festival every May.

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