A 29-year old woman was seriously hurt by a humpback whale while on a tourist snorkeling expedition at Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef where they set out to swim with the giant mammals. According to the BBC, she is in serious but stable condition after the encounter, which left her with broken ribs and internal bleeding.
The BBC reports that the woman was trapped between two whales when she was injured, but said those reports are unconfirmed. Australian news outlet Nine News Australia reported that the woman was hurt by a whale’s tail when the whale took on defensive measures to protect her calf.
A tour operator, Matt Winter, who said he witnessed the whole thing told Nine News Australia that when the snorkelers were in the water, “The whale immediately swam straight at the group to place herself between her group and her calf and she then engaged in a number of really classic defensive actions right next to the group including slapping her pectoral fins onto the water and slapping her tail down into the water.
“Unfortunately when she was doing that one of the swimmers was hit by her tail and another was hit by her pectoral fin less seriously,” Winter said.
The tour group was only a few hundred yards off of the coast when the encounter happened, according to the BBC. The woman was treated in a nearby town, Exmouth, before being flown to a hospital in Perth.
Heavy has reached out to the company that runs the tours, Ningaloo Whalesharks, to find out more.
The Swim With Humpback Whales Tours at Ningaloo Coast Is Undergoing a Years-Long Trial to Test Safety For Humans and Whales Ahead of Licensing Select Businesses to Run the Tours
Australia’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions started overseeing the trial period in 2016 in which “whale shark operators are permitted to run swimming with humpback whale tours along the Ningaloo Coast.” The trial is slated to continue until 2023 and then will transition into being a licensed industry by 2024,” according to a Sept. 2019 article by the agency.
To try to ensure the safety of those who swim with the giant mammals, the DBCA selected 15 businesses that were already licensed to take people to swim with whale sharks, something that’s been going on for “several decades,” according to the DBCA.
Under state law, it is illegal for people to swim within 100 meters or yards, roughly, of a whale, according to a DBCA fact sheet, which says, “if a whale approaches, any person in the water must attempt to maintain a distance of at least 100m.”
In a rare case where a whale is aggressive, that may not be possible.
Still, Winter told Nine News Australia of the incident, “It’s never happened before. It may never happen again.”
Australian Environment Minister Stephen Dawson said of the initiative in January, “The Ningaloo Coast is one of the only places in Australia where people can swim with these ocean giants, and over the trial period we have found very high visitor satisfaction with no indications of negative impacts on whales.”
The Company That Provided the Excursion Gave Their First Humpback Tour on August 1
According to Ningaloo Whalesharks’ Facebook page on July 31, they said Aug. 1 would be their first “official” humpback tour.
On their safety page, it says “all crew are very experienced SCUBA dive instructors, or fully trained Skippers. Every group of swimmers entering the water is accompanied by at least two of our team as photographer and guide.”
It is unclear whether a photographer captured any photographs of the incident.
According to the DBCA in January, “over the past four years during the trial, more than 900 in-water interaction tours with humpback whales were conducted with about 9500 in-water participants.” But they also acknowledged in a statement, “swimming with humpback whales involves some inherent risk,” according to WA Today.
Humpback whales grow to a length of 48 to 62.5 feet and weigh 40 tons, according to National Geographic. They liken the whales to being comparable to the size of a bus.