Working in the zoo industry, Carmen Ellis wanted to help people connect and respect animals in their natural environment. Then, 12 years ago, Carmen, from the NSW Central Coast, volunteered to go swimming with whales in Vava'u, Tonga, and was hooked. She now runs whale swimming tours in Tonga, French Polynesia, Norway and, soon, Sri Lanka, majesticwhaleencounters.com.au
Anyone can swim with whales, as long as they're comfortable snorkelling. Our guides also have floats, and use them as needed to take you to the whales. In Tonga, licensed operators have only a 10-metre exclusion zone from whales, so there isn't always a great amount of swimming needed to get close to them, whereas in Tahiti, it's a little more. We don't jump straight into the water, we get a pretty good idea if they're happy to be with us. You don't need to pursue whales: the calves and sub-adults are so curious. But if they don't want to be there, they just turn their pectoral fin and, within seconds, they can be gone.
Look for the blow: each whale species has a different-shaped blow. Baleen whales have two blowholes. Look for the humpback's heart-shaped puff, while the Pygmy Blue whales' is long and bushy and can reach up to eight metres in height. Toothed whales have just one blowhole – the sperm whale's blow is a distinctive, forward-angled spray. The second thing to look for is the whale's "footprint"; a smooth area on top of the water, with a vortex beneath, created by a descending whale.
We recommend reef safe sunscreens, which are unscented and respectful of the coral reefs we snorkel in. We have found that wearing bright colours in the water tends to spark whale calves' curiosity and also dolphins and pilot whales come and play. Bright colours also help the boat skippers keep track of swimmers.
Rurutu is a little unknown gem two hours south of Tahiti. It's a little bit colder, but the water clarity is incredible, and we're usually the only people out on the water, swimming with humpback and pilot whales, false killer whales, a lot of shark varieties, turtles and dolphins including the unusual Risso's dolphins. Like Moorea and Tahiti, you can move around the entire island to avoid windy conditions (providing the whales are there, too, of course.)
People usually wear wetsuits, as you're spending up to 90 minutes in the water and it can get cold, except in Sri Lanka, where the water temperature is around 30 degrees in April, when we go to see pygmy blue whales as well as pilot, sperm and false killer whales, spinner dolphins and turtles. In Norway, the season for swimming with orcas is November-December. You swim in a dry suit, or a more flexible, super-thick 7mm wetsuit with a vest on top for extra warmth. It kind of messes with your brain, but at seven degrees, it's warmer in the water than out of it. We take out a liveaboard boat which has a spa on it, and everything's heated inside, so it's not a big deal getting warm again after swimming in the Arctic Ocean.