Mother humpback whale with calf hurts snorkeller

Humpback whale breaching

Ningaloo Reef, a World Heritage Site off the north-west of Western Australia: it appears that a female humpback whale has hurt a snorkeller when trying to protect her calf. It is not entirely clear whether it was an accident or a deliberate act of protection by the mother. Whatever the reason, the victim is a female aged 29 and her ribs were fractured and she suffered internal bleeding. Another woman was hit by a fin.

Humpback whale breaching

Humpback whale breaching. Photo by Andre Estevez from Pexels

The tour operator who organised the tour to swim with the whales at a predetermined distance (which was broken) said:

The whale immediately swam straight at the group to place herself between the group and her calf, and she then engaged in a number of classic defensive actions, including slapping her pectoral fins onto the water and stabbing 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.

Comment: judging by that first hand observation, it appears that the whale was engaged in defensive action as she swam towards the tourists but there may not have been a deliberate intention to harm the swimmers. It was reported that the woman concerned had become trapped between two of the whales.

The woman having been treated in the town of Exmouth was then flown to a hospital in Perth where she was said to be “serious but stable”. The incident happened a few hundred metres from the shore. The experts say that it is safe to swim near these whales and Western Australia is the home to the largest population of humpback whales.

The charter tour operators allow the swimmers near the whales as part of a five year trial which has been monitored by the government. Operators can take a group of nine people to swim with the whales but they are supposed to enter the water 75 m from them and remain at least 30 m away. They admitted that there was some risk but out of 10,000 tourists who have swum with humpback whales since 2016 there had been no incidents causing serious injury other than the one described in this article.