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Living the life Aquatic

Swimming with whales is priceless, says Mark Carwardine

Admittedly, it was a strange way to spend two weeks: hanging on to a long rope, being dragged behind a boat 30 nautical miles off the coast of Queensland.

My aim was to photograph dwarf minke whales underwater. These slightly smaller versions of the common minkes found around Britain’s coast (they are thought to form a yet-to-be-named sub-species) spend the southern winter along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

The trip began like any other whalewatching expedition. We looked for the whales’ falcate – dolphin-like dorsal fins breaking the surface of the rough winter sea. When we found them, the skipper cut the boat’s engines for us to take a closer look.

But that’s where all semblance of normality came to an abrupt end.

While we scrambled into wetsuits the crew let out a 50m rope to which six car tyre inner tubes were tied at regular intervals. As the boat drifted in the strong current, the rope stretched out to its full length and six of us entered the water.

We pulled our way along, kicking hard against the current, and struggled into the inner tubes until they were securely around our waists. Bouncing up and down in the swell, with waves breaking over our heads, this was no mean feat. But we did it, and there we waited, lying as quietly as possible on the surface, for the minkes to return.

I spent two weeks on my quest. The conditions varied from terrible (when we were tugged and jerked on the rope as if trapped inside a tumble dryer) to not so bad (considering it was winter). Sometimes our encounters were in the open sea, drifting six or seven kilometres in the current during a single session; occasionally they were while moored in calm water alongside colourful coral reefs. In between we went for days without seeing a single whale.

But on one particular day everything came together. I spent no less than seven and a half hours in the water, with more than 20 different whales. Most kept their distance, cruising past along the edge of visibility, but others came so close I could have reached out and touched them (at arm’s length a 7m dwarf minke doesn’t look so dwarf).

I was away for 26 days altogether and came back with roughly 20 saleable pictures – together with a massive hole in my bank balance. The trip will probably never pay for itself. But who cares? I won’t die rich – but at least I’ll know I’ve been alive.

Mark Carwardine is a wildlife photographer and broadcaster

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