A whale of an encounter

Erica LarsonWhale season is now with us. Russell Hore, Quicksilver’s Reef Biosearch Manager and Marine Biologist Erica Larson tell us of an amazing whale encounter while snorkelling with passengers at Agincourt Reef…

As Erica guided the small group of intrepid snorkellers along the reef wall, she suddenly paused and indicated to the group to remain motionless, and listen. At first, the group couldn’t hear anything, apart from the rhythmic sound of the sea rolling across the reef flat, and the occasional crunching of coral by the hungry parrotfish. And then they heard it – a series of clicks, squeals and deep moans.

Erica, wide eyed with excitement indicated to the snorkellers to raise their heads above the water. “Did you hear that?” she exclaimed. “That’s the song of the humpback whale.”

The group remembered observing a pair breaching on the way out to Agincourt reef, off Port Douglas. They looked around in anticipation, expecting to see a leviathan swimming by. Erica explained that whale vocalizations can travel vast distances under water, and they were probably a good distance away. The group continued on their tour, happy in the knowledge that they’d experienced something unique, but slightly disappointed that the whale had failed to materialise. Suddenly, Erica started pointing repeatedly out into the deep blue. Slowly, 3 large dark masses began to take shape – not humpback whales, but a small pod of their cousins, the Minke whale…

Erica Larsen is a marine biologist with Reef Biosearch, Quicksilver’s environmental arm. A true local, born and bred, she’s worked for Reef Biosearch for over 11 years. Erica’s parents instilled a deep love and appreciation of marine life in all their children, which put her on the path to becoming a marine biologist.

Her work involves taking adventurous passengers off the luxury Quicksilver catamarans on informative and educational guided snorkelling tours, and also monitoring the reef for biological and physical changes. Erica takes up the story…

“It was always my desire to spend every day on the ocean, and having the opportunity to combine this with educating our guests about the marine environment, and how special it is, makes this the dream job. We always see amazing creatures and spectacular behaviour throughout the year, but the day a pod (term for a group of whales) of Minkes came in for a visit was something I will never forget. The look on the faces of the passengers was of sheer joy. The whales were approximately 5-6m long, dark, with mesmerizing white swirls above their pectoral fins. They came so close we could look directly into their eyes, which followed the snorkellers every movement. One of the snorkellers started to move towards the whales, but I motioned for him to remain still, and let the whale dictate the terms of this encounter.

After what seemed like an eternity, but was only 5 to 10 minutes, they conducted one final pass, and swam off into the depths. I often ask myself what was going through the minds of these whales – were they here to interact or merely interested in our presence in their domain?