Whales are huge, complex creatures that humans seem to find endlessly fascinating.
So what better way to discover more about these gentle giants than by joining them in their own habitat?
Swimming with whales is an unforgettable experience.
Reputable tour operators offering opportunities to swim with whales also ensure that the experience is safe and gratifying.
They also make sure the whales’ interaction experience is as stress-free and natural as possible.
Is it OK to Swim with Whales?
It’s perfectly ok to swim with whales as long as you keep your distance and show them some respect.
Whales have never been known to attack humans in the wild, so swimming with them is a safe activity from that perspective.
If anything, the whales are more in danger than you are. Humans carry all kinds of bacteria that whales aren’t usually exposed to.
Therefore touching one could present a significant risk of infection.
Similarly, getting too close to a whale or overcrowding one could cause the animal stress.
If you want to swim with whales, be sure to maintain a safe distance and resist the temptation to touch.
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If you want to tick swimming with humpback whales off your bucket list, be sure to do it with a reputable tour operator.
There should be a limited number of people allowed in any whale encounter. You should ensure you’re fully informed of the possible dangers.
Whales are large marine mammals that could inadvertently hurt you.
As Daniel Bucher, a marine ecologist at Southern Cross University points out, “a fin or tail swipe from a healthy adult whale could injure or kill a shark, let alone a human.”
If you get too close to a whale pup, you may enrage the mother, causing her to strike out to protect her precious offspring.
Similarly, a young whale is only just beginning to understand its strength and size.
They present a greater risk simply because they’re “still learning to be whales.”
Free swimming in the open sea carries several risks, whether whales are present or not.
As Phil House, a diver who manages a whale-watching operation in Hervey Bay, says open sea whale encounters “should be limited to experienced divers, while supervised by experienced dive operators.”
It’s not only the whales themselves that present a possible risk, but the predators that follow them.
Sharks and killer whales often shadow migrating pods of whales, especially during whale-watching seasons.
While they don’t usually attack humans, it’s still important that you’re aware of the risk.
Bucher makes sure all the people on his whale-watching tours understand that “the chances of being taken by a shark are slim, but not zero.”
10 Best Places to Swim with Whales
Do you want to have a personal experience with a blue whale experience or some up-close encounters with the so-called canary of the sea, the beluga whale?
Are you keen on a scuba dive, or do you want to restrict your experience to only snorkeling?
These factors will determine the best location for your trip.
For instance, Sri Lanka is the best destination for swimming with blue whales, whereas Australia’s Ningaloo Reef is better for those wanting to swim with humpback whales.
#1 Sri Lanka
Swimming whales is illegal in many places in the world, and the only way to circumvent those regulations is to apply for a film or research permit.
In Sri Lanka, there are a handful of licensed operators offering whale encounters with the pygmy blue whale.
Unfortunately, there are also plenty of unlicensed operators only too willing to facilitate a whale encounter.
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To legally swim with blue whales in Sri Lanka, you need an official permit from the government. Without it, you will be breaking the law.
If you plan on swimming with whales in Sri Lanka, you need to be extremely selective about who you go with.
Mirissa is one of the top whale-watching destinations in the world, but whale encounters are poorly regulated.
There are only a few good operators that follow the recommended protocols.
With so many whale watching tours on offer, scuba diving with blue whales in Sri Lanka can be either an unforgettable experience or one that you spend fighting for space.
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Many tour operators harass the whales, have poor safety standards, or fail to follow recommended whale watching protocols.
Trincomalee is less well-known and provides a more peaceful alternative to Mirissa.
Wherever you go in Sri Lanka, the best time for whale encounters is in February or March.
Tonga is one of the few places in the world where it’s still legal to swim with whales.
Humpback whales arrive in this Polynesian archipelago’s tropical, sheltered waters between mid-July and October.
These Tongan waters are the birthing and mating grounds for one specific population of humpbacks, and they spend months in the area tending to their calves.
The best spots for swimming with whales are in Ha’apai and Vava’u, although boats also leave from the mainland of Tongatapu.
Excellent visibility and a comfortable water temperature mean you can enjoy your adventure without being chilled to the bone.
Although Vava’u has the best chance of a sighting, Ha’apai is less crowded, with fewer other boats jostling for position.
Getting there is also relatively easy, with Air New Zealand offering daily flights from London to Los Angeles and a weekly connection to Tonga.
Real Tonga offers domestic flights from Fuaʻamotu International Airport to both Pilolevu Airport in the Ha′apai group and Lupepau′u Airport in the Vava′u group.
Make sure to find a reputable licensed operator for your trip and allow yourself at least seven days to get the best chance of a memorable whale encounter.
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Regulations in Tonga specify that you must remain at least five meters from the whales at all times, but not all whales agree.
Some particularly curious individuals may come close enough to touch, but this isn’t recommended for safety reasons.
If you don’t mind the cold water, Iceland is an excellent destination for those interested in snorkeling with whales.
Around Reykjavík and Húsavík, you can see whales throughout the year.
However, the best times for an amazing encounter are when humpback whales come close to shore to breed between May and November.
Not only can you see humpback whales in places like Akureyri, which is situated at the base of Eyjafjörður Fjord in northern Iceland, but you might even catch a glimpse of the elusive blue whale.
Professional snorkel trips operate throughout the whale season, allowing visitors to share the waters with a variety of marine animals, including minke whales and humpbacks.
#4 Solovetsky Islands, Russia
Canada was once the world’s top destination for swimming with beluga whales, but a new policy implemented by the Department of Fisheries & Oceans in 2018 “deemed that snorkeling/swimming with beluga whales is detrimental to them.”
Now that it’s illegal to get within 50 meters of a whale, most swim with whale operations have closed down.
A few still offer encounters with beluga whales, circumventing the regulations by putting snorkelers on a floating mat that’s towed behind the boat.
Leaning over the back of the mat, they can dip their masks in the water to see the natural behavior of these fascinating and friendly animals.
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In 2022, the best place to experience the playful curiosity of the beluga whale is off the coast of the Solovetsky Islands in Russia’s Onega Bay.
Here, whale watching tours allow only small groups of up to four people to enter the water with the whales.
This is to “minimize the anxiety of the animals.” Whale encounters are offered just twice a year, during the off-season when fewer visitors are present.
#5 Dominica Island, Caribbean
Not to be confused with Silver Bank in the Dominican Republic, which also has excellent whale encounters, Dominica Island is situated between the islands of Guadeloupe and Marie-Galante to the north and Martinique to the south.
Sperm whales live in these deep, Caribbean waters all year round, feasting on an abundance of squid and other marine life.
The availability of food attracts other wild animals, including dolphins, pilot whales, melon-headed whales, and orcas.
There are even occasional sightings of rare species like Curvier’s beaked whales and pygmy sperm whales.
The sperm whale is difficult to observe when hunting.
It dives to depths of up to 3,280 feet in search of its favorite food, and may remain submerged for up to 90 minutes at a time.
If you’re lucky enough to catch the sperm whale once it’s finished hunting for the day, however, you’re in for an amazing experience.
Sperm whales are social creatures that sleep and play in big family groups.
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These groups mainly consist of female whales and calves, while the males tend to remain solitary or move from group to group.
With safety in numbers, these magnificent marine mammals are more relaxed and inquisitive, giving visitors an unforgettable wildlife experience.
#6 Mo’orea, French Polynesia
If you’ve always dreamt of sharing the ocean with a humpback whale calf, Mo’orea in French Polynesia should be at the top of your bucket list.
From July to November, humpbacks flock to the warm waters around this South Pacific Island.
Many of the female whales are preoccupied with calves, while others hang around the outer reefs of the island in search of a mate.
For the past 20 years, French Polynesia has been a Marine Mammal Sanctuary, protecting some 20 species of whales and dolphins, including the iconic humpback whale.
The humpback whale is known for its songs and intriguing surface behaviors. They often leap through the air before landing with a spectacular splash.
Females whales and their calves swim close together, occasionally touching each other with their flippers in apparently affectionate gestures.
With warm waters and excellent visibility, swimming with humpback whales in Mo’orea is an unforgettable experience.
#7 Baja California Sur, Mexico
Considered to be one of the best whale-watching destinations globally, the so-called aquarium of Mexico is home to one of the world’s most diverse ocean habitats.
Humpback whales gather in the area between December and April, but they’re not the only species you might encounter.
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Fin whales occasionally visit the region, along with orcas, sperm whales, pilot whales, and gray whales.
The emphasis in Baja California Sur is more on swimming with whale sharks, than swimming with whales, but you could be fortunate to encounter a humpback whale while exploring the area.
Most Mexican operators follow the strict rules applied to swimming with whales activities and rely on the animals to bring in profitable visitors.
#8 Ningaloo Reef, Australia
Humpbacks travel along both the west and east coasts of Australia every year, moving from their summer breeding grounds in the north to their winter feeding grounds in the Antarctic.
Between July and November Ningaloo Reef is one of the best places to experience an in-water interaction with humpback whales.
Off the coast of Exmouth and Coral Bay, this World Heritage Site is home to a wide variety of marine life.
Its shallow lagoons and deeper offshore waters create a diverse array of habitats that attract over 500 species of fish, as well as turtles, dolphins, dugongs, and humpback whales.
The Department of Biodiversity, Conservation & Attractions enforces strict humpback whale interaction guidelines to ensure that tours have minimal impact on the humpback whales.
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Groups are limited to seven swimmers who are advised on how best to approach the whales by an experienced divemaster.
This ensures that swimmers don’t interfere with the humpback whales’ natural behavior and maintain a safe distance of around 50 meters from these majestic animals.
#9 Salt Cay, Turks and Caicos
Between January and March, the tiny island of Salt Cay becomes one of the world’s top destinations for swimming with humpback whales.
Located in the Turks Island Passage, Salt Cay is perfectly situated to enjoy the Atlantic humpback whales.
They migrate from the Turks and Caicos Islands to Silver Bank in the Dominican Republic.
While there is no scuba diving allowed around the humpback whales, snorkeling trips with licensed operators give you some incredible opportunities to see these wild animals in their natural habitat.
Salt Cay is a quiet island with a population of just 100, so not somewhere you necessarily want to spend a fortnight, ut three to five days is usually enough to get a few good encounters with the humpback whales.
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You could opt for a day trip from the main island of Grand Turk, but there’s no guarantee that the whales or the weather will be in your favor.
Quaint vacation homes and B&Bs provide comfortable accommodation on Salt Cay, giving you more opportunities to interact with the whales and experience the old Caribbean way of life.
#10 Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii
The sheltered bay of Kealakekua is situated approximately 12 miles south of the vibrant village of Kailua-Kona.
The vibrant coral reefs and crystal clear waters of this Marine Life Conservation District make it an ideal destination for snorkeling and scuba diving with whales.
It’s not just the humpback whale you’ll encounter here either – pilot whales, beaked whales, and even the occasional sperm whale enjoy the deep off-shore waters of Kealakekua Bay.
Scientists estimate that around 10,000 humpback whales enter the warm Hawaiian waters every year, looking to “breed, give birth and raise their young in a place of safety.”
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Kealakekua Bay is one of the best places to swim with humpback whales between November and April each year.
Although the best time to experience the whales is between January and March.
Humpback whales are important in Hawaiian culture and, as such, are treated with great respect.
Is it Better to Scuba Dive or Swim with Humpback Whales?
It’s not always possible to go scuba diving with whales, although there are a few places where it’s still allowed.
Scuba diving with these incredible animals can be awe-inspiring, but it can also be dangerous.
Whales are wild animals and, as such, can be unpredictable, especially if there are young calves around.
You need to be a qualified and experienced diver to share the water with a whale, especially if you want a safe encounter.
Snorkeling with whales is more widely available and, for the most part, easier than diving.
Once a whale has been spotted, you can slip from the boat and be in the water in a matter of seconds.
This guarantees you more rewarding sightings than you may have while scuba diving.
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Can You Hear Whales Singing Underwater?
The song of the humpback whales can continue for hours and travel great distances through the world’s oceans.
Because of the way sound travels through water, if you’re swimming or snorkeling with a singing whale, you’ll be able to feel the vibrations as clearly as you can hear its strange vocalizations.
To get the best acoustic experience, you should be in the water at least five feet deep.
Now, place your head under the water and swim down towards the bottom.
As you can hear a whale’s song from miles away, scuba diving is one of the best ways to enjoy their greatest hits.
It will be crystal clear, but it will also reverberate through your entire body.
Is it Safe to Swim with Humpback Whales?
Whales have never been known to attack humans in the wild so, swimming with humpback whales should be a relatively safe activity.
On the other hand, whales are large and powerful creatures that may react in unpredictable ways, especially if it’s a female whale with a young calf.
Snorkellers could easily get too close to a whale’s tail or flippers and be injured in the process.
One experienced diver nearly collided with a female humpback and her calf during a snorkel trip and was horrified by the “whale race” that rival whale tours entered into to give their visitors the best possible experience.
The non-profit organization, Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), also warns that travel insurance policies cover not all whale encounter tours.
As a result, even a minor injury could end up costing you more than you budgeted for the entire experience.
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Although swimming with whales is safe for the humans involved, there are concerns that it endangers the whales themselves.
According to the WDC, “Scientists have documented disturbance disruption of the daily routine of whales and dolphins in regions where people are allowed into the water with them.”
Such interruptions could cause the animals to waste precious energy or even abandon their usual habitats in search of a more peaceful environment.
How Much Does it Cost to Swim with Whales?
You can spend anywhere between a hundred dollars and several thousand on swimming with whales.
In Kealakekua Bay, a three-and-a-half-hour whale and dolphin search with snorkel will set you back around $150.
But there’s no guarantee that you’ll actually see the humpback whales, let alone interact with them.
In Mirissa, Sri Lanka, a similar trip will cost twice that. Alternatively, you can pay $500 per person for a private excursion of up to 8 people.
Multi-day trips start at around $2,000, with those in the Solovetsky Islands being among the more affordable.
Most multi-day excursions last between five and eight days, ranging from $3,500 to over $7,000.
Swimming with whales is an unforgettable experience if done safely and with respect for the animals.
You must do your research before booking a trip, making sure you are traveling with a reputable licensed operator that has the necessary permits.
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All whale encounters should be conducted according to government regulations, and guidelines as these are designed to protect the whales for future generations to enjoy.
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.