Pacific and Indian Oceans: Where the Whales Are | Sport Diver

Pacific and Indian Oceans: Where the Whales Are

From humpbacks in Tonga, to dwarf minke whales in Queensland, Australia, to blue whales and sperm whales in Sri Lanka, some of the best whale encounters are in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.


Love scuba diving or snorkeling with big animals and want more content like this? Check out our picks for the Best Big Animal Encounters on Earth.


Encountering whales in the waters of the vast Pacific and Indian Ocean region is not just a fluke. It takes planning and preparation.

Flip Nicklin/ Minden Pictures

Each May, a migration of behemoths begins in the seas of Antarctica. After nearly six months of gorging on krill in the cold waters, the region's humpback whales begin their annual journey northwards. Some 2,000 swim to idyllic Tonga, a trek of nearly 5,000 kilometers, where they will spend from July through October mating, giving birth, singing and socializing. In this season, the whales can be found virtually anywhere in the archipelago's warm, clear lagoons, especially around the Ha'apai island group. Visitors have perhaps the best opportunity of any place on the planet for near-constant sightings of these majestic, huge — adults reach 15 meters in length and weigh some 35,000 kg — creatures. And, for snorkelers and free divers, incredible and practically indescribable in-water encounters can be a daily occurrence. Contact: The most intensive experience is with the live-aboard, Nai'a (naia.com.fj). Shore-based trips are also available with Fins n Flukes (finsnflukes.com).

Al Hornsby

The whales, especially mothers being tolerant of their calves' inherent curiosity when meeting humans in the water, can be surprisingly calm and accepting of close, extended interactions. And, if you are lucky enough to find yourself in the midst of mating competitions or dominance displays, you seem but a tiny, awed presence, unnoticed among a dance of titans.

Al Hornsby

On the final day of our trip, after not seeing the whales for a few hours, I had begun to believe my amazing encounters were at an end. Then I noticed vague shapes and movements down deep, in the darkness along the edge of a sheer reef wall. Free diving to about 17 meters, I found two whales, suspended closely side-by-side in the water, gently caressing each other — and they didn't seem to mind being photographed.

Al Hornsby

As we neared the jostling whales to within about 15 meters, one of the males went head down and began tail-slapping, raising his huge tail high into the air and repeatedly slamming it onto the water, each impact a loud, jarring "whump!" on the surface.

Al Hornsby

The familiar cry of "Whales!" interrupted our packing on the final afternoon of our cruise; what appeared to be a mother and calf had been spotted in the distance. Asked if we would like to try for one final encounter, several of us jumped at the chance. As we approached in the skiff, the sea became alive with splashing, jostling whales — two males were fighting over a female with calf in tow.

Al Hornsby

Encounters with dwarf minke whales in Queensland, Australia, are snorkel-only encounters. Dive Operators: Mike Ball Dive Expeditions (mikeball.com) and Eye to Eye Marine Encounters (marineencounters.com.au) offer minke whale trips during June and July.

Stella and Jürgen Freund

Dwarf minke whales seem to be curious about divers and will sometimes approach quite closely.

Stella and Jürgen Freund

One of my first experiences of snorkeling with minkes was also one of my favorites. One day in the dead of winter, when the water was impossibly blue, I chanced upon a beautiful silver gray dwarf minke whale. She came in to check me out, not half a meter from my face, constantly keeping eye contact. She continued to do swim-bys as I hung on the rope, trying not to move too much and scare her away.

Stella and Jürgen Freund

Weighing four tons and reaching up to eight meters in length, this blowhole-blowing cetacean is the smallest type of baleen whale. It migrates from the South Pole to the Australian tropics of far north Queensland for mating, calving and suckling young. In-water interactions with these intelligent social beings will leave you breathless (good thing you're on snorkel instead of scuba) and with a lasting, treasured memory.

Stella and Jürgen Freund

From its snout to its fluke, each part of the dwarf minke whale's sinewy, metallic-gray body is graceful and perfect. Photographers take note: Starting from the riveting eye contact until the final flick of their tail, signaling departure, be on the ready for photos. Since you won't be using a strobe, it makes it all the easier. (They'll be back in no time. The only restriction is how long you can last in the water.)

Stella and Jürgen Freund

Blue Whales and Sperm Whales, Sri Lanka. Aggressor Fleet now offers whale-watching trips to Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. Contact: Aggressor Fleet

Shane Gross

There are generally so many whales in the water during the season that you can choose to get in the water when a large pod is there and the water is clear. This will help improve your chances of a good photo opportunity.

Shane Gross

They may be one of the largest animals on the planet, but getting this close to a sperm whale was extremely difficult. It took many tries with many whales before I found one that was curious enough to play. I could have reached out and touched her. (I didn't, of course.) Not until I was back on the boat did I realize how fast my heart was racing. And that I wanted to get right back in.

Shane Gross

It was nearly impossible to predict where the blue whales would be, even when they were taking their seven to 15 breaths on the surface, so in-water encounters were extremely difficult. Here, we got lucky and one female passed by with speed and grace. I got to within about 10 meters of her, and she filled the frame of my fish-eye lens for a brief couple of seconds before disappearing into the blue.

Shane Gross

Although the sperm whales will usually let you closer if you are in the water alone, showing their size and power is best done with another snorkeler in the frame. In this encounter, my father and I jumped in together and tried to get in position for the shot. This image shows the moment when whales first begin their dive down to about 300 meters to feed on squid.

Shane Gross

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