If you’ve ever gone whale watching, you know the thrill that comes with seeing a misty, vertical spray break the surface of the water. You hold your breath and count the seconds until the creature comes up to catch its own, rotating its shimmery gray dorsal fin through the air in such slow motion you’d think it was swimming into honey. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a view of its majestic tail flukes before it’s back underwater for a quarter of an hour.
Given that humpbacks spend a vast majority of their time below sea level, getting in the water with them offers the best—and most constant—vantages. It’s previously been possible in few locations, including Puerto Plata, two hours west of the top resorts in the Dominican Republic; and the remote island of Tonga, in the South Pacific. But starting in August, it’ll also be available for travelers visiting Ningaloo Reef, in the northwest corner of Western Australia.
For years, Ningaloo has been an adventurer’s secret paradise, with scarlet-colored gorges, tucked-away waterfalls, and one of the world’s largest fringing reefs (which means the coral formations are so close to the coast, you don’t need a boat to explore them). The marine reserves in the area are also prime spots to catch migrating humpbacks—the animals arrive in nearby Exmouth Gulf each August to give birth to their 40-ton calves, and stay until October. Their arrival is a cherished time for local conservationists, who have worked tirelessly over the years to rescue the species’ population from endangered status.
Needless to say, the newly launched humpback encounters required the signoff of many marine wildlife experts and local authorities, and they’re designed to keep the animals’ well-being top of mind. As such, any of the 11 licensed operators offering humpback whale swimming tours will have to abide by strict regulations: no boats within 100 yards of the whales; no swimming with calves, their mothers, or any injured pod members; and no encounters in proximity of dead animals that might attract predators. (It should go without saying that human safety is as important as whale safety.)
According to the local Department of Parks and Wildlife, only five swimmers will be allowed in the water at once with a whale. The consideration is meant for safety and sustainability, but it comes with an added benefit: It will yield one of the world’s most intimate encounters with one of the world’s most magnificent species. The trips will be full-day excursions to allow for variations in the whales’ behavior and migratory patterns; though prices will range depending on the operator, they’ll hover around $200 per person. Given the small-scale operation, the best way to book will be through your hotel's concierge.
Getting to the area requires a bit of a commitment—from New York, it’s roughly a 40-hour voyage to fly to the city of Karratha via Perth, then a 340-mile drive to Ningaloo. But swimming with humpbacks makes for just one component of a dream trip to the adjacent Cape Range National Park, where you can spot rare animals like red kangaroos, rock wallabies, and Gould’s goannas (a type of oversize monitor lizard).
As for where to stay, you’ll want to book one of the 16 luxurious canvas-walled tents at the newly expanded Sal Salis, which resembles a glammed-up safari lodge right on Ningaloo Reef beach (rooms start at $1,130 per night). The camp managers, Paul Bester and Candice Shaw, are trained as naturalist guides and have led travelers through some of the most spectacular wildlife destinations in Africa and Australia, which means they’re experts at coordinating everything from whale shark encounters to identifying local flora and fauna.