Every year, in the Australian winter months of June and July, minke whales, researchers and divers meet on the Northern Ribbon Reefs, where the curious whales will at times accompany dive boats for hours. I wanted to learn about these creatures and photograph them under water.
 Minke whales are the smallest of baleen whales and can be found in almost every ocean. Those found in the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef form a subspecies, the dwarf minke. They are up to 7-8m long as adults, half the length of their minke cousins.
 Why they come to the GBR is still not clear. Other baleen whales are known to breed in the tropics in winter and feed in rich Antarctic waters in summer. Perhaps dwarf minke whales show similar behaviour.
 The liveaboard Undersea Explorer conducts six-day dive and research expeditions along the GBR and in the Coral Sea throughout the year. We were welcomed aboard by John Rumney, founder and expedition leader, and minke whale scientists Drs Alastair Birtles and Peter Arnold, and Undersea Explorers marine biologist Andy Dunstan. A nights travel out of Port Douglas took us to the Ribbon Reefs of the GBR.

wait for the whales
The next morning, moderate winds blew and the temperature was only about 20C, despite strong sunshine. After a checkout dive on a beautiful coral garden, Alastair and Peter gave a slide, video and computer presentation on the discovery of the dwarf minke whales and the research programme.
 Alastair explained the whale-watching procedures, developed to maximise the experience for the guests while keeping the encounters absolutely on the whales terms.
 Peter and I will spend most of our time on the upper deck until we spot a whale in the proximity. Australian laws state that boats must not approach closer than 100m.
 The animals must choose to approach the boat and not the other way around. As they are very curious animals, they will come close.
 Well throw two thick ropes on the windward side of the boat and a maximum of six people may hang on each rope, so12 people can be in the water at any time. Snorkellers may not approach the whales. Hang on the rope and allow the whales to approach you.
 The minkes will get used to the people and get closer and closer.
 Sounds good in theory, I thought. My experiences with whale sharks had been less easy. What are the chances of not seeing whales I asked. The scientists assured us that in the seven years of minke whale research with the UE, they had enjoyed a 100% success rate of encounters on every trip. But, you never know with Mother Nature...
 An hour after our first dive, we dropped the mooring and were heading towards a new dive site when up popped a pointed minke head. The cry Minke! precipitated organised chaos. John Rumney, who was at the wheel, stopped the engine and allowed the boat to drift. The crew threw out two 50m ropes with eight tyre inner-tubes attached to allow the snorkellers to cling on.
 Energy electrified everyone on the boat. Alastair and Susan Sobtzick, a German marine-biology student and camerawoman, quickly got into their dive suits and headed straight for the ends of the two ropes.
This being the first sighting of the trip, the guests were stunned into watching, tentatively moving and not sure whether to watch the whales from the surface or to suit up and enter the water.
 Stella and I quickly followed Alastair and Susan and were surprised at the 24°C cold water and splashing waves. We are tropical rats and used to the cosy 30°C waters of Asia.
 A few minkes initially at the edge of visibility started coming nearer as the minutes passed. Before I realised it, they were surfing past us, getting closer and closer. As if in a trance, my fingers kept triggering the camera and I thought: This is not happening. This is too good to be true.

intelligent eyes
I have run whale shark safaris in Asia and swum with hundreds of whale sharks, but theres a great difference between swimming with a big fish and swimming with a whale.
 Being eye to eye with warm-blooded marine mammals can be quite an emotional experience, because their intelligence is quite strongly felt.
 The minke whales seemed to enjoy swimming with us and surfing with the waves. The stronger the wave action, the more their activity seemed to accelerate.
 They also seemed to welcome us into their waters with frequent eye contact whenever they passed us by.
 They exhibited peculiar behaviour, surfing just in front of us, surprising us by sneaking in from behind, doing belly-rolls, bubble-blasting and so on. And certain animals showed more interest by frequently getting closer to the swimmers, or by generally being more whale-active.
 Alastair stayed in the water throughout the interaction, which we had been told could last from two to 11 hours! He jotted down every detail and photographed each minke that passed him by drawing any scars or other distinguishing marks on his slate. The fresh scars were obvious - holes as big as golf balls caused by bites from cookie-cutter sharks.
 The people on the boat were yelling instructions to the snorkellers along the lines of: In-coming! or Look behind you! or Another two on the right! Peter Arnold stayed dry on the top deck, jotting down every minke whale as it appeared and charting its behaviour.
 My first interaction with these magnificent animals went on for two hours, by which time I felt cold and had to get out to change films.
 We drifted for six miles and saw 12 dwarf minke whales in a 3.5 hour period of snorkelling. And this awesome experience was only the mornings activity on the first of six days adventure with Undersea Explorer!
 At one point during the week, at the Lighthouse Bommie, the minkes even swam past us while we were diving! By the end of the trip, I had swum eye to eye with some 74 dwarf minke whales and shot up to 30 rolls of film on them alone.
 In the evenings, between coral dives and minke snorkels, we learned more about the whales and other topics from Andy Dunstan. Between the researchers database, photographs, digital videos and all the guests inputs, more valuable statistical and behavioural information was accumulated. Undersea Explorer contributes important data to the management and conservation of Great Barrier Reef and the creatures it hosts - as well as being a great dive liveaboard.
 We would aim for four dives a day, with one or sometimes two of the slots replaced with minke snorkelling. We would dive sites such as Pixies Pinnacle, what Australians call a coral bommie - a 30m tower-like coral structure sticking out from a sandy bottom. This isolated patch of reef, about 45 miles north-east of Cooktown between Ribbon Reefs 9 and 10, was marked by immense numbers of anthias near the surface and circling trevally, jack and barracuda.
 And we visited Cod Hole, which deserves all its fame and glory, not only for its huge, intimidating potato cod coming near the divers, but because the coral reef structure is so beautiful and immense.
 After that first Undersea Explorer experience we joined it twice more for its minke expeditions, then again for a shark and nautilus research trip to the Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea, with Andy Dunstan as our expedition leader.

lassoed shark
The Osprey Reef runs parallel to Cape Melville National Park, 95 miles outside the Barrier Reef and 190 miles north-east of Port Douglas.
 It is 13 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, and the north-east tip of Osprey is a dive site called North Horn.
 Diving at North Horn can be unnerving until you get used to having sharks in such huge numbers around you. Andys briefings about shark behaviour get everybody hyped up before the dives and there is a hum of activity as the UE crew prepares to attract these sleek creatures for yet another exciting scientific survey.
 Fish bait made of tuna heads and other fishy parts is lowered in a closed crate to North Horns pulpit, a little coral bommie closely encircled by a perfect amphitheatre-like coral structure. The divers can cling on here while watching the frenzy of activity.
 On our first visit the bait attracted an incredible gathering of sharks, dogtooth tuna, rainbow runners, remoras and two huge potato cods. The sharks were mainly whitetips and grey reefs, or whalers as they are called in these parts.
 The remoras were the most fortunate in being able to sneak inside the crate with their slim, wily bodies. The potato cod simply bullied their way in, trying to extract some fish but with no luck.
 The crew makes sure that no feeding of any sort is done, as Undersea Explorer aims to set standards of eco-responsibility. Shark-feeding, the researchers believe, probably alters the behaviour of the sharks.
 While the sharks attention was drawn to the fish in the box, a researcher came up from behind a selected whitetip and sneaked a looped rope around its tail. The lassoed shark was brought quickly up onto the UE duckboard for ID and data collection. While all this went on, I witnessed a non-stop parade of between 20 and 40 sharks - a perfect, action-packed studio for me. Great hammerheads and schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks are also seen in North Horn on lucky occasions.
 Apart from Conner, the boats chef, I was the fortunate other to see them at a distance, but not lucky enough to capture their magnificence on film.
 On another occasion, big chunks of frozen fish were thrown out on ropes from the hydraulic dive platform to catch a whaler shark. This was done partly because grey whalers and silvertips are too powerful to rope under water, and partly to allow us to see the top-deck research side of the project.

whos who
On the first attempt, I was allowed to get into the water and hang onto the boats chain with a video camera to record the whos who of North Horn.
 My dive buddy was assigned to ward off incoming sharks, take digital photos for the database and, most importantly, to make me feel better.
 The sharks were obsessed with eating fish and none came near us. It was a dive experience I will never forget, with so many wild grey reef and whitetip sharks around me! The crew failed to catch a whaler or silvertip, but I didnt mind, as I also wanted to photograph the activity topside.
 On their second try, a grey whaler was finally caught, lured slowly into the steel cage and raised by the hydraulic platform. It was Lefty - the researchers knew it because it already had a microchip and a transponder implanted in its lower belly. Lefty was one of the most frequently caught sharks, which meant either that she liked human contact or was truly greedy.
 The transponders allow data to be recorded to electronic receivers all over the reef and record identity, water temperature, time and date and so on. The receivers are brought back onboard regularly to download the precious data into the computers. This is used to determine the life story of the sharks in the wild in terms of growth rates, home range, recruitment and genetic diversity.
 One fact gathered from this research, according to Andy, has been that female sharks are more residential than males, which would leave North Horn and return only after several months.
 Dwarf minke whales, sharks - thats not all. Somewhere near the North Horn area, Andy Dunstan dropped a trap baited with chicken meat to 300m overnight to attract that ancient cephalopod, the nautilus.
 Early next morning, the trap was slowly brought up and an incredible 21 nautiluses counted. Guests were invited to participate in the research to identify each animal by either looking for old markings or engraving new numbers on never-before caught nautiluses.
 Over the years, Undersea Explorers biologists have caught more than 1000 nautiluses. With the data accumulated and a good percentage of recaptures, valuable information on their sex, growing patterns, homing behaviour and so on has been collected.

Dwarf minke whales observed alongside Undersea Explorer
Divers fan out on a line to await the arrival of the dwarf minke whales
Its not all big-animal encounters in open water - Undersea Explorer divers may also spend time at popular scenic sites on the Great Barrier Reef
One of the dwarf minke whales attracted to Undersea Explorer
Below: Whitetip sharks at the amazing North Horn site
Grey reef sharks at North Horn. Below right: Could science be any more fun

GETTING THERE: Fly to Cairns in Queensland and Port Douglas is an hour away by bus. Drivers know to take you to Pier 319 once Undersea Explorer is mentioned.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Undersea Explorer is 80ft long, air-conditioned and has a desalination plant and camera room. Eighteen guests and two scientists can be accommodated in twin-share cabins. Toilets and hotwater showers are shared. Lectures are held every day before or after dives in the Bio Room. Drop and drift dives are done when conditions permit, otherwise the boat anchors on buoys or moorings. There are two Zodiacs. Food is prepared buffet-style by a highly qualified chef.
WHEN TO GO: Undersea Explorer offers different adventures at different times of year, including regular tours to the Coral Sea and, in November and December, the far northern part of the GBR to study the spawning of coral reefs, feeding behaviour of whale sharks and manta rays, and the mating and egg-laying activities of sea turtles. It follows minke whales to the Ribbon Reefs in June and July.
COSTS: Six-day expedition trips cost between Aus $1900 (£740) and $2450 (£950) for the minke trips, but be warned, they get booked up well in advance.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.undersea.com.au