rowing up in Colorado in the 1950s, John Rumney admits that he was always the weird kid in the neighbourhood, the boy with an intense fascination for nature.
“I started when I was this big,” he says holding his broad palm about a metre from the floor. “I had pet snakes and strange creatures and I knew more about animals than anyone else.”
Today, this softly spoken man with a full white beard and gentle blue eyes still knows more about wildlife than just about anyone else. Having spent the past four decades living and breathing the Great Barrier Reef, he is also a champion for its protection and the leading expert on dwarf minke whales.
John and his wife Linda run Eye to Eye Marine Encounters, one of nine Australian permit holders licensed to take tourists into remote sections of the Great Barrier Reef for life-changing encounters with the elusive dwarf minke whales.
First discovered in the 1980s, it is believed that some 60 to 80 minke whales ‘play’ in the waters off Queensland’s northern ribbon reefs during the cooler months of June and July. Under a Code of Practice developed for tourism vessels to ensure encounters are carried out on the whales’ terms, chasing whales is outlawed. But after 15 years of pioneering swimming with the minkes, John can almost guarantee a magical encounter.
“Every group of whales is different,” says John.
“Some stay eight metres away and watch you closely. Thirty minutes later they are four metres. One in a dozen is phenomenally curious and comes up close.
“That’s when you hold your breath. That whale is looking as intently at you as you are looking at it.
“It’s an eye to eye encounter. It’s like a religious experience,” he adds.
Minke whales are curious creatures known to seek out dive boats, at times even recognising divers and snorkelers and following them to different dive sites. The more ‘chilled out’ whales initiate a move called ‘spyhopping’, a prima ballerina behaviour that allows the whale to rise up and hold its head and a good deal of body out of the water. This can last several minutes if the whale wants a good gander at whatever or whoever it has its eye on.
“Without a doubt, it’s the top experience on the planet,” enthuses John. “It’s up there with gorillas in the mist or an African safari.
“I’ve done everything with marine animals, but nothing has that connection with nature like the minke whales.
“You are spending time with an animal that comes up to you. You are not stalking it,” he states.
Rumney is the first to admit that his love of marine nature got off to a wobbly start when he took a job as a commercial line fisherman to supplement his expensive diving hobby.
After a stint working with researchers in the Galapagos Islands he soon ditched the hunter mentality and turned his keen mind to conservation and the idea that exposing more people to its glory is the best way of protecting it. Most recently, John guided the production team behind the Great Barrier Reef, a three-part documentary series charting the natural history of Australia’s most iconic natural wonder.
“I’m the evolution of marine consciousness,” said John. “I started killing fish for a catch. Then I started spear fishing for a hobby. Then I picked up a camera.
“Somewhere it came into my consciousness that it was not right (to kill these creatures). I started taking tourists out to the reef and looking at things through different eyes.”
Eye to Eye Marine Encounters offers custom designed live aboard trips year round with the inherent message to preserve what is being watched. This year during the dwarf minke whale season, it will run a handful of multi-day diving and snorkelling trips.
What separates Eye to Eye Marine Encounters from the other operators is the research quotient behind each trip. Guests are part of science history in the making, joining onboard researchers as they conduct fieldwork in the waters, assisting in the identification and behavioural observations of individual whales.
So much so, that National Geographic lists the tour in Traveler magazine’s sixth annual ‘50 Tours of a Lifetime’.
For more information on Eye to Eye Marine Encounters departing Port Douglas
Mike Ball Dive Expeditions departing Cairns
Aristocat Snorkel and Scuba Port Douglas departing Port Douglas (can see whales, but do not have dedicated whale expeditions)
Find out more on the Great Barrier Reef
For more information on holiday options in Queensland, Australia visit http://www.queenslandholidays.com.au
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