IT’S HARD to believe that a whale species the size of an African elephant went unidentified by man until 1981, but that is exactly what happened with the Dwarf Minke Whale.
Rob Prettejohn, owner of Thala Beach Lodge at Port Douglas, Australia, was the first to record this amazing creature after finding himself swimming with the Dwarf Minke whales off the Great Barrier Reef in August 1981.
Above: A Dwarf Minke Whale makes a close approach. Photo: Rob Prettejohn
Aside from going unrecorded by man, the extraordinary Dwarf Minkes have other traits unlike any other whales; they return to the Great Barrier Reef every year from June to August – and they are known as the ‘friendly whales’ due to their extraordinary curiosity and gentleness around people.
Above: Dwarf Minke Whales are very curious about people and come in close for inspection. Photo: Rob Prettejohn
It is not known exactly why the Minke whales return each year to the warm waters of the Great Barrier Reef, but it is thought to be for mating or for calving, as some young calves have been spotted in these waters. For whatever reason, the Minkes do revisit the reef annually; they bring extraordinary joy to those that get up close and personal to them.
Rob Prettejohn, known affectionately as Mr Minke, describes his extraordinary experience when he first encountered the whales. “It is astonishing that my eye to eye encounter on August 5, 1981 in the Coral Sea just to the east of Saint Crispin’s Reef was the first recorded between our species and theirs,” says Rob.
Above: The first drawing of the Dwarf Minke Whale that led to their discovery. Photo: Rob Prettejohn
“I cherish that I was the first human selected by them to make their magical and gentle presence known – an approach so gentle and deliberate, I had no doubt it was designed to offer me reassurance. After my encounter I made a sketch as soon as I returned to our boat, noting the salient features,” explains Rob.
From that drawing, the whale was identified on August 24th 1981 as a Minke whale with unusual markings (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) by Dr Michael M. Bryden (later Dean of Veterinary Sciences at The University of Sydney). It was to be a further four years later in 1985 that they were named for the first time as ‘Dwarf Minke Whales’ from examination of carcases at a whaling station in South Africa by Dr Peter Best. As ongoing investigations into the morphology of Dwarf Minkes reveal significant genetic differences, it is highly likely they will be declared a new and distinct species in the future.
Above: A Dwarf Minke Whale has an inquisitive look. Photo: Rob Prettejohn
Today, the Minke whales as Rob explains, “Are still actively seeking out human company. We do not know how long they live; but it is possible that some of the whales from my first encounter are still making contact with people today.”
“Every year, from June to August, a growing number of people travel from around the world for this marvellous and some say, spiritual experience” says Rob. “Our world is richer as a result and my hope is that humankind has the collective decency to reciprocate the generous spirit of ‘The Friendly Whales’, by looking after them as best we can.”
Above: A Dwarf Minke Whale Approaches. Photo: Rob Prettejohn
The Dwarf Minkes are due to return to The Great Barrier Reef off Port Douglas in June. Thala Beach Lodge can arrange a tour for guests to see these beautiful marine animals with Eye to Eye Marine Encounters, a joint research and ecotourism venture that have been protecting, documenting and connecting people with Minke whales for almost 20 years.
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