SOMEWHERE ON THE GREAT BARRIER REEF -- There is little dignity aboard a dive boat.
Disparate strangers, young and old, fit and fat, come together on this floating hostel. Here all sunburns hurt the same, makeup is pointless and nobody looks good in a wet-suit.
And just check out that poor sod throwing up his breakfast over the port side.
Um, actually that was me. Only a few hours into the three-day hunt for one of the most mysterious of the sea's giants and I am longing to be medi-vacced to the mainland.
What little is known about dwarf minke whales -- that is if you can call an animal more than 7-metres long a dwarf -- is that their largest and only predictable aggregation is every June and July around Australia's ribbon reefs, 50 km or so from the nearest landfall -- Lizard Island -- itself an hour's flight from the Queensland coast.
Sometimes they come in pods, sometimes alone. Sometimes they stay for day, sometimes for a month. Some keep returning every year, occasionally with calves in tow.
A subspecies of the baleen whale, minkes have only been monitored since 1996. They are not tagged and their migration remains a puzzle.
During this trip with Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, we are not here to buzz them with Zodiacs but to actually get in the water with them.
Nigel, my bunk-mate for the next three nights, assures me he doesn't snore.
Aided by anti-nausea medication, jet lag and the boat's rocking, I sleep so soundly he could be a Harley. There are 23 of us -- plus 13 crew -- aboard Spoilsport, a 31-metre twin-hulled cruiser. Our stateroom is maybe 6.5 sq. metres, with thin mattresses, a private bathroom and air conditioning. There is no TV or internet but the meals are plentiful and delicious.
Aboard a dive boat, this is called luxury.
Dawn breaks over the Coral Sea and Capt. Trevor Jackson anchors Spoilsport at Lighthouse Bommie reef for the first of the day's dives and the greatest chance of spotting the whales. By 7 a.m. the dive deck is humming as tour organizer Keerin Jones leads the pre-dive briefing.
Jim Wilson and Spoilsport diver Ollie Volante during a dive on an outer reef. MIKE BALL DIVE EXPEDITIONS PHOTO
Australia's dive industry was rocked by the abandonment and presumed death of a U.S. couple in these waters 15 years ago, an incident that spawned the movie Open Water. These days, divers are outfitted with small two-way marine radios, complete with a GPS beacon. Their names are checked off as they step into the warm, azure water and when they return, they must sign in.
Twenty-five-knot winds have the vessel roiling as spotters watch from the bridge.
Also watching is Isabel Ender, a minke researcher at James Cook University in Cairns. She has been scouring the surface for hours for a tell-tale dark grey hump.
The gentle giants love this reef and typically show up when the boat is not under power.
Human interaction with whales is a unique practice around the world and its sustainability here is being closely watched as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority weighs scientific study with tourism and protection of the species. For this reason it has imposed a strict code of practice.
Spoilsport, operated by Cairns-based Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, is one of only a handful of vessels licenced to get this close.
Once whales are spotted, snorkellers, clinging to a rope tethered to the stern of the boat, cannot swim after them or even reach out. Cameras are permitted, lights are not.
Most importantly, interaction with humans -- there were only 1,500 encounters from 2003 to 2008 and perhaps twice that many since -- must entirely be at the whale's discretion.
That's what makes them so special.
"They're very inquisitive, very curious," Ender says. "They check us out as much as we look at them."
"We have whales!" Jones spreads the word through the galley.
Around 1 p.m., Ender has spotted a familiar shape around the Twin Towers reef. Then a fin. Then another.
But the skies are cloudy, sea conditions unseasonably rough and visibility limited, perhaps 20 metres.
Snorkellers bob along the surface, entering and leaving the water periodically -- the better to avoid seasickness -- before the last of the six whales swims off two hours later.
They are graceful swimmers -- dolphin-like in proportion, mostly black with large swaths of grey and white -- but most of them keep their distance, rarely breaching the water. The largest of the group -- about 6 metres long -- is the bravest, venturing once to within 2 metres of a lone swimmer and looking him in the eye.
The night dive is cancelled in favour of a sundeck barbecue. Kangaroo streaks are on the grill, Australian wine flows freely and nausea has faded like the tropical sun over the horizon.
The 240-km trip ends in Cairns the next morning with memories that will last a lifetime.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
-- Whales not your thing? Hartley's Crocodile Adventure brings people up close with the region's most famous land creatures, including some of the biggest crocodiles in captivity. Hartley's, along with nearby Wildlife Habitat, also has plenty of other native critters on hand including snakes, birds and, of course, kangaroos and koalas.
-- Mossman Gorge is a just-opened park within the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest but unique in its own right through its peek into the region's indigenous past. Owned and operated by Aboriginals, visitors can relive the culture, language and traditions of the region while taking in pristine waterfalls and lush vegetation.
-- Fitzroy Island, an Australian military lookout during the Second World War, is an ideal place to unwind and de-gas after three days of diving. It's about 40 hectares of unspoiled rainforest and about 2 hectares of beachfront luxury resort, including a turtle rehabilitation centre. It's a 45-minute ferry ride from Cairns.
-- Cairns (pop. 165,000) is a seaside tourist town full of hostels and a few chain hotels such as Hilton. Further up the beach-lined east coast are greater choices. The art deco QT hotel in upscale Port Douglas is a funky, modern selection. Fine dining options abound in Port Douglas.
NEED TO KNOW
-- Mike Ball Dive Expeditions caters to divers looking for comfort in addition to great diving, with three, four and seven-night packages ranging in price from $1,700 to $5,000 a person.
-- There are no non-stop flights from Canada to Cairns, which means a stopover in the U.S. -- usually Dallas or Los Angeles -- and either Brisbane or Sydney in Australia.
-- June through August is the Queensland winter, meaning perfectly balmy temperatures -- day-time highs around 25 C with little rain. The Austral summer (November to May) brings serious heat and humidity.
-- For more on the whales, go to minkewhaleproject.org.
-- You can find out more about Australia's tropical north at Queensland's tourism website, queenslandholidays.com.au.