Students swim with whales in Tonga | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Students swim with whales in Tonga

An ex-Billabong surfer with a passion for sustainable tourism and a Young Australian of the Year finalist dedicated to humanitarian causes have enjoyed the study trip of a lifetime with the University of the Sunshine Coast.

Brianna Lenton, 24, of Sunshine Beach, and Jordyn Archer, 23, of Parrearra, were amazed by what they learned during 11 days in Tonga for cross-disciplinary research on the swim-with-whales tourism industry.

“It was an exciting research project,” said Brianna, who enrolled in a USC Business (Tourism, Leisure and Event Management) degree after a teenage career as a competitive surfer and Billabong brand ambassador.

“We got such an understanding of the Tongan culture and community, and had the opportunity to swim about 10 metres from the humpback whales in the water.”

Brianna is now completing an internship at Sunreef Mooloolaba, which runs an Australian swim-with-whales venture.

USC International Relations Projects Manager Dr Sheila Peake organised the trip with Australian Government funding under a New Colombo Plan mobility grant, which aims to lift university students’ knowledge of the Indo-Pacific region.

Three USC academics and six students collected data, interviewed tourists, business operators and community members, and swam in the ocean with humpback whales.

Brianna and Jordyn have since been flown to Canberra to report on their experiences at a New Colombo Plan forum. At this high-profile event, they even chatted with Australia‘s Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop.

Jordyn, who was 2014 Queensland Young Australian of the Year for her activism with child protection charity Destiny Rescue, said she loved working with the local community in Tonga, as well as swimming with the whales.

“I have a clearer understanding of the challenges faced by the local people and I gained communication skills that can be adapted to my future studies and career path,” said Jordyn, who is studying a USC Bachelor of International Studies.

Dr Peake, whose PhD 10 years ago was on whale-watching tourism at Hervey Bay, said the Tongan trip would be invaluable to her own ongoing research at USC.

“It was mind-blowing to swim with the whales because there seemed to be this connection between them and us,” she said. “I want to know if swimming with whales can change people’s attitudes towards conservation.”

— Julie Schomberg

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