I can honestly say I have rarely used the words swimming and sharks in the same sentence. Living over four hours drive from the ocean, I see it infrequently and have even less desire to swim, or even contemplate being, in the same water as a shark.
So what possessed me to change my trusted approach/policy when I reached Western Australia?
It was time to head West for a healthy dose of salty air and sea breezes. Nearly 8hours later we pulled into Exmouth, raided the supermarket and bottle store, before heading a further 34km down the coast to our camping spot only spitting distance from Ningaloo Reef.
Ningaloo Reef is an outstanding snorkeling and diving destination. The Reef itself is classified as a national park and is protected as a World Heritage Area and marine sanctuary. It stretches for 240km down the Coral Coast providing habitat to a vast array of marine life including dugongs, sea turtles, manta rays and whale sharks.
Similar to our time in Karijini, we had a number of day hikes planned, but we also had the option of spending a day out on Ningaloo Reef AND swimming with the whale sharks. Neither whales nor sharks make overly appealing swimming companions, but we signed up based on the assumption that surely a tourism business would not offer an experience where there is a high chance of losing a limb or your life!?
Our tour company, one of the eight different tour companies licenced to operate on the Reef, was 3 Islands Whale Shark Dive. They offered a full day, all-inclusive experience, including transport to and from the jetty. I have to admit that it was a nice change to simply switch off the brain and not have to plan or organise a thing.
Promptly on the dot of 8am, the bubbly Georgia and Gabby collected us in yet another minibus (I think I am scarred for life!) and we made the very short trip to Tantabiddi jetty. It was a hive of activity with busloads of excited visitors, just like us, queued to hop into their shuttle dinghy to head out to their specific tour boat. Apparently there are 12 tour boats that are licenced to access the reef, plus five spotter planes in the air. Yes, a real hive of activity.
There were about 20 of us on the ‘Draw Card’ and we all had to jostle for space as we hopped about on one foot and dragged on our fashion-statement stinger suits, goggles, flippers and a snorkel. I am not sure why we needed the suits as there were no stingers in the water, but the upside was that the suit did hide a multitude of sins underneath! J
The tour staff were excellent, just so warm and friendly. They gave us an extensive safety briefing and had a fabulous sense of fun. They obviously enjoy their work and have the best office in the World! They shared plenty of information about the best ways to stay safe, stay away from the sharks and at the same time, get a great view.
Whale sharks aren’t actually sharks, but are the largest fish species known to man. The female whale sharks can grow up to 15 m in length with their mouths over two metres wide containing 300 rows of tiny teeth to filter their food.
It is interesting that the scientists and marine biologists actually know very little about the whale sharks. They really don’t know how many visit these waters each year or where they go when they are not on the Coral Coast. It is estimated that around 400 whale sharks visit each season and the bigger mystery is where they will be found on any one day.
After a quick snorkel in the inner reef, our plane radioed our ship’s captain advising that the sharks had taken up residence for the day further down the Coral Coast. Through a gap in the reef we left the protected waters and motored South. The 28km boat ride, in and over choppy waters with quite a swell, did not agree with some of our fellow mariners and they lost their delicious morning tea over the side of the boat. Apologies – too much information.
Finally we arrived at the location identified by our spotter plane and we quickly mustered into two groups and readied ourselves to jump in the water. I am not afraid to admit to a slightly elevated heartrate and a couple of brief moments wondering what the hell I was doing. All that water and the chance of sharks!
Get in! Get in! Get in!
Line up! Line up! Line up!
We did what we had been trained to do and when Gabby yelled “LOOK DOWN”, I nearly choked on my snorkel as a MASSIVE whale shark swam by! It was all over in a split second and I was disappointed not to have taken in more. I didn’t know what to expect or what to look for and I felt I had missed so much.
The boat picked us up and we rested while Group 2 had their chance. Quickly it was our turn again and I was determined to do better…
Line up! Line up! Line up!
Not only did I look down, but I decided to swim alongside the whale this time. The sheer power and grace of the animal left me speechless. Its spots seemed to dance and sparkle in the filtered light and it was fascinating to see all the small fish attached to the shark, catching a free ride. Other fish swam very close underneath the whale shark, making the most of the protection provided by its bulk.
We enjoyed three swims with our whale shark before turning around to motor back to the protected waters of the inner reef. Apparently some lucky visitors get five or more swims, but we had lost so much time traveling to find them in the first place and our shark kept diving deep down into the green depths, that we were unable to spend more time in the water. Obviously the sharks didn’t want to swim with us as much as we wanted to swim with them.
For me, a real highlight of the day was the snorkelling. We anchored in two different parts of the reef and I was blown away by the colour, diversity, and number of fish and other sea creatures. I goggled at the brightest, most colourful and busy fish, whip rays, sea cucumbers, angelfish, cuttlefish and sea turtles. Spotting a reef shark, I almost swallowed my snorkel and backstroked so fast that I broke an Olympic record getting back to the boat. Having said that, I could still be there bobbing about in the water, oohing and ahhing at the variety of sea life.
All too soon it was time to return to the jetty and our short bus ride back to camp. The salt on my skin felt good. I was tired and very happy. I had overcome a misgiving or two, given the old comfort zone a nudge and loved every second of it.
Don’t miss your chance to swim with whale sharks!
Have you ever done something that defies logic?
What: I am not on a commission or anything, but I can highly recommend Three Islands Wave Shark Dive. The staff were fabulous and the food, especially the glass of bubbles at the end of the day, was first rate.
Where: Find them at their office in Exmouth, 1 Kennedy St.
When: Whale shark season is from late March to early August. The worst of the heat and wet season is over by then.
Why: Apologies for the cliché, but this is absolutely a Bucket List activity.
How: Book online or in person. It’s a fully inclusive day out and they will collect you from your accommodation.
Who: You don’t need to be a strong swimmer, but you do need to be confident in the water. They have noodles and life jackets for additional support
Related Posts: For a completely different swim, don’t miss quick dip at Karijini’s Dales Gorge.
Related Blogs: What about becoming a marine biologist for a day and volunteer out on a reef?
Read About It: One for the kids today, the gorgeous picture book – The Snail and the Whale by Julia Donaldson. Go straight to Book Depository.
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