Swimming with whale sharks

by Elen Thomas on 16 October 2013, 10:10AM

Everyone asks if it’s scary, swimming with a whale shark. Thrilling, yes, squeal-inducing, of course but there is also something really serene about gliding through the water with these giant fish. Aussie rules are quite strict when it comes to wildlife tours and only 10 people are allowed in the water at any time, so it is easy to find yourself swimming alongside a 23ft whale shark in Ningaloo Reef with only one other swimmer in camera shot. Its movements are bewitching; slow, gentle flicks of its tail propel it forward at a pace which allows you to fully take in its extensive size and beautiful spots, like a sun-dappled patch of ocean.


The day started quite tense. Many of my fellow passengers had travelled long distances to see the whale sharks. They had lifelong dreams to fulfil and consequently had high expectations of Ningaloo Reef. As the spotter plane buzzed overhead, expectant faces scanned the water and our crew’s faces for reassurance that we would not be disappointed. Luckily, our practice snorkel eased the tension. As the crew from Ocean Eco Adventures checked everyone’s equipment and snorkelling skills, we had our eyes locked downwards, ticking off turtles, sting rays and electric blue stag coral, all in a matter of minutes. Then when the first whale shark shout went up, we lined up and slipped into the water like obedient penguins, clumsy in our excitement.


Peering into the gloom, I wondered if we had missed our chance, when suddenly there it was. Straight ahead, twice the length of a family hatchback and followed by a cluster of groupies in the form of small fish basking in its shadow. Its open mouth was an enormous O, an infectious expression mirrored by my whole group. The initial surprise was quickly followed by glee and plenty of snapping cameras. The photographers needn't have worried. We swam with six giants over the course of the day, only coaxed back on the boat with the promise of a gourmet lunch and humpback whale watching with July being a great month for seeing both at Ningaloo Reef.


Humpback whales had followed us throughout our time in Western Australia. They could be seen practising their acrobatics from headlands, as well as often appearing with a cheeky spurt of water alongside our boat. Approximately 30,000 whales turn the WA coastline into a ‘humpback highway’ between June and November as they cruise north to calve in the warm waters of the Kimberley before heading back south.  It is a testament to how rich this reef is that these sought after aquatic giants are almost a side attraction in Ningaloo.


Our underwater adventure had started 4 days earlier in Coral Bay, when we stepped aboard Shore Thing.  The sleek catamaran with just five bedrooms offers exclusive sailing trips to explore the outer reaches and shallow lagoons of Ningaloo, which no one else has access to.  We didn’t see another boat on our three day voyage but we did see plenty of marine life. Turtles popped up each time we donned our snorkelling gear, as well did manta rays, reef sharks and hundreds of tropical fish from clownfish to giant groupers.


Luke, our brilliant skipper, knows just where to look for each different species, as well as newly discovered dive sites, shipwrecks and marine nurseries. He tailored the days to our whims, squeezing in just as many dives or snorkelling stops as we wanted. There was also the chance for a kayak, some whale watching or just throwing a fishing line in as the desire arose. Meanwhile his wife, Lannie had a sixth sense about just the moment to bring out freshly baked biscuits or a platter of fruit to recharge the batteries.


Evenings were spent dining on fine food, from steaks to seafood, all washed down with local wines from the Western Australia’s Margaret River before stepping out on deck for star-gazing. The nets at the boat’s bow formed the perfect cradle for counting shooting stars as waves gently rocked us.


Back on dry land there was plenty to see too. Spend a day in the Cape Range National Park and you can add emus, kangaroos and rock-wallabies to your wildlife wish list. Turquoise Bay, one of many perfect arcs of white sand in the park, offers a great drift snorkel from the beach. The current slowly sweeps snorkelers over pristine coral gardens; you’ll barely need to lift a flipper. Climb out at the end of the bay, skip back along the shell strewn sand and repeat until you are ready for a ‘sundowner’ as the locals call it. Vlaming Head Lighthouse near to the park is the local’s favourite spot to meet. Bring a cold beer and swap tall tales of your underwater encounters, as the sun slips into the Indian Ocean. Sounds like a perfect end to a perfect day to me!


To find out more about holidays to Western Australia please visit www.travelbag.co.uk/destinations/australasia/australia/holidays

Author bio: Elen Thomas is PR Manager for Western Australia based in London.

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