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Western Australia: Home of the Whale Shark

by Travelbag on 01 August 2019, 09:08AM

Whale shark

Ningaloo Marine Park in Western Australia boasts one of the world’s largest fringing reefs – a coral reef that lies close to shore. Swimmers, snorkellers and divers flock here from across the globe to discover this diverse underwater universe, home to wild manta rays, dolphins, turtles and giant schools of fish. But whale sharks are the region’s main attraction. These gigantic – but gentle – creatures can weigh up to 21 tons and reach 18 metres in length. We asked Mark Chipperfield to slip on his flippers, and get up close and personal with the world’s biggest fish.


Diving at Ningaloo Reef

It’s 8.15am on a perfect morning in Western Australia. I’m kayaking across an impossibly blue ocean with my guide to the edge of Ningaloo Reef – the world’s most pristine fringing coral reef. But you don’t need to be a budding Jacques Cousteau to explore this place, found on Australia’s northwest tip near the outback settlement of Exmouth. The best coral is less than 20 metres from the beach, so anyone with a snorkel and flippers can simply swim out and drift across the reef by themselves.

Many people who drive here from Perth – which is 12 hours to the south – are happy to snorkel by themselves. That said, it can be worth joining an organised expedition, especially if you have a passion for scuba diving and want to visit deeper sites. Thanks to its northerly location, Exmouth’s surrounding seas rarely drop below 17°C, so snorkelling is possible all year round – although a light wetsuit and rash shirt are advisable between June and September, when it’s winter in Australia

After twenty minutes of kayaking, we’ve reached our dive spot, dropped anchor and geared up with snorkels, masks and flippers. My guide keeps the kayak stable as I slip inelegantly over the side and then – splash! – I’m in a multi-coloured underwater world teeming with all manner of tropical fish, delicately waving corals and huge sponges. Now, the real adventure begins.

Whale shark diving

Swimming with Whale Sharks      

Over the next couple of hours, I see six reef sharks, along with a couple of green turtles and a massive crayfish hiding in his aquatic lair. Western Australia is also home to dolphins, turtles, manta rays and humpback whales – plus the elusive dugong, which you’ll find grazing on the seagrass of Shark Bay.

But the whale shark is the undisputed superstar. Each year between March and July, Ningaloo Reef plays host to hundreds of them, coming here to feed during the coral spawning season. The fascination with these animals is totally understandable. Characterised by their wide flat mouth, white stripes and elaborately spotted skin, the whale shark is a truly beautiful sight – especially when you see one in the wild. Indeed, shark expert Valerie Taylor likens the experience of swimming underwater with one of these creatures to witnessing “a tanker emerging from the fog”.    


Why Western Australia?

Although whale sharks are found elsewhere around the world, Ningaloo Reef is the only place where you’re guaranteed a close encounter with one of these amazing creatures. A number of dive boats now operate from Exmouth and nothing is left to chance – many use spotter planes to secure the best swimming spots. You can snorkel alongside the whale sharks or, if you’re not very confident in the water, watch them from the viewing platform of your boat.

If you can, I’d highly recommend getting in the water. Whale sharks are the gentle giants of the sea and, while they may look capable of swallowing you whole, their main interest is krill, not humans. In fact, it’s the high-protein eggs and plankton that brings them back here every year. You’ll have plenty of other swimming companions, too – these waters are home to 500 fish species and 300 species of coral, plus numerous types of clams, anemones and sponges.

Whale shark and diver

Where to Stay

The township of Exmouth offers a wide range of accommodation to suit most budgets – from campsites to elegant hotels, like Novotel Ningaloo Resort. Exmouth is now an established destination for scuba divers from around the world who come here to swim off the nearby Muiron Islands, Lighthouse Bay, West Side or the old Navy Pier. Voted one of the Top Ten shore dives in Australia, the Navy Pier site has a maximum depth of 15 metres and is suitable for divers of varying levels of experience. You’ll be able to swim with a huge range of fish, moray eels, sharks, turtles and giant cod. But, since this is still a working naval facility, you’ll need to book through a licensed dive operator to have access. 

Wherever you stay, it’s hard not to be deeply affected by your experience on Ningaloo Reef – even if you’re just there for a few days. The astonishing richness of the marine life, the region’s sense of remoteness and the harsh physical beauty of the landscape are overwhelming. But my abiding memory is of waking early each morning to the gentle sound of the surf, seeing South Mandu beach perfectly framed by the doors of my tent, and contemplating yet another day of adventure on the reef.


Find more travel inspiration in our latest edition of Escape magazine.

Or, take a look at our holidays to Western Australia and start planning your whale shark encounter.

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