Whale shark at Ningaloo Reef, Tourism Western Australia
One of our Explorers, Lauren, went swimming with whale sharks over Easter. And yup, she found out that they are definitely sharks. But also that they probably won’t eat you.
‘Group 2, get on the marlin board! Quickly, quickly.’
Shoving on my flippers and snorkel, I flapped my way down the stairs to the edge of the boat. In front of us, the water of Ningaloo Reef was a sparkling blue, like the deep blue of Elizabeth Taylor’s famous sapphires. Unfortunately, unlike a sapphire, the water was not smoothly cut but choppy and getting worse by the second. In the distance, the dry brown hills of Cape Range National Park lined the shore. The heads of Group 1 were bobbing around in the ocean around 50 metres from the boat, unmoored by anything except their fascination with something underneath the surface that we couldn’t see. But I was pretty sure they were all looking at what we’d all come to Ningaloo Reef to see – a whale shark.
The other people on the board started leaping in the ocean. I stuck out my right foot, flipper first, and stepped off the boat.
The water was cold and tingly. A slightly panicked gasp from one of my fellow group members made me look up – ‘There are jellyfish!’ she said. That explained the tingling. But as the stings seemingly weren’t deadly, I focused my attention on looking down, trying to spot movement in the water.
Our group leader gestured for us to swim away from the boat and to stay close together. There’s nothing like being smacked by multiple flippers to encourage movement, so we all kicked our way slowly through the water, swimming towards Group 1 with our heads in the water, glancing from side-to-side to see whether we could spot anything moving in the water. At that moment the water was calm, but in the distance I saw a wave in the water. Was there something emerging from the clear blue of the reef water?
There was something, something big. It was a similar colour to the surrounding ocean, but slightly darker. As we swam closer, I could see that it was a huge head, its mouth double – triple! – my width, with white spots polka-dotting over its head and all the way down its back. It was a whale shark.
I’d travelled quite a way to see this whale shark. After flying into Perth from Melbourne, my travel buddy and I had rented a campervan (if you can call a converted Toyota Tarago a campervan) and raced – within the speed limit, of course – up the coast to Exmouth. We’d almost booked a tour with a company in Coral Bay, but decided to go further north at the last minute. It was a good call. Exmouth is an enchanting town, the final outpost of this surprisingly fertile stretch of desert, and is the gateway to both Ningaloo Reef and Cape Range National Park.
We’d been lucky to get a spot on a whale shark tour in Exmouth. When we’d enquired two weeks earlier there had been only two spots left across the whole Easter week, and we’d only gotten lucky because Ningaloo Whaleshark n Dive had two boats going out.
We found ourselves on one of those boats, the Aliikai (which apparently means Queen of the Ocean in Hawaiian), the day after arriving in Exmouth. The crew all swore, hand-over-heart, that the Aliikai was the best whale shark boat on the reef and after spending the day with them, I’m a believer – especially after eating the lunch they provided (you really want to get their lunch).
But as we bobbed around in the ocean, food was the last thing on our minds. Although I’m sure some of us were worried that we might become food.
We’d been told to stay three metres from the whale shark at all times (for their safety and ours), and as the huge head moved towards us, I scrambled to get out of its way, bashing into the other members of Group 2 in my haste. We were desperate not to startle the whale shark, as our crew had warned us that any sudden movements could lead to the shark diving away from us. As it came closer, we could see the full scale of this so-called gentle giant – this one was around five metres long. As it swam past, with other fish clinging to its fins, I forgot to breathe into the scuba mask, awed at the grace and power of this animal. The whale shark is, quite frankly, the supermodel of the shark kingdom, although slightly larger in scale than a human supermodel. It doesn’t really look like more familiar images of sharks with their pointy noses and sinister rows of teeth; a whale shark’s mouth is wider and gracefully curves into a body that is bigger than any other variety of shark. Flapping my flippers with my enthusiasm than skill, I tried to keep up with the shark, but soon fell back. In my defence, its fins were much bigger than my flippers.
Sticking my head above the water, I breathed in with a gurgle, sure that it was the end of the encounter. But everyone else still had their heads in the water – I stuck mine back down to see that the whale shark had doubled back, and was swimming past us again. It was briefly silhouetted against the hull of the boat, and was almost the same size as the boat.
Jeannette, our German photographer, had told us that these whale sharks are teen males and the whale shark swinging around was reminiscent of nothing so much as a teen boy circling a group of girls on his bicycle. The whale shark was no less impressive on the second time around.
‘Everyone, out!’ We swam back towards the boat, heads still down, hoping to catch a final glimpse of the whale shark. There are strict guidelines around interactions with whale sharks to protect them and us – only ten people are allowed around the creatures at one time. Whale shark tour boats work together to make sure everyone gets adequate time with the sharks, and our time was up for now.
We swam with our first shark three more times before moving on. Apparently he was a particularly curious and friendly guy – normally whale sharks are more bashful, so our crew wanted to give some other groups time with this rare creature.
The whale shark companies have spotter planes to find these gentle giants in the water, and another one had been spotted further west. Our second whale shark was more typically bashful. Group 1 jumped in the water, but by the time we (Group 2) jumped in, Bashful had dived down to 10 metres and we could no longer see him.
Luckily, the spotter plane had seen another whale shark a short distance away, and we spent some time swimming with this one, who was a happy compromise between Curious and Bashful.
As we were relaxing on deck after our third whale shark encounter, one of the crew members came racing down the stairs. Some manta rays had been spotted further out to ocean, so we dropped everything and sped off.
When we got there, two boats were rocking around the windy patch of ocean. There were around 40 people already in the water, moving in a pattern around what must have been the manta rays.
Before we jumped into the ocean, one of our crew members gave us an overview. Manta rays are extremely jumpy and will dive away at the first hint of too many bubbles in the water. So don’t breathe OR swim too vigorously. But no worries – it was a stingray that had killed Steve Irwin. Manta rays are more closely related to sharks, so there was nothing to concern ourselves about. We were given the cue to all jump in – no groups this time. Even the skipper was going in.
Swimming over to where the majority of people were hanging out, we looked through the water. And there was one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen – two huge manta rays, doing a synchronised swimming routine through the water. These manta rays were each around 3 to 4 metres across, and were circling around, tail to face, in incredible patterns. And contrary to the warnings of our crew member, these manta rays were swimming right at us – simultaneously the most terrifying and thrilling moment of my life. You know who will come out on top in a collision between a manta ray and a human (hint: it won’t be you). It’s an experience that’s so hard to describe. You’re trying to get out of the way of these giant creatures without smashing into everyone around you, trying to remember to breathe properly, all without taking your eyes off the manta rays. Braver people than me were free diving to get underneath the creatures, holding their breath longer than seemed possible.
After around 20 minutes I was manta ray-ed out. I felt (manta) ray-diant, but it was time to get out of the water. Swimming back to the boat, I felt almost relieved. It had been incredible, but my adrenalin levels couldn’t handle any more excitement. Around a metre from the boat, I felt a presence nearby. Looking around, there wasn’t a human within 20 metres. But the ocean below me wasn’t the blue I’d come to expect – I glanced down to see the steel grey of the manta ray stretched up mere centimetres from my legs. Gurgling screaming through my mask, I watched as the manta ray looked up at me (did the cheeky devil wink?) and leisurely glided away.
At the end of the day, our crew told us we’d had one of the best days ever, and that it would have only been complete if we’d seen a tiger shark as well. Somehow I didn’t feel like we’d missed out too much.