March 12, 2014

It’s whale shark season again at Ningaloo Reef

Image: James Morgan

Bucket list swim with the whale sharks of Ningaloo

Graeme Willingham reflects on his swim there last year.

Inadvertently, I was just a few metres directly in front of the gulping mouth of the 6.5m long whale shark, cruising one metre below the surface at Western Australia's near shoreline Ningaloo Reef.

I was in his food bowl, but this juvenile male fish wasn't about to suck me into his gaping gullet because he was singularly concentrating on the micro size plankton thriving in these waters between April and July, the coral spawning season.

A hand grabbed me from behind on the collar of my wetsuit and pulled me to one side with the muffled instructions to gently swim on my back away from the mouth, but without breaking the surface with my giant flippers, a panic action which might frighten my new friend in to retreating to the dark blue depths below. Then none of my swimming party of 10 would enjoy snorkelling alongside this magnificent fish.

It wasn't really my fault, I reckoned. While swimming the last few strokes to reach our guide in the water, the shark changed directions so I was suddenly in front of the fish instead of being alongside with the guide and everyone else.

In the water with our group of 10 were two fit young crew guiding us so we get the best views without being head-on. We swim just 10m from the big brown fish. One guide had a video camera, capturing us with the whale sharks for our souvenir DVD and for recording the identity of each fish. Other crew were back on the boat with the second group, along with the skipper who manoeuvres our boat, Keshi-Mer, away from the meandering whale sharks, located by spotter aircraft.

Image: Tourism Western Australia
 After about five minutes co-owning the ocean with our fish, we are directed back to the boat so the second group has its turn.

With the return of the second group, we depart, for another fish.

In all, we snorkelled with five fish over a two-hour period in what was a fabulous "bucket-list" experience. No, it was an awesome experience.

Our guides told us you can have multiple swims of four minutes or more to being with one whale shark for half an hour.  It all depends on how many whale sharks are sighted on the day, how long they spend on the surface, how fast they are swimming, if swimming with or against the current and the skills of the swimmers. How far the boat needs to travel to find them also determines the overall time of the outside reef experience.

We had an easy day, but if there are humpback whales, manta rays, orcas or dolphin pods around we would have spent more time outside the reef.

Our first was the biggest, but they do grow up to 14m in their 70-100 years lifespan. In 2012, 186 different whale sharks were identified here. Ningaloo Reef presents one of the largest, most significant and reliable aggregations of whale shark in the world, boasts Ocean Eco Adventures which was operating our swim.

In between swims, we kept our wetsuit on, in readiness for the call to get to the landing ASAP.

Motoring off to another location, we took advantage of the self-serve hot and cold drinks as we joined two other tour boats cruising behind two humpback whales on their way north.  We stay 100m away.

Moderate flipper force is enough to keep abreast of the whale sharks. However, a slight deviation by these big beautiful white-spotted brown fish means you slip from a parallel posi to tail-trailling and that prompts propelling freestyle strokes to keep up. So it helps to have some level of swimming competency, although that is not mandatory. Ocean Eco Adventures provide universal access to its cruises, accounting for language barriers as well as physical and mental disabilities. They'll work hard to make it happen, with safety always in mind.

We wear neck-to-ankle wetsuits which provided buoyancy. The temperature in this 40m deep water was 24.

On the short ride to the reef edge, we complete the obligatory disclaimer, acknowledging health issues, as well as swimming ability and snorkelling competency.

Sea conditions vary of course, from calm to swells bigger than we experienced, and with or without currents. On average, only six cruises are cancelled because of bad weather or big swells.

Later, a generous buffet lunch was served back inside the calm turquoise waters of the reef where we earlier tested our wetsuits, flippers, snorkels and goggles in a gentle swim with scores of spectacular fish living off the coral. As we discovered, there was no time during a swim with the whale sharks to stop and adjust the gear or unfog goggles. After lunch we have a snorkel around the coral immediately below our boat.

Our party was staying at the stylish beachside eco Sal Salis sand dune retreat and we were booked with Ocean Eco Adventures for the swim. Novotel Ningaloo Reef on the beach at Exmouth where we stayed pre and post package offers the choice of all tour operators in town. The Novotel is the smartest accommodation (stylish restaurant, forecourt pool) in Exmouth which services the Learmonth Airport, 20 minutes away, as well as the local fishing, mining and tourism industries and naval, air and communication bases.

Exmouth has some good eateries, ranging in style from upscale restaurants (like Novotel and Whalers) to take-aways (like Blue Lip fish and chips). Kallis' freshly cooked local prawns are best consumed with a glass of bubbly at sunset viewing at the Vlamingh Head lighthouse at the entrance to Cape Range National Park, 10 minutes or so out of town and on the road that runs between the rugged limestone range and spectacular white sand beaches and turquoise Ningaloo Reef water down to Coral Bay.

Snorkelling with the whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef truly deserves to be on the bucket list.

The author funded his trip.


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