Travel Story Swimming with the world's biggest fish at Ningaloo

Ningaloo Whale Shark Festival: Tourists swim with a 6m Whale Shark off the Cape Range Peninsula. Pic: Michael Wilson, The West Australian, 24th May 2014.
Photo of Gemma Nisbet

Whale sharks can grow up 18m in length. And Western Australia's World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Coast offers one of the world's best places to swim alongside them.

The morning I leave Perth for Coral Bay, the pavements are dark and damp, mirroring the low, grey sky.

In the plane, peering out the window, I follow our journey up the coast. By the time we fly over the brown snake of the Gascoyne River at Carnarvon, the sky is clear and blue.

Below, the bush is an abstract composition of dots and lines and swirls in a palette of deep green and dusty red, bisected by the bright stripes of gravel roads and bordered by the shining ribbon of sand along the coast. Offshore, cargo ships are suspended in the ocean, which seems to glow aquamarine.

At Learmonth Airport, I collect my hire car and set out towards Coral Bay. The sky is almost cloudless. A sign warns of cows wandering on the road but all I see are termite mounds, clustered along the low hills.

After about 100km, I turn off the highway towards Coral Bay. In town, I’m delayed by a woman walking in the middle of the road towards me, head down, completely unaware of my car creeping towards her. I come to a stop. She looks up, flashing me the relaxed, happy smile of a person on holiday.

After settling into my clean, comfortable room at the Ningaloo Reef Resort, I head out for a walk, making a meandering loop through the township, past the caravan parks and the cafe with a blackboard promising a “seafood bonanza” within. It’s quiet, just the gentle westerly stirring the fronds of the palms, the sprinklers whirring on the grass, the birds.

I walk along the bay, from the rocky end where low-slung cottages shelter behind the dunes, right around the white sweep of sand dotted with families playing and couples lounging in the late afternoon sun. Three young English lads kick a soccer ball. A woman chases her son through the shallows, ordering him to come back, racing after him with a bellowed countdown: “One . . . two . . . three, ” but the implied threat of punishment, never comes.

If you grew up in Australia, you probably went somewhere a bit like Coral Bay on family holidays as a kid. Beach shacks and caravan parks. A general store selling canned vegetables, ice-creams and bait. White sandy beaches, clear water, sandcastles and sunsets over the ocean.

As pleasant as it all is though, the main attraction lies a short distance offshore: Ningaloo Reef, one of Australia’s largest fringing reefs and the world’s only large coral reef so close to a landmass. There’s a whole variety of ways to see the area’s aquatic attractions and I’m here to experience one of its most spectacular: to swim with a whale shark, the world’s largest fish.

I’m up early the next day for the short walk to Coral Bay Ecotours, where I’m fitted for a wetsuit and fins before helping myself to a hot drink and acquainting myself with some of my fellow passengers. We’ve got a big day ahead.

It’s an overcast day but the crew — skipper Cam, deckhand Robbie, videographer Prue, and guides Cait and Jacqui — seem confident that we’ll find at least one whale shark. Last year about 600 of them were spotted between here and Exmouth and, unusually, they were seen as far south as Albany.

To the north, whale sharks can be found throughout Asian waters — in Vietnam, for example, they’re revered as a deity and dubbed “ca-ong”, which translates to “Sir Fish”.

Out on the water, we head out for an introductory snorkel. Visibility is fairly poor, but the coral and fish are abundant. After a few minutes, we come across a trio of white- tipped reef sharks, circling near the bottom. They’re small and don’t seem interested in us but something in their movements, their small eyes — their shark-ness — is a bit unsettling.

We move on, buffeted by the strong currents through a narrow channel in the coral into a school of small, glistening fish. We find a small turtle, then it’s back on the boat and into Bateman Bay. It’s a good place for spotting manta rays and often plays host to migrating humpback whales and their calves. It’s also the site of a wide gap in the reef, so here we pass out into the open ocean.

At about 10am, the sun comes out, the spotter plane takes off and the search for the whale sharks is on.

To prepare us for our encounter, Prue gathers us at the front of the boat to teach us a little more about the object of our search. She tells us that whale sharks are sharks and therefore a type of fish — the “whale” part of the name refers to their size. Thus, unlike whales, they can breathe underwater. They’re thought to dive to great depths and come to the surface following concentrations of food, mainly plankton.

Although thought to grow up to about 18m in length and to live to be over 100, here we’re most likely to swim with whale sharks of 3-12m, usually juvenile males of about 8m.

Prue’s clearly knowledgeable and has been working with whale sharks here for about six years, but her sentences are littered with qualifiers — maybe, possibly. Prior to the mid-1980s there had been fewer than 350 confirmed reports of whale sharks worldwide and they remain mysterious, despite research efforts. And while the sharks are protected in about 13 of the countries they’re known to visit, illegal fishing continues to be a problem in some parts, with the fins fetching up to $US15,000 ($16,200) on the black market.

Prue is telling us how the whale sharks can open their huge mouths into a complete circle while actively feeding when one passenger, a German tourist, plucks up the courage to ask the question that’s on all our minds. “Can you get sucked into the whale shark’s mouth?”

Prue laughs good-naturedly. She’s clearly been asked this before, and is reassuring: “Whale sharks have been around for 60 million years — they’re a little bit smarter than that.” She runs us through the protocol for our swim, and instructs us to stay 3m away from the shark at all times, and 4m from its powerful tail. “The objective today is to not disturb the shark and get you guys the best possible swim.”

At about 12.30pm, the crew begin setting out lunch, which they assure us is a sure-fire way to ensure the whale sharks will make an appearance. And, like clockwork, I’m about halfway through my ham, cheese and salad roll when the eagerly awaited cry comes from the skipper: “Shark!” Lunches are hastily wrapped and we scramble into our wetsuits, fins and masks. We’ve been divided into two groups of swimmers, and the first lot make their way to the back of the boat in readiness.

I’m in group two but don’t have long to wait until we get the signal to plunge into the water. I’m knocked around by the swell. The whale shark is moving surprisingly quickly and I kick furiously to catch up. The first swim always tends to be quick — the idea is for everyone to get a look, just in case the shark takes off — but there’s enough time to take in his distinctive pattern of speckles and stripes, which are unique to each individual.

In Kenya, local myth holds that these spots were formed when God threw shillings on their backs, while in Madagascar they’re known as “marokintana”, or “many stars”, in reference to their patterned skin.

The whale shark only hangs around for a little while before he begins to descend. His greyish bulk blends into the blue deep until all I can see are his white spots, fading into the water, and then nothing at all. I suddenly become acutely aware of how deep the water is, and what else might be swimming around out here.

Back on deck, after a short interval in which the swell gets the better of me and I deposit a good portion of my lunch over the side, we’re back in the water. It’s the same shark as before but now we know it’s a juvenile male, about 5m in length. Things are less frantic this time around and I have time to admire the whale shark as he glides along, serene beneath the choppy surface. Swimming close to his white belly are a couple of remora suckerfishes and a few juvenile trevally.

The rest of the group enjoy another swim with the same whale shark but by this time my seasickness has well and truly caught up with me. I remain on board, eyes fixed stoically to the horizon. I never normally get seasick, I tell the sympathetic crew. They’ve seen it all before, and proffer tissues and cups of water.

It’s getting late in the day, so after a fourth and final dip, we head back inside the protection of the reef. Within minutes, I’m feeling much better — well enough to venture in when we stop above a sandy patch for a final snorkel. It’s glorious: the water clear, streaming sunlight streaming illuminating the tapestry of coral and seaweed. A small, pale ray skittles off at my approach. There’s a huge number of fish — from tiny, darting creatures to larger flashes of blue, yellow, green, brown and silver — and fat sea cucumbers, even a big, bright-blue sea star.

Prue gestures me towards the reef, where a massive school of yellow-and-black-striped fish rapidly surrounds me. She swims off, the fish swirling around me, everything quiet but for the clicking sounds of rock lobsters sheltering in the reef.

Too soon, it’s time to head back to Coral Bay. I’m feeling fine now and sit up top, looking out as the setting sun glimmers on the water, the moon rising in response over the shoreline.

A platter of fruit is passed around and corks are popped from bottles of sparkling wine. We toast — celebrating not only the birthdays of deckhand Robbie and one of the passengers but also the day we’ve had, and the things we’ve seen.

Two days later, I’m back at Learmonth Airport, bound for Perth. That night at home, it pours with rain, but as I lie listening to the clatter on the metal roof, I remember the clear, blue sky at Coral Bay, and the graceful form of the whale shark as he disappeared into the blue of the ocean deep.

Gemma Nisbet was a guest of Australia’s Coral Coast tourism.

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