Ever since my amazing snorkelling and diving experience on the Great Barrier Reef last year I knew I wanted to try and visit it’s less famous sister on the other side of the country before my year here was up. Yes, last month I finally made it to Ningaloo!
After being in Perth for a good month (with a little trip to Bali sandwiched in the middle) I booked myself on a 5 day tour of the west coast travelling right up to Exmouth. What is unique to the Ningaloo in comparison to the Greet Barrier is that you don’t have to get on a boat to go out and see it. A lot of the reef is actually close enough to the land that you can simply step into the water and swim out to it without having to go very far at all and we did this at both Coral Bay and Turquoise Bay in the Cape Range National Park.
But I think I’ve discovered the real reason that Ningaloo is often the more popular reef amongst snorkellers and divers and that is the array of wildlife it is home to. Not only do you have the turtles and fish of the other reef but if you’re lucky you can spot mantarays, humpback whales and the biggest fish in the ocean – the whaleshark. Ever since I found out that you could actually swim with whalesharks at specific times of the year I knew I had to try and coincide my visit with the opportunity.
Now let’s be honest here in the days leading up to my whaleshark swim I was very concerned. You’re very unlucky if you don’t see a whaleshark on your tour – so much so that they pretty much guarantee it – but the big affecting factor is the weather. Whalesharks are easy to spot on a clear day because they swim so close to the surface of the water and the tours send up spotter planes to seek them out. However, any rain pushes the plankton that the whalesharks eat (thankfully they are strict vegetarians) to the seabed, which makes them less likely to swim at the surface, and the wind can mess with the spotter planes and the visibility in the water. The weather had not been on our side throughout our 5 days trip so we spent each day obsessively looking at the skies and checking the weather forecast. Luckily everything turned out perfectly and the day I took my tour was so nice that I didn’t even need to wear a wetsuit in the water*, which I would compare to the temperature of a lukewarm bath.
*Note: I was the only person not wearing a wetsuit and the only non-Australian – is there a correlation there?
Unlike my tour on the GBR you really did need to be a confident swimmer in deep water for this tour! So much so that the first stop of the day on the tour was a quick snorkel on the reef to test the general confidence of the group in the water. While the tour leaders happily proclaimed that we were very competent swimmers and snorkellers after this event I would describe my personal experience of it as a minor disaster. You see the boat was pretty small because there were only 20 on board which meant that only maybe 5 people could jump off the ledge at the back at the same time. Cut to about 10 of us piling on to the ledge made for 5 and then all jumping into the water at exactly the same time. Under that water I didn’t know where my body ended and anyone else’s began… and that wasn’t even the worst part. After surfacing we were all told to keep so close to our snorkel guide that it was impossible to actually see anything other than a face full of bubbles made by the flippers of the person in front. I’m pretty sure I was also kicked in the head a few times, and I probably also did some kicking because limbs were everywhere and have you ever tried controlling your feet in flippers? Not easy.
SO WHAT’S IT LIKE TO SWIM WITH THE BIGGEST FISH IN THE OCEAN?
Luckily when it came to the actual moment to get into the water with our first whaleshark this didn’t end up being a problem. There are only 10 people allowed into the water with the whalesharks at one time so they are disturbed as little as possible whilst in their natural habitat and they’re so large that there’s room enough for everyone to swim alongside them with a good amount of distance between everyone.
As we all stood on the ledge while the marine biologist hopped in the water to suss the position of the whaleshark there was a great deal of anticipation building up amongst the group while I became preoccupied with not falling into the water and being run over by the boat. Next thing I know our group leader was shouting “go, go, go!” (just in case you miss it the first or second time) and I was in the water. Now I learnt that if you take too much time to try and figure out what on earth is going on, where the whaleshark is and what side you’re going to swim along everyone will swim off without you. Theyreally do mean “go” and by “go” they mean swim immediately even if you can’t really tell where.
I figured the best thing to do would be to follow our crew member who would presumably be heading towards the huge fish and this proved to be a good strategy that I was slightly confused some people decided not to follow. A lot of the time I was actually swimming alongside the whaleshark looking around me for everyone else (perhaps they were all around the other side?) which was actually amazing because it felt like a really natural encounter.
Over the course of the day we got to swim with 3 different whalesharks for a total of about 30 minutes. The second one we encountered swam alongside us for ages because the crew are pretty much happy to keep you in the water with them until they dive down and out of sight. This one was so happy to swim at the surface that one of the crew said it was one of the best swims she’d ever had with one of the creatures as it was just so relaxed to swim at the top for that long.
The final one was also a very cool experience because when they dropped us in the water I looked around for ages like “okay where’s the whaleshark” and then saw loads of people pointing down and it was actually swimming underneath us. They look completely different from the side (more like a shark) and from the top (more like a whale) and usually you do not get to swim behind, in front, above or below them so it was amazing to have it swimming so low but at the same constant level that we could swim above it.
In case anyone is wondering despite their size they’re not very fast in the water which meas that you can easily keep up with them without much effort and by swimming with a bit more effort it was easy to catch up with one and swim right up to it’s head. Due to their speed it they’re also very calming to watch swimming along and so even though they could take you out if you got in their way (although I’m sure not intentionally) it’ not at all scary being in the water with them.
Instead it’s surreal. Kind of like living a David Attenborough documentary, except you feel slightly like you’re watching it on television and only having the photos afterwards can convince you that you were actually there doing it.