The wonderful whale sharks of Ningaloo

Armed with little more than a snorkel and my camera, I quite deliberately, went swimming with big sharks. Most of them were at least 10m long in fact and I loved it. Want to know what it was like? Read on.

Where are we going?

At an ungodly hour I was waiting outside my hotel for the ‘whale shark bus’ After several others came by and I was starting to feel like I was on Oxford Street, a bus looking for me turned up. It was a 20 ish minute drive out to Tantabiddi, the launch point for trips to Ningaloo Reef. From here you are taken by small dinghy to your boat and everyone is issued with snorkeling gear.

Snorkeling with a Manta ray, Ningaloo outer reef, Australia

Snorkel with Manta rays

Before looking for sharks, we snorkeled with some large and curious Manta rays. They are notoriously skittish by nature, but also, very nosey. As with many animals, the trick is to hold still and they come gliding towards you time and time again to check you out. Having only met them whilst diving before, the proximity that snorkeling provided was fantastic.

This first non-shark snorkel gave everyone the opportunity to get familiar with the gear, getting in and out of the water and also enables the crew to identify the shakier individuals who need more help than others. Our crew took great care of everyone on the boat, even taking extra time to ensure that two young children on board managed to see the whale sharks too.

Manta Ray, Ningaloo Reef, Australia

By now the spotter planes were up and looking for sharks to direct the boats to. I was as surprised as anyone when, ahead of any plane contact, I spotted a little whale shark (incidentally by ‘little’ I mean about 5m long) sneaking past along the side of the boat. I let out a cry of “Whale Shark!” leaving the crew wondering “Isn’t that my line?” That shark vanished as suddenly as he had appeared but it wasn’t long before we came across another. We were given a briefing on how (hopefully) our whale shark encounter would play out and reminded that these giant sharks only eat micro-organisms in the water. There go the bragging rights.

Preparing to snorkel with whale sharks, Ningaloo Reef, Australia

Go! Go! Go!
In groups no larger than 10 people, we hung around the boat clutching our snorkeling gear. As soon as the shout of “Go! Go! Go!” was made, we scrambled into the water keeping our faces firmly beneath the surface, and did the most urgent snorkeling most of us have ever done, I suspect. The whale sharks look like they cruise the oceans slowly, but in fact require a significant effort to keep up with. Due to their sheer size, each tail twitch has enormous power. Welcome to extreme snorkeling, involving speed and massive sharks!

Whale shark, Ningaloo Reef, Australia

We managed to find and swim with 4 whale sharks, each around 10m in length (not including my little sighting at the start of the day) There are strict rules in place dictating that nobody should touch the whale sharks and that a 3-4m distance should be kept from various parts of the shark, for both their wellbeing and yours – a tail slap, even a friendly one, from a colossal whale shark would not go unnoticed and would most likely result in broken bones (your bones, that is).

These magnificent creatures are usually solitary. They are the largest fish in the sea and the ones seen on Ningaloo Reef tend to be juvenile males. Nobody knows for sure why it is mostly males who come, but it is believed to be because it is such a good feeding ground that they come to beef themselves up before looking for lady whale sharks!

The day I went to meet the Ningaloo whale sharks they were most co-operative and after lunch onboard, we were given the chance to snorkel leisurely on the inner reef before heading home. There is no exact science when interacting with wild animals of any kind of course though and there are days when it takes longer to see the whale sharks and sometimes only one is seen. It is rare, during the season April – July, that none are seen though, which is why the many operators in Exmouth all confidently offer guests the opportunity to go again for free in the event of non-sightings.

The shark boat, Australia

So there you have it, how to get ‘I swam with a huge shark’ bragging rights. And if your audience is not convinced by the mild mannered nature of the whale sharks, we also saw a tiger shark at one point, so you could always mention that?

Disclaimer: This post was made possible with the generosity of Ningaloo Blue, but as always, all opinions expressed are honest and completely my own.

Photo credit: Karyll Gonzalez


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