Other than Cape Range National Park, Exmouth is also home to Ningaloo Reef, which is where we were going to get an introduction to whale sharks, up close and personal!
It was very early in the morning when we set off from the Tantabiddi boat ramp in Exmouth, Western Australia. After a quick snorkel to warm us up, we were also snap frozen as the water was just a bit chilly from the early morning. Sufficient quantities of coffee injected some life back into us and we were methodically divided into two groups. I wondered if our abilities snorkelling earlier had anything to do with which group we ended up in. In any case, we could hear the plane overhead which goes out to spot where the whale sharks are and before long, we were given a short rundown of what will happen by our knowledgeable but funny guide.
This is how the day usually goes he starts;
“Plan spots shark . . . boat gets into position . . team one suits up . . . wait for signal. . . ”
“Captain gives the signal . . Team one dives off the back of the boat . . . GO, GO, GO!”
“Team two gets ready . . learns from team one’s mistakes”
“When team one returns . . . team two go, go, go! . . . . Everyone’s happy and we have lunch”
With that picture in our mind, our guide then tells us what sometimes happen
“Plan spots shark . . . boat gets into position . . team one suits up . . . wait for signal . . ”
“Captain gives the signal . . .Team one dives off the back of the boat . . . GO, GO, GO!”
“Team one swims to where the whale shark WAS . . . sees nothing . . . . . returns wet and unhappy”
“Whale shark do not resurface again . . .We have lunch and go home.”
Well, we were certainly glad to be in team two then! Can’t possibly imagine getting my hair wet for a false alarm much less diving into the cold waters again.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait for long as just over an hour later of circling, the boat engines suddenly slowed. The first signal was given and like a call to arms, there was an eruption of activity. Like a well drilled patrol, everyone sprung into action with a frenzy of wetsuits, flippers, snorkels and everything you can drape on yourself without looking overly keen. All this time, the boat maneuvered into position and when the captain gave the signal, team one like a colony of penguins, leapt off the back of the boat and was in the water following their leader guide.
Team two was next. We were all suited up and looking at our fearless leader. Then without waiting for team one to return, we were given the signal to jump in as well! So, off we dived from the back of the boat and for the first 30 seconds of frenzy, all I could see in front of me were pairs and pairs of flippers splashing like we were in a triathlon. Trying to keep up was exhausting and nobody said anything about this being a race!
Everyone just followed the person in front of them and we all hoped that we were headed the right way. After what must have been like 4-5 minutes of non-stop thrashing about in the water which I reckoned would’ve scared any marine animal away, we all came to a standstill. I was just catching my breath (if that’s possible in a snorkel) and when the waters cleared, right there in front of me, gently gliding through the water was the biggest fish I have ever seen in my life!! It was quite enormous but simply magnificent. A whale shark!! I was gobsmacked.
We then swam with it for as long as we could. All the while, the whale shark despite our presence was quite happy for us to tag along. It is hard to describe much more what it is like to be swimming in the open ocean with a whale shark that’s barely ten metres away. Knowing full well that they are filter feeders don’t help the feeling of being in their domain and how vulnerable we are. At the same time, its awe inspiring and there’s still much to learn about them.
That day, we dived a few more times and saw more than 6 different whale sharks. This was a mini record of sorts as the operators say they usually do not get that many. In one of the dives, there were actually two of them together and again this was unusual as they tend not to clump in groups. So, that certainly made our trip. One in which we will not forget.
A few interesting facts about whale sharks:
- They are not a whale. They are in fact a fish which grows up to 18 metres long, making them the largest fish in the sea.
- As such, they do not surface for are. The only reason they come to the surface is for krill (tiny little crustaceans) which they feed on.
- They are filter feeders so they move slowly and are totally harmless.
- Each whale shark has a unique pattern of light pigmented spots along their forward flanks. Its as a good as a fingerprint!
- Whilst they appear at Ningaloo reef each year, nothing is known about where they breed.
- Young whale sharks are hardly ever seen.