Swimming with Whale Sharks in Australia
What's it like to come face to face with the world's largest fish? William Gray takes a peek beneath the surface at Ningaloo Marine Park in Western Australia
Visibility underwater was poor – like trying to peer through a blizzard. Diced into flickering shards, sunlight probed the plankton-rich seas off Western Australia’s 260km-long Ningaloo Reef, transforming jellyfish into glowing orbs and igniting the fizzing turmoil of the swell. I felt powerless – my strength sapped by the rollercoaster sea. There was little I could do but tread water.
The 10m shark appeared right in front of me, its letterbox mouth agape, ploughing through the turbulent water. Its skin was a beautiful mélange of stripes and spots, caressed by a lacework of sunlight. The effect was ethereal. Despite its bulk, the shark blended seamlessly with its surroundings – as unobtrusive, it seemed, as the translucent jellyfish. Entranced, I almost forgot the 3m exclusion zone and began frantically back-pedalling. But it was obvious that the shark was well aware of me. With little discernible movement of its great tail or splayed pectoral fins, it banked into a graceful turn, an entourage of tiny yellow fish following in its wake.
Of the handful of whale shark hotspots (such as Honduras, Mexico, South Africa and the Galápagos Islands), Australia’s Ningaloo Marine Park is one of the best placed. Not only do sharks congregate here in good numbers between March and June, but they are easily accessible – usually cruising just beyond the reef which is only 100m offshore at its nearest point.
My base was Coral Bay, a one-street cluster of caravan parks, a hotel and backpackers, plus a few shops and restaurants at the southern gateway to the marine park. It had a barefoot, frontier feel; a branch of the Perth-Exmouth road fizzling out on its beach.
Whale sharks – Rhincodon typus – are not the only marine heavyweights to lure snorkellers to Coral Bay. Measuring up to 7m across and weighing two tonnes, manta rays congregate in the shallower, calmer lagoons. Gliding like gigantic aquatic bats over the sandy seabed, they are easy to spot.
It’s a different story, however, in the open ocean beyond the reef. An hour had passed since our first whale shark encounter and all eyes were turned skyward, tracing the white speck of the spotter plane circling overhead. “From up there, even a 10-m shark looks like a tadpole,” the pilot had told me earlier.
Although whale sharks are the world’s largest fish, aerial reconnaissance is still the best way to spot them. There is never any guarantee you’ll see, let alone swim with one. Whale sharks are shrouded in mystery. No one knows how many there are or what triggers their trans-oceanic migrations. These enigmatic creatures can dive to depths of 700m, yet feed on surface plankton. They can reach 18m in length, but how long they live is unknown.
Did you know? Whale shark ecotourism is worth an estimated US$47.5 million a year, but swimmers must remember to maintain a minimum distance of 3m and avoid using flash photography and underwater motorised diver propulsions.
The IUCN lists the whale shark as ‘vulnerable to extinction’. Apart from orcas, humans are their greatest threat – a single Indian fishery is believed to have killed over 1,000 between 1999 and 2000. Shark fin soup commands a high price – but so too should the privilege of swimming with these gentle giants. Ecotourism could provide an economically viable alternative to hunting, as long as it is properly managed to minimize disturbance. “This is a ‘hands-off’ experience,” our guide had warned us. “If you get too close, I’ll tug your fin – three tugs is a red card offence and you’re back on the boat.”
Suddenly, the radio crackled into life and minutes later we were back in the water alongside another whale shark. Steadily, it pulled ahead, then began to dive. I watched the spots on its back turn luminous blue – pulsing like fireflies. Snatching a breath of air, I folded at the waist and dived after the strange lights. But after a few seconds, my sinuses protested and I spun upright, groping for the surface. As the others clambered aboard the launch, I lingered off the stern, sneaking glances underwater. But it was wishful thinking. The whale shark had gone and the only lights in the sea were the flecks of plankton shimmering in columns of early evening sunshine.
How to get there Skywest has regular flights between Perth and Exmouth, 140km north of Coral Bay.
Where to stay Sal Salis offers eco-friendly bush luxury in safari tents pitched metres from the Ningaloo shore.
Time difference: GMT+8
When to go: Whale sharks March-June, humpback whales June-November, manta rays year round.
Tourist information: westernaustralia.com
Whale shark conservation: whalesharkproject.org