Swimming with Whale sharks!

Trip Start Sep 14, 2009
Trip End Aug 16, 2010

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Where I stayed
Aspen Camping

Flag of Australia  , Western Australia,
Friday, May 14, 2010

A long twelve hour drive took us up to the Northern most point of our west coast trip, Exmouth. I mentioned how much I enjoy driving here and I have now got to terms with the outback road etiquette. You see, I was waving at everybody passing in the opposite direction, before I had grasped the rules of the road. It appears that there is a sort of self regulated code of conduct as to who can wave at who, I think that the waving by the way is to let others know that you have no problems and are OK. I'm not sure that I would be driving along at 100kph if I had a problem though; I would be standing in the middle of the road waving a red flag, but anyway that’s beside the point. As we are in a small campervan we will only get a wave back from fellow campervaners on a regular basis (except those hired from Wicked Campers, as they are for the 20 year olds with no money and are probably too drunk to see you!). At times there are some wayward caravaners that will give us a wave, the odd road train juggernaut might do too if he is bored but I can tell you that anyone with a boat, either towed behind on a trailer or strapped onto the 4X4’s roof, will not even make eye contact never mind a wave. When I see the Toyota Landcruiser with his offshore fishing vessel protruding from behind, I wind my window down and stick my head out to give them the big scream of "Heeeelllloooooooo" as we fly past! It’s great to see the eyes flicker for a fraction of a second from the road ahead.

Exmouth is at the northern tip of the Ningaloo reef that stretches some 300km down past Coral Bay to Carnarvon. Our two main objectives were to obviously scuba dive but also to see the whale sharks that come to the area for feeding between March and August. As there are no rivers in the region, the reef is very protected and has an abundance of coral and sea life. Both activities are pretty expensive due to the fact that you are hundreds of kilometres from anywhere and you don’t have much other option.

There is an old US naval submarine base which was the original reason for why the town exists and they built a docking pier off the coast to receive supply vessels that is now reputed to be one of the world’s best dive sites. Liz had been nursing a hugely painful middle ear infection and was gutted that she would be unable to do the dive, so that left myself, Issy and Ady to sign up with Ningaloo Reef Dreaming for an afternoon dive. The pre-dive briefing was very comprehensive and I was beginning to get a little nervous for the kids as this was to be their first dive since qualifying in the calm bath like waters around Bali. The Americans have now left the base and the access to the pier is controlled by the Australian State Police who are very strict since 9/11 as submarine radar controls are still managed there. We had been told ten times to ensure that we had photographic identity with us in order to be allowed through the checkpoint. No problems, I had the kids passports and I had my ................ oh shit, I had forgotten to put mine into the bag. We were with 16 other people after a 20 minute bus ride out of town and there was no way they would let me through. I would have to spend over two hours sitting by the side of the road waiting for them to come back, let alone missing out on the dive. In a desperate attempt to confuse the security guard, I passed the kids passports and also their SSI diving certification cards to the front of the bus and amazingly he ticked our names off and gave all the identity cards back to the dive guide and waved us through. The guys from the tour were staggered as that had never been done before!

We drove the bus onto the pier and started to get the diving kit sorted. The sea was pretty choppy and looking down the 15 metre drop, I could sense the nervousness in the children. This was compounded with the knowledge that we had to enter the water with all the heavy scuba kit on via a stride jump from 3 metres up. I could feel my vertigo coming on as well. Fortunately a dive instructor named Jimmy said he would take us three down. Jimmy was from Jersey and had spent the last two years diving with sharks at the Sydney Aquarium. Perfect skills knowing that there were white tipped and wobbegong sharks, huge mantra rays and other enormous fish awaiting us. Ady was hugely brave and the first in and I followed, my heart flying through the top of my head as I launched off the deck. The guys were great and really helped Issy to get in a different way without her BCD kit and then getting her clobbered up in the water. Jimmy stayed close to Issy (or was it the other way round!) and we all descended down below the enormous pier structure. Almost immediately we found ourselves swimming over a 2.5 metre white tipped shark that was taking a snooze between the rocks. As we approached he effortlessly glided away in one of the most beautiful and sublime movements I have ever seen. Visibility was only about 8 metres and so you had to peer hard into the water to see the staggering amount of huge fish that come swimming up to you. Normally your eyes look sticky-outy in the face mask anyway, but during this dive, I reckon we all had eyes the size of dinner plates. The experience was incredible and we saw things that we had never seen before and may never again! Everything was supersize as though it was on steroids!

Not content with seeing this in daylight, I had also signed up to a night dive and returned there with Ady to encourage me at 7.30 pm. I have to admit that I had sphincter twitching moments as I stood at the edge overlooking the black water 3 metres below and was relieved that Issy and Ady decided that they did not fancy doing this dive. It was my turn to stick close to Jimmy like a limpet as we circled the pier with only our small flashlights to light up three metres in front of us. It was again a fantastic experience and very different to the day time dive although I’m glad it wasn’t my wetsuit!

As if this excitement wasn’t enough, the following day we had signed up to go hunting whale sharks so that we could jump in and swim with them. At 7.15am we were met by a bright orange bus driven by our tour leader for the day, Westy from New Zealand. Immediately his enthusiasm and information about the whale sharks had us brimming with anticipation. It is believed that the whale sharks come to Ningaloo to feed off the plankton after the coral spawns in March and April and stay there for a couple of months. We were a bit worried that the trip would be cancelled as the wind had picked up overnight and Westy our tour guide let us know that all the other operators had decided not to go. “Wimps” was his view on them “It’ll be right on the other side of the peninsula” he said, “might be a bit choppy but hey we’ll have a competition as to who can chunder the furthest over the side and we want to go whale shark swimming – don’t we?” he screamed. “Yes we do!” twenty of us replied in perfect unison.

He was great fun and explained that we know very little about these huge sea creatures. They can grow to around 18/20 metres and are very solitary, immediately being alone after birth. They are 25 to 30 cm when born and grow in eggs inside the mother before hatching inside her too and about 200 are jettisoned into the ocean with a survival rate of 1-2%. They take 30 years to reach sexual maturity and only eat plankton although they do have very small teeth that act as grinders rather than gnashers. They are a slate blue with a wonderful speckled body of light grey and white spots. The equally bouncy rest of the crew got us underway and we got into the water to do some snorkelling and to prove that we could swim sufficiently well to not be a safety hazard. After half an hour we started out to the other side of the reef to start the search. This is done by a spotter plane that combs the ocean from above and then radios back the coordinates to the skipper who then lines up a hundred metres or so in front of the whale shark’s swimming path. At this point you are split into two teams and your leader jumps in to spot the whale shark in the water before you are then given the OK to jump in and swim towards them. You must keep 3 to 4 metres away from the shark and can only swim along side with absolutely no touching allowed as this can seriously damage the skin. This was the theory which worked very well until it gets to your turn. As we all jumped in and swan frantically towards our guide spotter I arrived quite quickly and literally nearly had a heart attack as I dipped my head under and saw a sight that will stay with me forever. It was only about 3 metres long but I saw this huge beautiful beast, gracefully swimming straight towards me! I took evasive action and then swam as hard as I could next to it. In my excitement to see the shark I had forgotten about the kids and Liz. On turning around I saw Liz had done the same as me and then got back to Ady who had been left behind a bit in the mayhem. He was pretty shocked and very glad to see us. Another swimmer told us that Issy was a little further back and the boat was picking her up. In the panic to see the first shark which scared them after coming face to face with it, they then struggled to keep up and decided that they would watch the sharks from the top of the boat in the future. Liz and I had another five snorkels and swam with the sharks that were around a huge 12 metres long. The experience was simply amazing and despite the high cost, was worth every penny.

The fact that we were the only boat out there that day meant that we saw 12 whale sharks and a baby all to ourselves and Westy was equally delighted that it was the best day of the season – “by far, AWESOME MAN!” It was awesome and we all learned the sign of approval, your fist clenched with your little finger and thumb sticking outstretched, awesome man.

On the way back down to Perth we stopped off for two nights at Monkey Mia where we had a wonderful time watching dolphins come literally up to the shore line for feeding by the rangers. There are around about 15 of them but only 5 are fed about twenty percent of their daily requirement to ensure that they maintain their natural hunting instinct. It is a well controlled environment and you are not allowed to touch the dolphins because humans can easily pass on disease to these mammals by touch. It was a lovely environment and we spent a lazy day on the beach whilst the children went off canoeing and on the pedalo.

We visited the Stromatolites at Hamelin Bay which were amazing and  another educational lesson for us all. The shell beach was wonderful to see and is literally a beach made of shells. It has every size,  shape and colour of shells. 

A long twelve hour drive got us back to Jude and Marks in Perth and saw the end of our great adventure in the Western Outback.
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Ian Kirkwood on

Exmouth, Carnarvon??? Are you sure you are in Oz?

Shouting out the window as "cars" go by ? Is there something in the air over there?

Another great blog and more great experiences for all of you. Keep Safe in that campervan!!!!! Ian

ady on

this was awsome

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