Diving & Swimming With Whale Sharks
Trip Start Jan 27, 2010
15Trip End Ongoing
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It takes two days to drive from Broome to Exmouth and with not too much to see on the way except a lot of red dirt, road trains and a few hills, the first section of this travel pod will be rather short. We camped in "bush camps", which are roadside areas for camping and caravans that provide no facilities but also don't cost a dime!
The main stop en route was in Dampier to visit the town where I was born. We drove around for some time looking for my house, but in the end had to ask at the post office for directions. I haven’t been there since I left at five years of age, so I didn’t remember too much about the layout of the town- and what I did remember wasn’t quite correct
But I remembered quite a few things around town and with the help of Australia Post workers I found my street…except I couldn’t tell which house had been ours! My dad hadn’t been able to remember the number when I called and asked, and mum was off on a cruise, so I had to rely on memory. Hampered by the fact that many of the houses had been remodeled over the last 27 years, I was content to video the whole street and have mum point it out to me later.
By the time we reached Exmouth we were very happy for a shower and a place to put up our big tent. We decided to stay for a week to snorkel, scuba and relax in the dry 37-degree heat (about 95 degrees Fahrenheit).
Exmouth is a town of around 3,500 people at the tip of the country’s most western peninsula. It was originally settled as a United States Naval base where the largest antennae array I have ever seen still stands, a pier that is now one of the top ten dive sites in the world (built by the US Navy) is located and the houses built for personnel are now occupied by Aussies. Of course the town has developed since then and the Australian Army now operates the airstrip, but without Uncle Sam it may never have existed
While the landscape is a very dry, red dirt covered shelf punctuated only by spinifex and spindly trees, the fringing reef that spans around 260 kilometers of its coastline draws visitors to the area. Ningaloo Reef was the sole reason we were here. Touted as a better diving and snorkeling experience than the Great Barrier Reef and having already seen it from the air when we first flew into Australia, it was on our must do list.
And it lived up to its reputation. The snorkeling was simply incredible. We rented some gear and went to two different recommended spots. The first is called “Oyster Stacks”, so called because at low tide you can see huge piles of oysters jutting out of the turquoise water. The snorkeling here was very good, with lots of different fish and coral about, but we were there on the mid-high tide and it was quickly receding so we didn’t have much time. Added to that, my big head busted my rental mask, which cut the snorkel even shorter.
By far the best spot for snorkeling at Ningaloo Reef was Turquoise Bay. And yes, it is called that for a very good reason. A wide bay filled with aquamarine water offers a calm area for swimming in a picture perfect beach setting and to the left of the point is a long white stretch of sand along which lies an awe-inspiring reef and the opportunity to undertake an adrenalin pumping drift snorkel
A strong current flows parallel to the beach, sweeping snorkelers along the reef and if one is not careful, out past the point and through the gap to open water. We walk a mile or so along the sand and after donning our flippers, mask and snorkel, swim out around 30 meters or so to the reef and let the water do the rest. It was sensational. We saw all manner of fish; endless varieties of Angelfish and Wrasse, meter long trumpet fish, octopus, stingray, along with loads of fish I can’t think of off the top of my head and a number of soft and hard coral.
But the highlight was snorkeling with a large green turtle. I was hovering in place with my head pointed in the direction the current was flowing (this position was the easiest to slow oneself down) and almost flippered the poor thing in the head before I noticed him below me. He threw me a grumpy look, poked out his flippers and started his roller coaster swim into the current. Matt and I followed him closely for what felt like forever, watching him alternately come up for air, cruise through the water and snap at pesky fish.
It was the first time I have ever swam with a turtle and it was truly mesmerizing
All of this however was simply a warm up to our diving adventure to three different dives sites along the outer reef. We arrived at the dive shop at 7:15 on the morning of our trip, so excited after what we’d already experienced snorkeling…to find that our trip had been cancelled!
But, we were proudly informed by the shop guy, we’d been “upgraded” to a whale shark tour.
Hmmn. We had a few minutes to ponder this before the bus turned up and came up with the following: we’d paid for a three dive trip on the reef and instead we were being put on a tour that gave us one dive and the possibility of snorkeling with a whale shark, assuming they found one. We weren’t given any other choice (i.e. refund or reschedule) and when the bus turned up we were again informed how lucky we were to be upgraded to the whale shark tour- lucky we presumed, because the whale shark tour was worth more than twice what we had paid for the diving trip. However, what the tour company wasn’t thinking about was the fact that we were divers who wanted to dive!
I had considered swimming with the whale sharks upon arriving in Exmouth, but given that they wanted $400 for the experience of swimming near a whale shark with ten other people for what could be as little as a couple of minutes, I had decided it wasn’t worth it
But given that we were potentially getting something really good for half the price, we decided to play along and should it disappoint, we’d take it up with the company upon return.
As it turns out, we didn’t have to take any action. After a good drift dive that was made special by the wave surge that pushed us endlessly about the reef with killer speed and spotting a turtle that had to be around two meters long, we spent an afternoon swimming with four different whale sharks – two at the same time at one point.
It took a while to find them though. Two hours after our morning dive the spotter plane in the air and the skipper of the boat had failed to spot any whale sharks. We stopped for lunch while the plane refueled and when it reached 2pm with no sightings, the crew was nervous. It gets harder to spot the whale sharks the longer the day wears on due to the deepening shadows and they knew if we didn’t get to swim with one today they would be forced to reschedule everyone on subsequent trips.
But just as hopes were being dashed, a whale shark was found! We jetted off at top speed, bodies colliding all over the boat in the rush to get flippers and mask to the sound of the staff yelling “go, go, go!” Ten frantic bodies plunged into the water and then we were swimming at full speed towards the raised arm of the spotter in the water.
It is the weirdest sensation swimming like buggery in the open ocean towards what you know is an oncoming whale shark that will be at least twice your length and probably more (not to mention girth), unable to see the massive creature until it is just a few meters away. All of a sudden a massive open mouth is approaching you head on at surprising speed and you realize YOU NEED TO GET OUT OF ITS WAY!
Despite the adrenalin of the initial contact with the whale shark, the first swim was a bit of a disappointment. Between figuring out how to get around all the useless swimmers floundering about in the water and only being allowed a handful of minutes before it was time for the second group on the boat to dive in, it was less than spectacular. But at least I had a plan for the next session, which was supposed to allow up to 30 minutes with the big fish- assuming the whale shark consented
On the second swim I positioned myself in second place behind the spotter and mimicked his side stroke with one arm extended in front, which assisted in gliding through the water and acted as a buffer against the flippers of struggling snorkelers. This side on stance also meant you didn’t have to permanently turn your head to watch this most graceful of creatures.
I was in awe, although had I known what was to come on the next swim I would have reserved my use of the word. After a frustrating beginning to the third go caused mostly by a clueless French girl armed with an underwater camera, I was swimming alongside a 3.5 meter whale shark when all of a sudden I heard shouting from above the water and all those around me stopped dead in the water.
I popped my head out long enough to hear the spotter yelling, “Shark! There’s a second shark” and excited, I went back underwater to look around for number two. I looked left and right and saw nothing except the first shark swimming away from me. Where was he? I asked myself, the answer dawning on me almost as soon as I posed the question. My body felt like it was moving in slow motion as I turned around in the water to see a four-meter whale shark bearing straight down on me.
I’d like to say I swam in strong sure strokes to get out of its way, but in complete contradiction to my swimming ability I flailed like crazy, arms and flippers beating at the water until I came up just one meter to the side of the beast
Although whale sharks are very unsociable fish that live completely alone from birth, they do interact when they happen upon another of their kind, circling each other once or twice as if to say “wassup!” before going on their solitary way. We’d been told this earlier in the day by one of our tour guides and it turns out she was right. We all treaded water as we watched these two massive fish circle each other, nodding their heads up and down a few times as if to say hey, and then swim off in opposite directions.
I cast my eyes around quickly to see everyone in my vicinity taking off after fish number two, so I quickly powered through the water to catch up with number one so I could enjoy the swim without all the bubbles and flipper mayhem of my fellow tour members
We followed the big guy for ages, gliding silently through the water at his side and truly experiencing the wonder of swimming in the middle of the ocean with a truly majestic creature. It was out of this world. This was what snorkeling with a whale shark should be like.
Eventually we got tired. We stopped and looked above water and were surprised to see a veritable ocean between the boat and us. It was unbelievable to see how far we had gone in what only felt like minutes but turned out to be more like thirty.
The final swim of the day was with a new whale shark spotted soon after the last encounter. We were quite knackered by then, but we knew this could be out last chance to ever swim with a whale shark, so we jumped in the water. It was worth it. This one was even bigger than the others at five meters and he answered my silent request for him to dive after ten minutes of my repeating it over and over. You see I’d already had my fill, as much as I could take in of swimming with these amazing creatures, but the one thing I had not yet witnessed was one of them in a dive
And dive he did. I counted over two minutes from the moment his bobbing head lowered permanently and he started to descend. It was a lot slower than I expected, kind of like watching a plane land, except there was no landing strip here and he simply disappeared into the dark eye of the ocean. I almost waved as if to say goodbye to an old friend. It was oddly saddening to watch this large fish go his lonely way, flanked only by small fish at his underbelly for company on a journey that would end who knows where. It was a melancholy end, as I guess it should have been, to what was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.
With the depths of the reef and beyond discovered, we had some time to kill on land and it turns out there are a few hikes worth doing for the exercise if not the picturesque views around Exmouth. Mandu Mandu Gorge was a hardcore one-hour hike that takes you through the main gorge before heading up and down a number of smaller gorges on a loop track. We worked up a sweat and attracted innumerable flies, and the drive to and from the track was a long slow one over rock and sand, but it was worth it.
A second walk we undertook was at Yardie Creek, which took us along and up above another gorge that actually held some water at various points. Aside from the presence of water, it looked pretty much the same as Mandu Mandu, the main difference being an even larger proliferation of flies!
Outside of the hiking, diving, swimming and snorkeling though, we could more often than not be found reclining in the shade to avoid the scorching sun and chatting with neighbors at the campground. We met a number of characters: three graybeards on a surfing trip, cycling enthusiast Greg on a road trip from Queensland to the west to visit his sister and Peter, a mining worker on his week off enjoying the surf, fishing and some beer drinking.
Exmouth was all right!