Adrenaline junkies like me come from all over the world to swim with the whale sharks which feed on the rich krill and plankton on a remote 300 kilometre-long reef off the coral coast of Australia from April to July every year.
In June this year, I flew 1200 kilometres up the coast from Perth to Exmouth, whale shark capital of the world and gateway to the Ningaloo Marine Park, a new Unesco World Heritage site.
The whale sharks are one of the big five tourist attractions in Western Australia (WA) – along with all the loggerhead turtles, dugongs, humpbacks, manta rays and tropical fish which swim on the largest fringing reef in the world. They call it the reef and ranges – after the rugged peninsula of Cape Range National Park which meets the sea.
We all had butterflies in our stomachs as we headed offshore with Three Islands Whale Shark Dive, one of the big operators who take twenty people out there daily in season. We did an extensive safety and ecological drill before the dive. You’re not allowed to get closer than three metres, ride (Yup, folks used to) or hug them – duh! – and the boats have to stay 30 metres away. A threatened species, whale sharks are protected by a code of conduct which regulates commercial operators in a 250 metre contact zone. Only ten divers can be in the water near a whale shark at any one time. (Find out more about whale shark conservation).
You dive with ten others led by an experienced shark diver. I called her Wanda (and the big fish). They use a plane spotter to find the sharks feeding on the reef – and its action stations when they do. Wet suit on, flippers on, sunscreen on, snorkel and mask on and ready. A reluctant hero, I had to take courage before leaping off the back of the safety of the boat into the big swell off the outer reef. Coming face to face with a whale shark in the water is an electrifying moment – especially when it has its big one-metre long mouth wide open – and floats nonchalantly right pass you.
Breaking the surface, two tourists asked, “Did you see it?” “Are you kidding me? How can you miss the biggest fish in the sea?” Turns out they were looking the wrong way. Some people. But eventually everyone had a close encounter with our hosts.
Swimming with the biggest fish in the sea is an exhilarating, emotional experience. Snorkelling on the surface, I watched one of these beautiful creatures speckled with hundreds of white spots swim right past me. I got yelled at for being too close. Mind the giant tail fin! A whole flotilla of pilot fish, tropical fish and reef sharks swim with the big fish. On several dives we saw three whale sharks – of five to eight metres long (weighing up to 11 tons!). These gentle giants range up to 18 metres in length.
Whale sharks are literally the thickest skinned of all animals. I don’t think humans even cross their radar – and fortunately, we’re not in their food chain! I’m reliably told they have around 300 rows of tiny teeth (No, I didn’t have time to count). They swim past really fast while you’re furiously trying to back-pedal. They can’t chew or bite and strain plankton or swimmers through their gills. The first whale shark identified in the world by Dr Andrew Smith was harpooned in Table Bay in 1828. Go figure.
I was hoping to meet up with Stumpie, the star of whale sharks – who has a big chunk of tail fin missing – and has made a regular appearance every year at Ningaloo Reef since 1995. But it was his day off. They live up to 100 years – but are threatened by whalers who sell the giant fins as displays at wedding banquets. Can you believe it?
Apparently every whale shark has a unique pattern of spots under its gills – like a DNA thumb print. I learned a lot about whale sharks back on shore over dinner with Brad Norman. The man who heads up the whale shark research program at Ningaloo – he’s called the George Clooney of marine biology in Ningaloo – was named an “ocean hero” and emerging explorer by National Geographic for his work with the big fish.
Dr Norman has adapted amazing hubble telescope technology to identify 3000 whale sharks worldwide of an unknown population and to tag a few using satellite tracking from Christmas Island to the Indian Ocean to learn more about this mysterious fish.
Whale sharks are pretty fussy fish. They only swim in a band of tropical waters of between 21 to 25o centigrade around the equator from 30o north to 30o south where they feed on warm nutrient-rich plankton waters. You can see them in the Galapagos, around the Philippines, Mozambique and the Seychelles. But Ningaloo is one of the only places where they appear regularly and are easily observed in near-shore waters.
The whale shark dive at Exmouth costs A$375 per person (around R3200) for the daytrip. Some 20 000 people come to Ningaloo to swim with whale sharks every year.
We also spent a day with Ningaloo Safari Tours on a 4×4 tour of the Cape Range National Park on a long peninsula. Dave Mongan, who grew up here, took us on a wildlife spotting cruise on his boat up Yardie Creek. We spotted rare black footed wallabies sunning in the high red canyon caves, flying foxes (fruit bats) in the mangroves, emus, bustards and big red kangaroos bouncing across the range at sunset.
The Cape Range peninsula is an area of rich biological diversity -and a protected conservation area. It is a very popular camping site for the “grey nomads” who spend months exploring Australia overland. “Adventure before dementia” is their slogan. We went snorkelling off Turquoise Bay – where we saw brilliant tropical emperor and angel fish. I did spot a big reef shark – but was told not to worry about crocs and sharks that were smaller than me. That seems to be the rule of thumb around here!
We stayed at the Novotel Ningaloo Resort on the beach in Exmouth, a remote fishing village and resort. Exmouth has a fascinating history as a strategic surveillance post founded by the US during the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s to monitor submarine movements in the southern hemisphere. The old army base abandoned in 1992 has an old ten pin bowling alley, army canteen and barracks. The area has also been home to a whaling station, pearling fleet – and was bombed by the Japanese during WWII. The ranges are full of canyons like Shothole and Potshot – original code names. Our guide says,” We’re ready for WW III if it comes to Exmouth!”
I attended the Australian Tourism Exchange 2012 as a guest of Qantas, Tourism Australia and Tourism Western Australia – see www.australia.com, www.westernaustralia.com and www.qantas.com, www.whaleshark.org and www.whalesharkdive.com.