Swimming With Australia’s Whale Shark

by Ant Stone on October 7, 2009

in Audio,Australia

Listen Up Travel Podcast


The Ocean’s Roaming Gypsies

Thirteen years ago, I was stood on the deck of a boat in an Egyptian bay. I was fourteen years old, sopping wet from scuba diving and torn between the scourge of seasickness, and a seemingly endless feast spread upon a paper tablecloth. Then came a splash, followed by an endless split-second-silence. “Shark!” hollered one of the crew. Seconds later the surface of the Red Sea became stained with white froth. Everyone was gone.

Plumes of messy water sprayed into the air and the boat rocked more than I cared for. I turned around, expecting to see a crowd of cowering cowards. But there was no one. They’d all jumped ship. They’d gone after the shark. I was lonely, and — ironically — I felt ever so slightly scared. Snorkel! Mask! Fins! Geronimo! I thrashed my legs and joined the splash, and ten minutes later I staggered up the stern and penned in my dive logbook. “Saw a whale shark — awesome!”

Thirteen Years Later

This time round I knew exactly what was coming, not least because I was paying a wedge of Australia’s plastic dollars for the experience, on Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef.

Despite their popularity as a tourist puller, there’s very little known about the moping whale shark. We know they’re the biggest fish in the sea, but we don’t know how many there are. Researchers can only guess they live around 100 years, and it’s pretty obvious to anyone that they’re filter feeders (that’s to say, they eat tiny plankton and krill). This very fact is a key indicator of the health of our oceans. Feasting whale sharks mean the bottom of the food chain is populous.

Ningaloo Reefs Whale Sharks

What we do know is that scores of whale sharks are drowning, slowly and needlessly in aquariums around the world. Thousands of tiny fingerprints are smudging the algae-tinged glass tanks of the star attractions, and effectively signing the whale shark’s death sentences. You may consider this a cruel indicator, but it’s not a situation that needs disguising.

Why Are Whale Sharks At The Ningaloo Reef?

We also know that whale sharks are creatures of habit, which is why at the Ningaloo Reef you’ll only find adolescent males; in Taiwan you’ll find pregnant females; and in the Pacific Ocean off California, you’ll find elderly females. Although no western society permits the hunting of whale sharks, it still occurs in some areas of the world, most notably in South East Asia — and as Taiwan is the haunt of pregnant females, this is an ongoing worry for future populations.

The Beautiful Whale Shark

I’d broken the budget and shelled out AUS$385 for the opportunity to snorkel with the whale sharks. Stood on the ship’s deck, I listened intently to Skipper Bill’s wise old tales of days-gone-by. There was a friendly atmosphere, rumours were bound of a hearty spread and — whale sharks or not — we were sailing through the pristine, clear blue Indian ocean under a hot summer sun. Circling above us was our secret weapon — a spotter plane. All we had to do was sit back, drink tea and make small talk until we heard the crackle from our eye in the sky.

Shark! Shark! Shark!

“Shark!”. Fins on. Spit in the snorkel, breath through the mask and Geronimo! I relayed the briefing in my head: No closer than three metres to its head, no closer than four metres to its tail. Don’t touch. Don’t flap. Don’t wee yourself next to someone else. Then everything went blank. When my focus came back I was blinking bubbles, my mask was crooked and my snorkel was full of water. In an uncharacteristic burst, a portly Frenchwoman had kicked me in the face with her fins. I could just make out a pod of bobbing foreign buttocks. To really render the anticlimax, a red bell jellyfish came along and slashed me across the collarbone, infusing me with a strip of neat pain that would last the entire day.

The call-to-snorkel came a further four more throughout the afternoon, and each time the experience became more emotive. Gliding beside these animals was an unbelievable pleasure. They looked like giant speckled sock puppets, trailed by dozens of fishtailed fans. A stripy grey pilot fish lazed around in front of his nose, cruising on the crest of the great pressure wave created by the shark. Steel grey suckerfish clamped themselves onto the upper deck and krill obliged the giants by swimming straight into its chasmic gape. At between 4.5 and 5.5 metres these young males were a slither or their distant elders, who can reach a massive twelve metres in length.

Spinner Dolphins

Come mid-afternoon the crew and passengers were plump with shark tales and prawn salad. Hyperbole was spread on crackers and disbelief was stirred through tea. While the portly French woman tried to outstrip the metaphors of a marvellously grizzly Singaporean man, a vast pod of spinner dolphins started popping from the bright blue ocean. Everywhere we looked, dolphins of every size were whizzing through the sun and spray. The pair of critics lay down their tongues, for Neptune’s little fireworks had said it all – as that’s exactly how we felt.

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Nomadicmatt October 7, 2009 at 3:12 pm

I really wanted to do that when I was out in W.A. but I was off season. Beautiful area though…its way prettier than the east coast!

Ant October 7, 2009 at 4:12 pm

Matt: Such a shame, it was a fantastic experience. As I touched on, you can enjoy the experience in many places around the world. As you know, Australia is so big you’re almost always out of season for something – but the flip side is, you’re also always in season too! Unfortunately I think you missed the addition of audio to this post, I’ll try and fight my way through your fans to tell you.

Also, for all future commenteers – please be aware that you can now add some ‘commentluv’ to your comments. Yes, that sounds very wank doesn’t it! It basically means if you check the box, it will give you a link back to your latest posts.

[F]oxymoron October 20, 2009 at 9:12 pm


Love the audio feature! In fact, I’m now moving on to the next podcast. Later.
.-= [F]oxymoron´s last blog ..Spotted, The FagBug =-.

Ant October 29, 2009 at 5:49 pm

Thanks guys, great encouragement. @[F]oxymoron – keep the feedback coming. It will help forge a permanent feature. @bettina – welcome to The Trail, it really was an unforgettable experience and one I’d highly recommend.

Vi @ Travel Tips November 18, 2009 at 6:50 pm

@Nomadicmatt, although you don’t like such expressions, but I would say it one thing you must do in your live – swimming with shark whales and humpback whales in Tonga.
@Ant, have you been in Tonga during whale season?
.-= Vi @ Travel Tips´s last blog ..Internet in Singapore. It is free, but.. =-.

Ant November 19, 2009 at 5:35 pm

Thanks for the comment, Vi and welcome to TrailofAnts.com. I’ve never been to Tonga, but I hear it’s a beautiful place. Being in NZ has really sparked my curiosity for the south Pacific Islands, so perhaps you’ll see it on the site over the coming months and years.

OzEnvy November 21, 2009 at 12:07 am

Oh my gosh they are such beautiful animals I would love to see one up close! The price is well worth it I think, the kick in the face wasn’t so worth it 😛

Vi @ Travel Tips December 3, 2009 at 4:11 pm

You’ll love it. NZ is good base for exploring Pacific Island. Just I am personally trying to skip French speaking islands, as they too expensive (can’t understand why). Samoa is less exposed by tourism industry, but don’t know what is situation there after tsunami.
.-= Vi @ Travel Tips´s last blog ..Short trails in New Zealand. Lake Marian track =-.

Ant December 6, 2009 at 7:43 am

That’s an interesting point about the French speaking islands, Vi. Thanks for that

Vi April 18, 2011 at 1:08 pm

As whale sharks season just started I made the list of tour companies in Exmouth and Coral Bay.

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