I could reel off one hundred points why you should get yourself over to the beautiful state of Western Australia. Swimming with whale sharks should be reason enough for you to begin planning your next trip.
When I found out that I would be in the state slap bang in the middle of whale shark season (between mid March-August), I didn’t hesitate to book onto a tour. After doing some research and speaking with fellow travellers, I decided to go with a company called Three Islands Whale Shark Dive.
Here is everything you need to know about the tour and my experience of swimming with whale sharks. I’ve included some of the beautiful photographs taken by our amazing on-board photographer.
What the heck is a whale shark and will it eat me?
Whale sharks are in fact sharks. They also happen to be the biggest damn fish in the ocean. Despite this, and the fact that they have mouths which can open up to a metre wide, they are filter feeders and prefer to chow down on plankton. Human just isn’t their cup of tea.
How big are they?
The whale sharks which visit Ningaloo Reef vary from 4-12 metres in length. The biggest whale shark on my tour was roughly 8 metres long!
Where can I go swimming with whale sharks?
Three Islands Whale Shark Dive operates in Exmouth, 1270 kilometres north of Perth. The tour itself takes place in and around Ningaloo Reef, which stretches along the western side of the Exmouth peninsula.
How do I get to Exmouth?
Along with the sheer size of Western Australia and distance from its neighbours, limited transport options and general costs are factors which often deter travellers and understandably steer them towards the much more accessible east coast instead. So saying that, getting to Exmouth can be considerably expensive.
I opted to drive, incorporating a number of places and sights into my journey along the way and essentially creating a road trip. My route from Perth to Exmouth took 3 overnight stops in total, however you can tailor this to suit your own schedule. Just don’t underestimate the distance, give yourself ample time and regular rest stops.
If you don’t want to drive to Exmouth, you can fly. For the budget traveller, plane fares are not cheap. The closest airport is actually located 36 kilometres south of town, meaning you will also have to pay for transport to your accommodation. Another option is to jump on a coach. Unfortunately, this option is also fairly pricey.
Where can I stay in Exmouth?
There is accommodation in Exmouth to suit all budgets; resorts, villas, caravan and holiday parks, home-stays and B&B’s. I stayed at Exmouth YHA, which is a comfortable, relatively cheap and well located backpacker hostel.
The day began early, with a courtesy pick-up from our hostel in the company bus. From there, we commenced the 36 kilometre journey around the peninsula to the Tantabiddi Boat Ramp departure point. Along the way a member of staff gave a fun, informal running commentary about the surrounding area. We even saw some wild dingoes running across the barren stretch of land beside the road!
Once off the bus, we hopped onto the boat and were fitted with wetsuits and snorkelling equipment. The friendly, sun-kissed crew then introduced themselves and gave a hilarious safety briefing – a quality I adore about the Aussies.
We then set off across the turquoise blue lagoon to our first snorkel site on the inner part of Ningaloo Reef, spotting a cheeky pair of dugongs along the way.
Excitedly plunging off the boat, we swam amongst beautiful coral structures. They were surrounded by the eye-popping colours of marine life of all shapes and sizes. From stingrays, to puffer fish and starfish. It was a magical underwater world and like nothing I had seen before.
Eventually, after much muffled ooh-ing and ahh-ing through my snorkel, enthusiastic pointing and gentle bobbing, we tore ourselves away from the hypnotic reef and dragged ourselves back onto the boat.
It was then full speed ahead to the outer reef, while the spotter plane worked in harmony with the boat crew, pinpointing the whale sharks exact location.
Once found, we split into two groups. We took it in turns to slide into the water and get up close and personal with these enormous fish.
In the water, our guide would organise us into position so that the whale shark could swim past freely without being at all disturbed.
What struck me was the outstanding organisation of the crew, who had us jumping into the ocean and lining up in perfect synchronisation, like some kind of underwater army drill. What also struck me was my complete lack of fear. Getting into the water, I had no idea what to expect but somehow, I felt perfectly safe in the presence of these ocean giants.
Once the whale shark had casually glided passed without a care in the world, we were free to follow behind, ensuring we continued to keep a safe distance. The gentle giant moved slowly and gracefully through the water, making it surprisingly easy to keep up with.
As I swam behind, I became mesmerised by its huge tail swaying slowly back and forth. Time stood completely still and in that very moment, it felt like it was just me and the whale shark.
The only sounds I could hear were my long, deep breaths being drawn through the thin tube of the snorkel. I had absolutely no idea how fast I was moving, how long I was swimming for or how far from the boat I had travelled, but it didn’t matter.
Eventually, tiredness crept up on me and I snapped out of my trance. I looked around to find that I was still in the company of a few other swimmers. Then, I turned back to the whale shark but in those short seconds, it had glided into the darkness and out of sight.
It’s safe to say that swimming with whale sharks was one of the most surreal experiences of my life; and I got to do it four times that day.
After a long afternoon of diving, we began our journey back to dry land grinning from ear to ear. When I thought I couldn’t possibly witness anything else, the captain spotted some humpback whales and a hammerhead shark!
It actually felt quite sad to wave goodbye to the Three Islands crew and fellow adventurers after a whole day of bonding. I expect I will be buzzing about the experience for the rest of my life.
Other useful information
What else is included?
Morning and afternoon tea, a delicious buffet lunch spread, a free CD containing all the photos from the day and a courtesy bus ride home.
What items should I take with me?
A towel, suncream, practical clothes which you don’t mind getting wet and something warm for the journey home – it can get a bit chilly and windy.
What about nervous/weak swimmers?
Three Islands couldn’t make you feel safer. The crew are on the ball at all times and constantly check to see if you are ok. As well as the main boat, there is a member of the crew who follows in a small safety boat.
If you get tired, they are ready to pick you up and haul you out of the water at a moments notice. There are also ‘noodles’ (long foam floating devices) provided for those who need extra support in the water.
What other wildlife might I see?
Turtles, manta rays, dolphins, sharks, whales, dugongs.