Swimming with whale sharks in Western Australia
Exmouth in Western Australia is famously known for its whale sharks that every year, from March to July, come to the Ningaloo Reef. It is in this period that visitors swarm the place to get a chance of swimming with whale sharks.
The day on the boat is anything but boring. Once the first whale shark is sighted, you start getting into the rhythm of jumping into the water, spending a couple of minutes (yes, you spend very little time with the whale shark), and then getting out so the second group can also swim with the whale shark.
In the water there are a few guidelines we should follow:
- never block the way of the whale shark;
- always give enough room for the tail to swing (4 meters) – you don’t want to get hit by a bus;
- never get too close to the whale shark – keep at least 3 meters distance;
Three simple rules you must keep in mind when in the water (and for a complete list visit the Parks & Wildlife page that regulates swimming with whale sharks).
Our first try was an utter failure. In the first group in, and in spite of the briefing, some people blocked the whale shark’s path, so it just dived into the deep. It’s not difficult to do this – although huge, it is hard to spot him immediately due to its coloration that blends with the water and the excitement of spotting it quickly overtake all reasoning.
On the second attempt, I was in the water, and it was amazing. I positioned myself to the right of the whale shark to get away from the other snorkellers. After a while swimming next to it I find myself face to face with a second one with barely enough time to get out of its way – an experience one does not forget easily! With all the excitement I forgot that I was supposed to be recalled soon after getting into the water. After quite a bit of time swimming right next to the whale shark did I realize that I had mingled with another group without knowing. The boat was easily recognizable though and after a quick ok sign, they picked me up.
From this point on it was a succession of the “dive – swim with a whale shark – get out of water” cycle. Several dives, none as good as my first experience with a whale shark, as I accidentally spent more than the allowed time.
At the end of the swimming with whale sharks experience we were taken out to look for dugongs. In Western Australia you cannot swim with mammals, so spending some time to watch these awkward sea cows was, in my opinion, somewhat of a waste of time.
How to choose the operator
A quick Google search will render a wide variety of choices. When choosing the one I would dive with I have applied the same principles as when I am choosing a dive centre. To that, I have added the requirement that the centre had their private spotter plane. The way most operators works is by sharing between them a spotter plane. This means that once they find one you’ll also have to share the whale shark, which in theory means less time in the water and more time waiting. This is not a critical requirement though – in fact, my boat managed to get exclusive access to a couple of sharks but ended up in the middle of the crowd most of the time.
Diving with the Ningaloo Whalesharks operator
From the beginning, I got nothing but professionalism from Ningaloo Whalesharks. From the answer to the initial query to the confirmation and then a double check while in Exmouth all contacts inspired trust and the feeling they would be taking good care of us.
In the D-day, we were picked up at the Tourism Office and extensively briefed on the bus on the way to the pier where our very colorful boat expected us – the same colors that distinguished it from all other boats and made my mistake described earlier easier to fix.
In the boat, we got a thorough briefing, this time on the boat safety and procedures, all sprinkled with a good dose of humor.
Due to sea conditions the dry run to check equipment and ability levels of snorkel was a bit messy. Lack of visibility also made it uninteresting, but it served the purpose.
Once on board, the food was good and complemented with fresh fruit. The only thing missing was a coffee and tea to warm up the group.
Diving the Navy Pier in Exmouth
The Navy Pier is considered one of the best shore dives in the world. There is a single operator that has a license to operate there and, to be honest, I’m not sure if the limited dive times is exclusively due to the pier being located in a naval base or if there are also some limitations imposed by the dive centre. All I know is that unfortunately the sea was rough during my whole stay, and no diving was permitted, which made me miss the opportunity to dive this iconic site.
Getting to Exmouth
You can get to Exmouth either on a domestic flight from Perth, or if you have time, on a road trip like the one I was doing. The latter gives you the possibility to explore some of Western Australia’s highlights: the Pinnacles desert and its yellow landscape broken by limestone formations; the stromatolites, living fossils; and feeding the dolphins in Monkey Mia.
What to do in Exmouth
The short answer is “not much really”. It’s a small town, with little to no attractions during the low season (I’m ignoring the giant prawn statue on purpose…). There are however plenty of beaches to hang around, best of which is Turquoise Beach and the beautiful Cape Range National Park to visit.
Photos of whale shark and dugong were taken by group members