Snorkelling in the Indian Ocean just off Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia means blue infinity in every direction – but what’s that eerie pale oval approaching under the surface? Widening and narrowing and growing larger by the second, it resolves into the enormous gulping mouth of a whale shark. Stand by – or rather, swim by – for one of Australia’s grandest marine spectacles.
Unsurpassed globally for regular, reliable and accessible whale shark encounters, World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef runs 260 km along Western Australia’s remote North West Cape, about 1300 km north of Perth. Every year – from April to July – these normally elusive filter-feeders arrive for an annual mass-spawning of coral, which, aided by fortuitous currents, turns the outer reef into a nutrient-rich soup of plankton and krill. A relatively recent addition to this prehistoric dinner engagement are gatecrashing, snorkelling Homo sapiens, drawn to feed their sense of wonder on sharing salt water with the largest of all shark species.
The adventure begins on very dry land. Although flanked by vast tracts of water – Exmouth Gulf on one side, the Indian Ocean the other – North West Cape is an arid, baked wilderness bisected by the rocky heights of Cape Range, an extinct limestone reef from the region’s deeper past. Anchored off a lonely desert boat ramp 38 km from Exmouth township, the 17 m Draw Card is amid a tiny gaggle of whale-shark boats (there are eight Exmouth-based tour operators) ferrying their patrons aboard by inflatable Zodiac.
First on the agenda is a morning snorkel on the reef, a handy acclimatisation and a superb experience in itself. Amid a kaleidoscope of colourful sea life, the crew’s two whale-shark ‘spotters’ – Ellece Nicholls and Emma Goodfellow – and videographer Meg Green, free-dive with mermaid-like agility, pointing out creatures of interest. Usual Ningaloo suspects include parrotfish in all hues of green and blue, frilly orange lionfish, giant clams, tawny nurse and leopard sharks, whitetip and blacktip reef sharks, barracuda and bull rays. The easily found sailfin catfish (small, black and fantailed) is one of 50 endemic species.
The Draw Card cruises south through shallow turquoise waters, heading for one of only three navigable passages to the open ocean – soon revealed by a gap in the white line of offshore surf. The shark-spotting plane radios success and the deck ripples with excitement. As we power into position several kilometres out to sea, the 19 tourists aboard are divided into two snorkel groups and re-briefed on protocols – no touching, no duck-diving, keep 3 m clear of any whale shark (and 4 m from the tail).
Whale-shark watching works for one simple reason. “They’re sun worshippers,” spotter and marine biologist Ellece Nicholls says. On clear days plankton rises to the light, attracting whale sharks to the surface where they linger to hoover up the bounty. The biggest enemy is heavy cloud cover, rarely a problem at Ningaloo.
Think of it as a game of marine leap-frog. The boat stops ahead of a shark and the first snorkellers tag along as it passes, with the Zodiac deployed to aid any stragglers. Group two drops in further along the shark’s probable path. After the whale shark leaves its first escorts, the boat collects them and moves ahead of group two (now in shark conference) to repeat the process.
Group one don fins and stride off the duckboard, looking for the spotter’s hand signal. Ellece points and faces go under – nothing. Then a casual over-shoulder, underwater glance reveals a blue-grey speckled bulk the size of a van. Veering before reaching us, the silent giant had almost slipped by unobserved behind our backs.
Wondrous as it is, there’s no time to stop and wonder. Admiring a whale shark is not a passive activity. It’s time to snorkel as fast as humanly possible, which inevitably falls short of any whale shark in middle gear. But following its wake is unforgettable. The towering column of tail sweeps with effortless power, slowly shrinking and dissolving a gentle titan into the deep blue curtain of ocean ahead.
Minutes later, adrift in the open sea, we regroup for pick-up. Ellece says we saw a juvenile male, “only” 4 m long but with a barrel-like girth. While 12-m whale sharks have been seen here, the typical Ningaloo visitor is a 4-7 m male.
Far sooner than expected, we’re ready for another dip into his world. “This is what we call a blind drop,” Ellece says, meaning no-one knows exactly where the shark is. But in we go and there he is. Afterwards comes an unexpected bonus, a hefty green turtle flapping through the blue nearby, a marine bumblebee in flight.
Leaving our teenage shark to another nearby boat – the industry here is amiably co-operative – we shift closer to the reef wall for whale shark number two. Here the seabed is dimly visible, with shadowy coral clusters far below, the length of a tall building away. Festooned with remoras and trailed by a retinue of golden trevallies, this slightly larger shark gives a clear view of its white-spotted, ridged back, the starlike pattern imitating sunlight dappling the surface.
The day’s final shark is further out. Over the abyss again, a diffuse star of light beams from below, but it’s only a trick of the sun. Our largest (5 m-plus) specimen’s head-on approach is signalled by the flattened white oval of Exmouth’s biggest mouth. Dipping gently up and down, feeding at a leisurely cruising pace, it scoops invisible fare with every rise. From the corner of the sack-like maw, a much smaller eye watches its watchers keeping pace for those few precious minutes. Afterwards on deck, we’re treated to a topside view when it skirts the boat ahead of group two, its broad head emerging from the deep like a submarine milky way.
Five swims with three individuals filled an hour of shark time (the maximum allowed). The exhilaration of eye contact with our planet’s biggest fish lingers throughout lunch and the post-shark reef snorkel. The lasting impression is one of great peace and beauty, the awe of approaching creation writ truly large.
Plenty of mystery accompanies this majesty. While Exmouth is a leading centre for tagging and research, the whale shark life-cycle remains largely unknown – and if they really do migrate north from Ningaloo to breed in Asian waters, as some experts contend, why do so many travel south along the reef? South is definitely the safer option for them right now, given their popularity as a soup garnish in several Asian countries – a single whale shark can fetch thousands of dollars for its fins. In March 2016 the species’ Red List conservation status was altered from vulnerable to endangered (a ‘very high’ risk of extinction). The example of Exmouth, however, gives hope that countries still slaughtering whale sharks will be inspired by the economics of ecotourism – and the sheer wonder of the creature itself – to spare the world’s biggest fish.