Australia’s Ningaloo Reef: whale sharks and world-class snorkeling and diving

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Enough about that other Australian reef. Ningaloo, located nearly 800 miles north of Perth in Western Australia, is where it’s at. “It” being an astonishing array of aquatic life, a lack of crowds, and plenty of budget-to-mid-range options including camping, backpackers, and smallish resorts.

In January, the Ningaloo Coast (which includes the160-mile-long reef/national marine park, Cape Range, and adjacent dune fields, marine areas, and islands) was nominated for a World Heritage listing, in recognition of the area’s “outstanding natural beauty, biological richness, and international geological significance.”

The world’s largest fringing reef (it grows directly from the shoreline, or a shallow backreef zone), Ningaloo also ranks near the top in terms of biodiversity, and the number of species found within a limited range. Unsurprising, then, that in a one-hour, offshore snorkel, I saw scads of impressive marine life (a large white-tip reef shark, giant potato cod, sea turtles, octopi, moray eels, countless fish) within arm’s reach. Depending upon the time of year, Ningaloo offers visitors the opportunity to view and/or swim with dolphins, dugongs, manta rays, sea turtles, sharks, and Humpback whales.What Ningaloo is best-known for, however, are whale sharks. The world’s largest fish, whale sharks are filter-feeders that can reach over 40 feet in length. Unlike most sharks, they swim by moving their entire bodies from side-to-side. Very little is known about these gentle, migratory creatures, in part because they don’t need to surface for air, and can remain on the ocean floor- at depths up to 2300 feet- for years at a time. They’re found in warm-temperate and tropical seas, but Ningaloo Reef is considered the most reliable spot to find them, when they congregate to feed off the coral spawn April through late June.

Although listed as “vulnerable to extinction,” enabling the public to swim with whale sharks is an incredibly effective way to promote education about the species, as well as aid researchers. In Australia, the animals are protected under the Wildlife Conservation Act, and Conservation and Land Management Act. Swims are strictly regulated by the Department of Environment and Conservation, including how many swimmers are allowed in the water at one time (10), and how far they must remain from the sharks (16 feet, and behind the pectoral fins). A spotter plane is used to locate the sharks, which are usually found up to several miles offshore.

Whale sharks have a pattern of spots marking their bodies that is distinct to each animal. At Ningaloo, swimmers are encouraged to use non-flash photography to capture the spot patterns behind their gills, and note any scars or other unusual features to help scientists track migratory patterns and keep a census.

It’s been a longtime goal of mine to swim with whale sharks, so when I found out an assignment in Australia coincided with their migration, I made arrangements to fly up to Ningaloo, via Learmonth Airport outside of Exmouth. Exmouth isn’t so much a town as it is a tourist pit-stop/marina in the midst of an arid, scrubby landscape of flat red earth and termite mounds, and approximately a bajillion emus, wallabies, and kangaroos. It’s a place of eerie, desolate beauty, and a stark contrast to the turquoise waters of the reef. Don’t expect to find anything to do besides swim, fish, dive, snorkel, and enjoy the scenery. For that reason, I’d recommend staying in one of the backpackers or campgrounds outside of town. All of the snorkel and dive boat outfitters will pick you up at your accommodation, regardless of where you’re staying.

I had my swim arranged as part of a package offered by Sal Salis, a two-year-old, tented, luxury eco-camp an hour south of Exmouth. The property is in the dunes just off the beach; my epic snorkel occurred right offshore. Sal Salis works exclusively with Ocean Eco Adventures to charter full-day, 16-passenger whale shark swims/reef snorkeling. Once onboard, we were issued wetsuits and snorkeling gear, and taken for a test swim to assess our abilities.

We were given explicit instructions on how to enter the water behind our guide, and the protocol for swimming with the sharks. After an “all-clear,” we were free to break away from the group and swim on the far (right) side of the sharks. Fortunately, my group consisted of a couple of kids and their parents, which meant they tagged behind the guide, in the shark’s wake. I was literally able to swim on my own. I should add that while slow-moving, keeping pace with a 25-foot shark for distances up to a mile (I asked) is no small feat. Even with fins on, I had to power swim using a combination sidestroke the entire way, so I could watch the shark while keeping out of range of its thrashing tail.

The exertion was well worth the effort. I’m a spiritually bankrupt sort, but swimming alongside such a magnificent animal is the closest I’ve ever come to a religious experience. There is simply no way to describe the feeling of being alone with a whale shark, in the blue gloom of the open ocean. The accompanying high of pushing myself to my physical limits added to my euphoria. Watching the sharks dive, trailing a clump of hitchhiking remoras from their pale underbellies, and disappear into the murky depths is the most beautiful, haunting thing I’ve ever seen.

By day’s end, we’d had four separate swims: two shorter runs beside smaller sharks (12 to 15-footers), the last two as described above. The boat had also been surrounded by a “super pod” of spinner dolphins that entertained us with their aerial acrobatics. It’s expensive (depending upon the operator and if you observe, snorkel, or dive, expect to spend at least $265/pp) but it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that has no equal. Just to make sure, I’m already saving up for the next time.
If you’d like to adopt a whale shark to aid with research costs, check out ECOCEAN.


[Video courtesy of Rolex Awards for Enterprise and ECOCEAN]