It has been a bucket list item for me to swim with the whale sharks, the world’s largest fish. Visiting Ningaloo Reef provides an excellent opportunity to do so. Whale sharks seasonally migrate to Ningaloo Reef each spring. It is an experience you must do! Swimming with these gentle giants is incredible.
About the tour
After we were outfitted with our snorkel gear we found a nice place to do some snorkeling and test the equipment making necessary adjustments or swapping gear at the boat. It wasn’t a long stop as the point was simply to check out the gear and ensure it was in working order and adjusted properly. There were a ton of jelly fish when I visited, making me glad I had a suit that covered all of me. If I hadn’t, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. This part of Australia has lots of jelly fish which can annoy you if you get a sting, but unlike the residents of Queensland coast, you can see them and they won’t kill you.
When we were done, the boat went cruising around simply looking for the whale sharks. Like everything in Western Australia, the crew was relaxed and very friendly. The back of the boat was the natural choice of places to hang out but we were free to explore. We were allowed on the front of the boat during some of the cruising, and into the captain’s cabin to experience what it was like up there.
The captain was communicating with other boats from dive companies, and the spotter planes hired, coordinating different places to check thus covering as much ocean as possible. I was amused by the cheerful banter that accompanied the information. I learned from the crew that at the time of our cruise there was only one company that did not coordinate the efforts to find the whale sharks with the other companies, and they had their own spotter plane.
After what seemed like days, but was actually about an hour (I was anxious and excited because I really wanted to see whale sharks in the wild) there was a spotting. I remember looking off the starboard (right) side of the boat and seeing the creature just under the surface of the water. I had very little time to marvel at the sight before it was go time and we were getting prepared to enter the water.
Before we found the whale sharks, we had been instructed to be able to get our masks and snorkel gear ready as soon as we were told to (and done a drill). Our boat had two ‘teams’ or groups that would go into the water in turns. Our captain lined our boat up in front of the direction the whale shark was swimming in, and we’d jump in on cue (in front of it) and start swimming as fast as we could in the same direction.
I’d love to say we’d swim along for hours on end next to the whale sharks, but the reality is they’re the biggest fish in the sea. Their gentle graceful cruising is going to leave a human armed with fins and a mask behind pretty promptly providing a nice view of the whale sharks backside.
When we started falling behind our guide told us to stop and regroup while she swam ahead with the shark marking the whale sharks path (she had fins much bigger than ours). This helped the captain on the next boat line up for their teams and spotter to have a swim. We stayed huddled in a group and our captain came to pick us up. Then, we did it 2 more times.
After we were done, we were provided with lunch.
We went snorkeling again spot for a more extended look at the reef’s fabulous fish life. It was great because the crew guided us through pointing out various fish, their names, and fun facts about what we saw.
We closed our day with celebratory glass of sparkling wine.
All of us and our crew after a great day swimming with the whale sharks. Photo by Marcus Lorenz.
You will not be able to touch the whale sharks. I have read that whale sharks will let you sometimes catch a ride as you swim with them but touching whale sharks is illegal in Western Australia. The policy to reduce any negative impact that may result from swimmers in close proximity with the whale sharks.
Whale sharks have unique spots that can be identified like thumbprints. Submit pictures of the whale shark for identification and tracking (please credit your photographer) and sent email notification when your whale shark is spotted.
The magnificence of a whale sharks is not the same in an aquarium. I saw whale sharks for the first time at the Georgia Aquarium in 2013 and it was anti-climactic at best. I can’t explain in words why seeing a whale shark in the wild is completely different, but there is absolutely no doubt the experience is completely different. Seeing the whale sharks in the wild also means you don’t have to struggle with the ethical debate surrounding their captivity (which in specific regards to this situation I see arguments to be made on both sides and really struggle with them).
You don’t have to have a water proof camera. The tour I took had a professional photographer on board who took some amazing photos that serve as great reminders of the trip. As a result, I was really relaxed and could focus on my time spent with the whale sharks instead of being worried I wasn’t going to get an awesome shot. It was reinforced to me that I made the correct decision when one of the crew made sure we had all at least seen a whale shark after our second time going in to swim with them.
Another reason to let the photographer take the photos: a go-pro on a selfie stick was shoved into my face by the person swimming in front of me (we were lined up alongside the whale sharks). I gently shoved it down and away. Your boats photographer will be able to take better pictures and you won’t be a jerk and ruin it for someone else hoping you get a good picture. Upon further reflection in writing this, I have decided to write my tour provider an email discouraging them to allow selfie sticks and cameras in the water.
A special thank you to Marcus Lorenz (our photographer) for granting permission to use his photos.