Swimming with Whale Sharks


Story and Photos by Holtzy

For four months in 2005 I was lucky enough to swim with the
worlds biggest fish almost every day at a town called Exmouth on
the Ningaloo Reef, 1200kms north of Perth, West Australia The
Whale Shark has been recorded to a length of 20m (66ft). The
biggest I swum with was around 10m (33ft) which I can tell you
still looks bloody impressive and more than a little daunting
when it's swimming towards you with it's mouth open. Of course
the whale shark eats plankton and krill not humans so I was
never in danger of being eaten but if you didn't get out the way
fast enough an accidental swallowing was always a possibility.
The Job

My job on board the Ningaloo Blue boat "Venture III" was as a
videographer shooting film of the tourists swimming with the
whale sharks and all the other creatures of the Ningaloo Reef like
Manta Rays, Turtles, Dolphins and a huge variety of fish. It was
great fun and every day had its share of excitement.
A Typical Day:

Up at 6.30am, collect the customers by 7.30, drive around the tip
of Exmouth Gulf to Tantabiddi where Venture III is moored. Have
an orientation snorkel inside the reef where we can work out who
can swim and who we need to keep an eye on. The spotter plane
goes up at 10am to look for whale sharks. He starts doing search
patterns between 1km and 6km offshore up and down the reef
until he finds a whale shark. Once he finds one all the boats race
to the shark and take turns swimming with it. Only 10 people are
allowed in with a shark at any one time so we all rotate. It's a
system that works well.

After we have finished swimming with whale sharks (The most we
swum with was eight different sharks in one day) we would go
cruising the reef looking for Manta Rays and Humpack whales
and maybe have another snorkel on the reef itself. The day would
end with a glass of champaigne and I would head home to make
a movie of the day and prepare for the next day. I would
probably knock off around 10.30pm so they were very long days
but good ones.

The Creatures

Manta Rays were a personal favourite. They grow to around 7m
across but most on the Ningaloo Reef are 3-4m across and while
most whale sharks swim along pretty much ignoring us the
Manta Rays would interact with humans in amazing ways. Often
if you were quiet and sat still in the water they would come right
up to you and perform this amazing underwater
ballet for you. This sort of thing has to be experienced to be
believed. They really are special creatures. We saw heaps of
turtles, most hung around for a few seconds then took off but I
had a 20 minute swim with a big old male Loggerhead that was
awesome. The other big highlight was a swim with two Dugongs.
Dugongs are really shy and it's almost impossible to get close to
them but just this once a pair let me swim with them for quite a
while while they played.

The Whale Sharks only real predator- the Orca or Killer Whale are
rare on the Ningaloo Reef but we did have a male and his harem
of three fermales turn up one day. There was no swimming with
those just.

Generally we swum in water from 20m deep to 100m so there
were a few dangers to be concerned with. Of course sharks with
big teeth are one of them. There are literally thousands of sharks
on the Ningaloo Reef and a few of them are capable of an attack.
Big Tigers and Hammerheads are relatively common along with
the Bronze Whalers. White Pointers do make the odd appearance
but are rare. Having said that we hardly ever saw big sharks and
never while we were in the water. I saw heaps but nothing over
7ft. Some big Olive Sea Snakes provided an interesting diversion
and we saw the odd stonefish but generally you are so amazed at
everything you see the dangers are forgotten about.
I Want To Swim With Whale Sharks!

The season runs from the start of April to the end of July.
Exmouth is by far the best place in the world to swim with Whale
Sharks. Early in the season the water is really warm (up to 29
degrees c) later in the season you get the bonus of Manta Rays
and Humpback Whales on the tour. Most of the dive companies
are respectable but some more so than others. I can
recommend Ningaloo Blue, Exmouth Dive, King Dive and Village
Dive as all worthy. I will be onboard Ningaloo Blue for another
season in 2006. I will be writing in my homegrownmaniacs.com
diary every day we go out so you can find out just what the
season is like by checking that out.
You can visit www.ningalooblue.com.au for more details
Pic Below: A Whale Shark just below the surface

More photos can be found here