When I think of whales, I think of cute but massive blubbery beasts. When I think of sharks I think of Jaws, and of being terrified of one of nature’s finest and purest killing machines. So, when I tell people I spent part of my summer this year travelling to a remote part, of a remote state in Western Australia in order to snorkel face to face with a five metre whale shark, the look on people’s faces falls somewhere between shock and intrigue. Is it a whale, or is it a shark? This is my story of my close diving experience with a whale shark…
In truth, these enormous creatures are the gentle giants of the sea – big enough that they have no natural predators, yet feeding on nothing larger than tiny plankton. I was glad to hear that it certainly wasn’t concerned with trying to eat a ginger-bearded English backpacker like me. After months of research and preparation, I pre-booked a trip with King’s Ningaloo Reef Tours, and the research proved invaluable – for a true once-in-a-lifetime experience like this you want to make sure you’re going out with a professional crew, and King’s were fantastic.
I chose to go from Exmouth, though other companies also go from Coral Bay on the same peninsula, an even sleepier town than Exmouth. Although Australia’s west coast isn’t as developed or as visited as it’s east coast, for natural beauty it has many trump cards. I was also happy for the hordes to remain on the east while I enjoyed arguably the country’s greatest asset, Ningaloo Reef.
A morning “practice” snorkel on the reef shows it to be the wonder it truly is. Warm turquoise waters, abundant fish, healthy coral and the stunning whale sharks themselves – there is little to compare to snorkelling with such a massive but peaceful mammal, making me feel like an insignificant blot on the face of evolution. Our boat carried a maximum of 20 people, and only 10 of us were allowed in the water at any one time, 5 each side of the Dive Master. The theory being she would spot it and the whale shark would swim between us.
At the cry of “whale shark!” though, 10 of us jump in and there is a commotion of flippers and bubbles. I tried to look for the Dive Master, the whale shark and the boat all at the same time. Out of the blue, it appeared (how something this big can actually sneak up on you is a great unsolved mystery), and bizarrely I felt calm, not panicked, and utterly in awe. It swims fast, and I try to keep up – even though the total time I spend with the whale shark is barely a few minutes, and I’ve travelled thousands of miles to do so, it feels genuinely like a highlight of my entire life. How often does anyone get to say that?
See Lee’s underwater video footage on YouTube