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People often ask me what was the highlight of our 2014 trip around Australia, and I generally reply that “everywhere was special”. However there was an experience that probably stands out in my mind, and that was a swim with the “Gentle Giants” on the Ningaloo Reef.
Firstly, a bit about the Ningaloo Reef. The World Heritage listed Ningaloo Reef begins at Amherst Point south of Coral Bay and stretches 260 kilometres to Bundegi Reef near the town of Exmouth, West Australia. It reaches 20 kilometres seaward, encompassing a massive 5,000 square kilometres of ocean with 500 species of tropical fish and 220 species of coral. Very impressive to say the least!
In addition, the Ningaloo Reef is one of the world’s major breeding areas for sea turtles and the feeding ground for the giant whale sharks during the months between April and June. No wonder this area has gained a reputation as one of earths last ocean paradises.
Probably the biggest drawcard to the Ningaloo Reef is the opportunity to snorkel with the gentle giants of the ocean, the whale sharks. Every year from April through to July, following the mass spawning of coral, the whale sharks congregate in the Ningaloo Marine Park to feed on zooplankton.
There are many cruise boat operators in both Coral Bay and Exmouth that take whale shark cruises on a daily basis during the season. Our cruise of choice was with Ningaloo Whale Sharks that we discovered stood out from the rest because of its uniquely painted whale shark patterned boat.
We were picked up by the boat cruise bus very early in the morning and driven to Tantabiddi Port to board our cruise boat. The itinerary for the day consisted of:
8:30am Depart Tantabiddi to head out into the Ningaloo Reef to look for whale sharks
9am First snorkel on the amazing corals of the Ningaloo Reef
9:30am Spotter plane takes off to look for whale sharks for us to swim
10am Morning Tea
10:15am Vessel starts cruising the reef looking for whale sharks to swim with Until Lunch Swimming with whale sharks
12:30-1pm Head into the inner reef to have a delicious gourmet lunch
2:30pm Last snorkel on the spectacular coral gardens of the Ningaloo Reef. Divers dive the Ningaloo Reef
3pm Afternoon tea
3:15pm cruise back to Tantabiddi on the look out for dolphins, turtles, dugongs…
The whale sharks, the world’s largest fish, can reach up to 18 metres in length fully grown, but more commonly, they are between 4 and 12 metres long in the Ningaloo Reef. A 12 metre whale shark may weigh as much as 11 tonnes and have a mouth more than a metre wide. Extraordinary!
There are strict rules for swimming with these gentle giants, such as: absolutely no contact is to be made with the creature; do not swim any closer than 3 metres from the head or body or 4 metres from the tail; no flash photography; and only ten people in the water at a time with one whale shark.
Initially when we plunged into the water to swim with our first whale shark, I was very apprehensive and a little afraid. Upon seeing the massive creature swim towards me I panicked and started to swim away as far as I could, worrying about retaining the 3 metre proximity. Once we divided into two groups on either side of the beast, we swam serenely beside it and starting noticing the majesty of its appearance and unique spotted pattern.
It was a unique experience to swim alongside these sublime creatures and view a myriad of other marine life such as turtles, dolphins, minky whales, sharks, manta rays and coral reef fish.
It wasn’t only a day full of fun and adventure, but from an educational point of view it provided great information on the marine life in the Ningaloo Marine Park and how scientists are integral to ongoing research and conservation of the area.
I felt privileged to be able to swim with these magnificent animals and found it to be an exhilarating and truly memorable experience. Definitely one to tell the grandkids about!
Kathy was a 50 something year old when she started up this blog 6 years ago, but has since turned over another decade and is now in her early 60s. She is married with two adult children and lives on the Tweed Coast of New South Wales, Australia. Kathy enjoys living life to the fullest and loves to keep fit and active by maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly. Some of her interests include reading, photography, travelling, cooking and blogging! Kathy works part-time as a freelance writer but her real passion is travelling and photographing brilliant destinations both within Australia and overseas and writing about it.
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Red Nomad OZMarch 27, 2015
Sadly, we were too late for whale shark season when we got to Exmouth – but it looks like a wonderful experience! Exmouth’s two national parks – Ningaloo and Cape Range – are so different, and both so awesome! Can’t wait to go back sometime!
KathyMarch 27, 2015
Yes we would love to go back to Exmouth. We spent about 10 days here camped at a station, turned into a caravan park, just outside of the Cape Range NP. Next time we would love to camp in the National Park. My husband caught some good fish off the beaches here as well and our neighbour caught squid which we cooked fresh – absolutely delicious! The swim with the Whale Sharks was a fabulous experience.
Michelle Weaver (@pinkypoinker)March 27, 2015
“I was very apprehensive and a little afraid. Upon seeing the massive creature swim towards me I panicked and started to swim away as far as I could, worrying about retaining the 3 metre proximity.” Are you kidding me? I would have been petrified! It looks like an amazing experience and I wish I wasn’t such a cowardly custard. I would look at them from a glass bottomed boat maybe. I’m full of admiration for you Kathy :)
KathyMarch 27, 2015
Thank you Pinky. I was very brave to do this as I am not that confident in the sea. Just after we had been swimming with these giants we saw a big Tiger Shark in the shallows of the inner reef and it got me thinking what if I was in the water with him? I would have absolutely sh*t myself! The Whale Sharks are pretty harmless but there are some other more dangerous creatures lurking in the waters. It was an unforgettable experience.
SusieMarch 28, 2015
This looks amazing and super scary! So brave!
KathyMarch 29, 2015
Hi Susie, yes it was a little scary initially, but once you got used to swimming alongside these gentle giants it was rather relaxing. They are such majestic creatures. Thank you for dropping by my blog :)
malaysianmeandersMarch 31, 2015
What an amazing adventure. You are so brave. I know that whale sharks are large but harmless, yet I’d still be quite nervous being in the water with them. The photos you took are wonderful. Is that a floppy blue starfish in one of them? Thanks for letting me enjoy this vicariously through you.
KathyMarch 31, 2015
It was an amazing adventure and one that will be with me for a long time. We saw so much awesome marine life on the Ningaloo Reef. Yes I do believe that is was a floppy blue starfish in the photo. Such a vivid colour. I’m glad you enjoyed my story :)
Life Images by JillMarch 31, 2015
what an amazing experience to have Kathy. I think I would have been a little apprehensive and afraid too as I am not a confident snorkeler.. I would dearly liked to have my husband do this tour last time we were in Coral Bay. Perhaps I need to put this on the top of our list when we go there next year. Thanks for the post.
KathyMarch 31, 2015
I think you should definitely put this on your bucket list Jill. It was an amazing experience. The snorkelling was not at all difficult because the Whale Sharks swim close to the surface. :)
NancieApril 1, 2015
Hi Kathy! What a fantastic experience. I’ve done some snorkeling in Thailand and Malaysia and there’s nothing like being in the water with these gorgeous creatures. I would love to add Australia to my snorkeling list!
KathyApril 2, 2015
It was a once in a lifetime experience for sure! You would enjoy snorkelling in Australia. We have some of the best ocean marine parks teaming with marine life, in the world.
travelgalcindyApril 2, 2015
wow! what a cool experience. great photos too. . . my underwater ones are never that good :-(
KathyApril 2, 2015
Thank you Cindy. One or two of these photos were taken by a professional photographer onboard the cruise, which we purchased off him, but otherwise we just had a normal waterproof camera. The water visibility is very good on the Ningaloo Reef as it is a fairly pristine environment. Hope to check out your blog. Thanks for dropping by :)
BonnyJuly 20, 2015
Hi Kathy, I love how you’ve described the experience of swimming with whale sharks in this article. I swam with them on a tour out of Coral Bay back in 2011. We were lucky to swim with several different sharks but it was a day with high swells and lots of people got seasick (not me, luckily). Although it’s an experience I’ll never forget I’d like to go again sometime – just wish it was a bit cheaper!!
kathymarrisJuly 20, 2015
Hi Bonny, sorry for delay in responding to your comment. I must have missed this one! Also thank you for featuring my story on your Facebook page. It was an experience of a lifetime albeit an expensive one! I get horribly seasick but was fortunate to have fairly favourable conditions on the day we went out on the reef.