By Anna Powell (University of Melbourne, Australia)
During the Easter break I was lucky to have my parents visiting Australia. After a very stressful few weeks of deadlines, my mum, dad, sister, boyfriend and I flew out to Western Australia to enjoy two weeks of snorkelling on one of the most spectacular coral reefs on the planet, Ningaloo.
After a 6 hour flight (Australia is so big!) we arrived at the smallest airport I’ve ever been to, Learmonth, near Exmouth. Apart from boasting the new addition of a cafe, it was literally a room with arrivals at one end and departures at the other. We hired a car and made our way across the baked landscape to the town of Exmouth, one of the very few settlements in that part of Western Australia. Its population is about 2000 and the place relies heavily on tourism.
We spent our days in Exmouth exploring the almost deserted coastline; the snorkelling was really incredible. We couldn’t believe that all it took was to wade out a few meters and dive down and you’d find yourself surrounded by colourful fish darting around impressive coral formations, as well the occasional sea turtle or stingray. My dad reckoned he saw a small shark too, but I wasn’t too jealous of that!
As well as Exmouth we stayed in Coral Bay, and this is where I did encounter a shark, in fact the biggest of all sharks, the whale shark. The Ningaloo Reef is lucky enough to be the home of migrating whale sharks; an opportunity we were not willing to miss. The day we went whale sharking was undoubtedly the best day of our whole trip and an experience I’ll remember forever. However, it didn’t go as smoothly as we had hoped!
The day of our trip was extremely rough day at sea. Despite glorious blue skies, the sea was choppy and churning from a huge swell, which meant spotting a whale shark was extremely difficult for the airborne spotter pilot (a guy in a plane covering vast distances to locate whale sharks and then direct boats like ours to their location). Despite the tricky conditions, an hour or so into our voyage we received word from the pilot that a whale shark had been spotted. Whilst racing across the ocean, our group were eagerly trying to get ready for our dive – not easy on a boat rolling from side to side whilst 20 people are frantically trying to put on flippers, dunk their snorkel masks in anti-fog solution, sit on the deck and recall all the instructions we’d been given: ”How many meters do I have to be away from the shark? What did they say the distress signal was again?…”
Once we were ready we had to sit and wait on the deck. Another group had beaten us to it and were already swimming with the shark. We sat and waited and waited and waited. After quite a while of patiently sitting in our snorkel masks, the group became a little restless. Eventually, our crew informed us that the whale shark had dived. We’d been waiting for it to resurface but unfortunately, it didn’t look like it was going to be back anytime soon. Disheartened, we peeled off our snorkel masks and wetsuits and instead of jumping into the water to swim with an ocean giant as anticipated, lunch was served. We were encouraged not to lose hope, but as the day wore on and the tally of sea-sickness sufferers grew ever larger, the positive mood on the boat dwindled. Our crew tried in earnest to keep the positive feeling going, but as the end of the day neared, the chances of us seeing a whale shark became quite unlikely.
It was just as we were about to return to land that we got a call from the spotter pilot. Unbelievably, he’d been on his way back to land when he’d spotted another whale shark, however, due to flying for hours on end, he’d run out of fuel and so had no choice but to land. Thankfully, he’d had just enough time to tell our crew the location. Before we knew it we were again racing across the ocean at full pelt whilst clambering around, getting ready to enter the water. Until this point I’d been flat out on the floor of the boat trying to fight the inevitable waves of nausea that come with spending an entire day on a rocky ocean. With news of the sighting however, I, like the rest of the group, was eager to be ready in time. It wasn’t long before we came to a halt and were receiving urgent instructions on what we needed to do in the moments that would follow. We were lined at the back of the boat, one of the crew members jumped in to locate the shark and then signalled for us to join her.
Because of the choppy sea, as I stood close to the edge and was instructed to jump in, it was a big drop into the water and when I hit it, it took a while to compose myself and find the group. As I turned to see them swimming away from me I saw it. I couldn’t help an “oh god” escape through my snorkel. The whale shark was 5 metres long (actually quite a small one, they can be 12 metres!) and it was swimming towards me with its famous mouth stretched into a wide oval.
Before I knew it we were hauling ourselves onto the boat gasping for air. I was surprised at how tiring it was to keep up! Luckily that wasn’t it, and we were able to do another 3 dives with the shark. It was incredible being in the huge swell of the ocean with the creature. If I popped my head above the water I was surrounded by towering waves and could just about see a huge dorsal fin slicing through them ahead of me; amazing! A very memorable moment was when I was waiting to get back onto the boat when a shadow beneath me caught my attention. Another, unidentifiable shark was swimming at a greater depth. I shouted in shock, “There’s another shark!!” and was promptly directed to get out of the water and calm down. I later found out that despite rarely attacking humans, unlike the whale whark this shark, a bronze whaler, is regarded as dangerous. I’d been so absorbed by the whale shark I’d had no idea we had other company!
After our final dive we headed back to land just as the sun was setting, a very happy group. I couldn’t believe that half an hour before I’d been in the open ocean with a giant. It was truly incredible. I would recommend the experience to anyone. Although expensive (around $400), it was 100% worth it and already I want to do it again, but when, I don’t know!