Swimming with whale sharks – the 2nd best thing I have done while travelling (so far)

three, two, one, go…and ten of us slip off the back of the boat into the water and follow our spotter – on her signal we try form ourselves into two lines of five, facing each other, ten metres apart, snorkels and fins on. My heart is pounding out of my chest. Somewhere, really close by, there is a 4-5 m whale shark, just below the surface of the ocean. We know this because a spotter plane has directed us to this exact spot – the whale shark is a couple of metres below the surface, so a plane in the air can see it but we can’t. The plane directs us to a drop-in spot in front of the whale shark’s path, the boat drops us and then moves a few hundred metres away, and we form our two lines, hoping the whale shark is going to swim between our honour parade! Our spotter is ahead of us in the water, she raises her arm when she can see the shark, and directs us to the right spot.
Whale Shark Ningaloo Reef Australia

Where am I and how did I get here?

I am offshore from Ningaloo reef, an amazing (and relatively deserted) coral reef off the west coast of Australia. Between April and June each year, whale sharks pass through to feast on the coral spawning, and some of them come near the surface, enabling us to observe the world’s largest (and possibly shyist) fish, the planet’s largest shark (but luckily for me its a plankton eater, not a meat eater!). It is a shark, not a whale, and is so named because of it’s immense size – between 3 to 12 metres long, with a wide, flat, spotted body. It is possible to swim with the whale sharks here, in a manner designed to minimise the impact on the whale sharks, to ensure we do not affect their patterns and habits. There are a handful of licenced operators who operate out of Exmouth, WA, and who are only allowed to let 10 people at a time into the water with a whale shark.

There are twenty on our boat and I am in the water with the first ten on our first spotting of the day.

Although this is at Ningaloo reef, this is on the deep water, open ocean side of the reef, and my adrenalin is up. We attempt to form our orderly two lines of five, then our spotter starts shouting “move back, move back”. This means “you are too close to the whale shark, back paddle fast!” I start back paddling, all ten off us are going in different directions, no-one is sure what is happening, so I decide it is time to put my head under the surface and see what is happening. I duck down and my heart stops – about 3 metres under me, and rising, is a teenage whale shark of about 4-5 metres, with a mouth about 2 metres wide, open, showing its three rows of teeth, heading straight for me. I gasp, someone grabs my foot and hauls me backwards through the water, the most beautiful and elegant fish I have ever seen underwater slides past me, and I surface into a maelstorm of snorkelers trying to swim after the whale shark. I put my head back under but I have missed the moment, the whale shark is effortlessly moving away from me into the murk. We signal to our boat and wait for it to move back in and pick us up.
Whale Shark Ningaloo Reef Australia

Over the course of the day we get to swim with five whale sharks

(we think it is either two or three different sharks, surfacing more than once, but it is hard to be sure). After the chaos of our first swim, we get the hang of it, although no-one has ever told the whale sharks that they are supposed to swim between our neat line of snorkelers, so there is still a bit of improvisation, but we adapt more quickly, and each time we manage to watch the whale shark swim between us, and we turn and swim with it as long as we can.

The whale sharks typically look as though they are barely moving,

an occasional small flick of their huge tails, but we have to swim our hearts out to try and keep alongside them, and no-one manages to stay with them for more than a couple of minutes. I have my underwater camera and often drop off behind the shark as I pause for a couple of seconds to try and focus for a photo, and then find myself chasing it from behind. My photos are blurry and unfocussed, (my shaking arms?) but are wonderfully superseded by my memories of sharing the underwater with this most beautiful fish. From the front it is very wide and flat, it looks tranquil and friendly as it opens it’s mouth wide, sucking in the ocean and using its three massive rows of teeth to separate plankton from sea water.
Whale Shark Ningaloo Reef Australia

I’m not sure I can really describe what it was like, for me, to swim with a whale shark,

but I am going to try – I apologise in advance if I fall into hyperbole. I float on the surface of the ocean, peering through murky water, which just fades into a dark depth, wondering if I will actually see anything. Then a shape starts to form a few metres down and drifts ever closer. From the front it is looks slightly cartoon-like, wide and smiley and harmless – but big! So much bigger than me, and it’s a beautiful blue/grey with an intricate pattern of white spots. As it’s head passes and I start to notice the body, it morphs into pure shark. The body is fluted and strong and streamlined, and as I fall behind, the view of the tail and body spells shark, upsized for Hollywood. It looks like it is barely moving, occasionally it twitches a muscle which moves it’s tail a few inches in a slow flick, but it is pure muscle and sinew, and the tiniest lazy movement torpedoes it through the ocean. I am not conscious of swimming as fast and far as I can, I only feel the rythm of my breath through the snorkel and an overwhelming sense of peace and beauty, I cannot take my eyes off this animal. It made me feel like I am dreaming of flying, but underwater.

After five swims for the day, we are all on an adrenaline high,

and the long trip back to shore, in bright evening sunlight, is euphoric. Even the crew telling us how they once, by mistake, dropped a group of ten in front of a tiger shark instead of a whale shark, is not going to dent our enthusiasm. For me it had an immediate impact beyond the experience itself, it made me question what I was doing with my life, made me admit that the job I once loved I now hated, and lead me down a path where I changed jobs within a few months and reclaimed the “me” I used to be – the one who was enjoying her life! I can’t guarantee it will have that impact on you, but I can highly recommend it as a unique and mesmerising experience.

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  1. I took my family (wife and kids ages 7 and 13) on a swim with whale sharks tour from the Cancun ferry terminal Puerto Juarez, and it was a truly moving experience. The trip included a swim with whale sharks and a guided tour of a coral reef. We saw whale sharks, sea turtle, manta rays and thousands of brightly colored tropical fish.

    There are a lot of tour operators out there, but make absolutely sure that whichever company you choose, that they have a valid license. They should always display the number on their website! We also made sure to go with a company that had modern dual engine boast, as well as insurance boats in case of emergency.

    The operator we chose was:
    http://www.swimwithwhalesharks.com

    We were picked us up in Playa Del Carmen for only $10 extra per person, provided food and beverages and had us back at our resort by 2:45 pm. After doing a lot of research, I realized that there are many companies that pick people up in Cancun, but the tour would actually take place at Isla Holbox which is several hours away. The tours may be a little cheaper but it definitely made more sense to take this tour as a 1/2 day, allowing us to be able to spend the rest of the day at our beautiful resort, instead of on the road.

    Happy Travels,
    George Marquez