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
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 shark. 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.

Whale Shark Ningaloo Reef Australia
Whale Shark Ningaloo Reef Australia

Into the water for our first spotting

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 of 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
Whale Shark Ningaloo Reef Australia

Swimming with whale sharks five times over the day

(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 look as though they are barely moving,

an occasional small flick of their huge tails keeps them going, but we have to swim our hearts out to try and keep alongside them. No-one manages to stay with them for more than a couple of minutes. I have my cheap underwater camera and every time I try and line up a photo I fall further behind the shark and have to chase. My photos are blurry and unfocussed, (my shaking arms?) but my memories are unforgettable, 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.

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.

Relaxing on the trip back in in the evening, after 5 whale shark swims
Relaxing on the trip back in in the evening, after 5 whale shark swims

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.