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.

If you want the best snorkeling in Ko Phi Phi – first get yourself a diver!

Usually snorkeling and diving don’t mix in the same spot – divers want to go deep to find their beauty and snorkelers want shallow water with all the goodies close to the surface. The one exception I have found to this rule is Ko Phi Phi, a mecca for divers and snorkelers alike. In fact the keys spots are so popular for snorkelling that they are ruined by too many snorkelers– if you book a day trip then you will probably find yourself on a 50-100 person mega boat, with compulsory wearing of life jackets as many of the snorkelers cant swim. In other words, my version of snorkeling hell.

the Beach, Maya Bay, Ko Phi Phi Leh, Thailand
the Beach, Maya Bay, Ko Phi Phi Leh, Thailand

Ko Phi Phi – overcrowded snorkeling.

Dive trips are very popular too and there are many operators but most boats are taking around 8 to 12 divers, so the scale of overcrowding is nowhere near as bad. And the key dive spots are reserved for dive boats only, the snorkelers have to go to their own designated sites, mainly in shallow bays rather than around the karst chimneys.

snorkelling at Ko Bida Nok, Thailand
snorkelling at Ko Bida Nok, Thailand
So there seems to be two ways to achieve your snorkelling pleasure. The first is to rent your own long tail boat and do your own itinerary – even better if you can figure out the big boats’ timetables and arrive at the best spots when they are least likely to be there. But this can be an expensive option. Or, grab yourself a diver, and when they book their dive trip, book yourself on as the travelling buddy of the diver and then they will let you come along as a “non-diving” companion, who can then jump off the boat and go for a snorkel – for a bargain price. Good thing Travelling Sis is a diver, otherwise I would’ve had to scour the bars for a diver to accompany.

Ko Phi Phi – best snorkeling spots

One of the most common dive trips from Ko Phi Phi is a two-dive trip to Ko Bida Nok (a karst massif just south of Ko Phi Phi Leh, which itself is about 1.5 km south of Ko Phi Phi), and Malong, a section of the external karst walls of Ko Phi Phi Leh. At both these sites you are diving along these karst walls – near vertical sandstone cliffs, which means it is just as interesting on the surface for the snorkeler as it is 15m down for the diver – and I had a great view of the divers below me at times too. And of the languid turtle who swam over the heads of the divers and floated straight under me. There’s coral and huge amounts of colourful fish and anemone life close to the surface, the water temp is a languid 31 degrees, and there are usually no surface currents, especially in the morning. And I have all this to myself for nearly two hours.

snorkelling off Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
snorkelling off Ko Phi Phi, Thailand

Maya Bay – paradise wrecked

Between the two dive stops we stop off at Maya Bay on Ko Phi Phi Leh – the famous location of the filming of The Beach. It is possible that it is still a gorgeous bay, but very hard to tell through the line up of dozens of jet boats, dozens of long tails, and 3 or 4 big 100 person tourist boats, which combined with the people disgorged, makes it almost impossible to see any part of the green waters or white sand. I hear there is an overnight beach camping trip, if so, this may be the only way to experience the original beauty of this bay. Were you lucky enough to see Maya Bay before it was overrun, or have you found a great snorkeling experience from Ko Phi Phi? If so, please leave a comment.