Close encounters of the mightiest kind

Bonita Grima swimming with a whaleshark.
Picture: Ocen Collective Media
Photo of Bonita Grima

A twist in the tale leads to a swim with a whale shark at Ningaloo Reef.

“When you’re in the water, soon you’re going to have to make what will probably be the most important decision of the day whether to swim left or right when the whale shark is heading straight for you.” She smiles and we all laugh but it’s good advice from our bubbly tour manager and deckhand, Jess McNair from Ningaloo Reef Dive & Snorkel.

This was meant to be a story about swimming with humpback whales. It’s mid-September, smack bang in the middle of humpback season and the mighty mammals are making their way back to Antarctica from the waters of the Kimberley. But instead, we’re about to take the plunge with a whale shark, the biggest fish in the sea, whose appearance in these parts usually only lasts until the end of July. 

“This is the same friendly juvenile we saw yesterday,” Jess says. “We’re really lucky to have this opportunity two days in a row, especially as whale sharks are not meant to still be hanging around.”

Once again, the star of the reef and the area’s biggest tourism drawcard has stolen the show. According to a recent report, the opportunity to swim with whale sharks has visitors to the North West of WA, spending more than $11 million a year for the experience.

Last year the Department of Parks and Wildlife introduced special marine mammal licences for a few local tour operators, which saw humpback whales included on the interactive experience list. Continuing the trial this year, swimmers are permitted within a controlled contact zone. For this reason, and because we thought we had missed whale shark season, we had decided to book the Humpback Whale In-Water Interaction tour and hoped that conditions allowed us to swim with them. 

Weather-wise, it was perfect: clear, blue skies, an expected top of 35C and the wind that had been around the last few days had dropped off, making for calm seas with a visibility of at least 18m.

Earlier our spotter plane had located a pair of humpbacks and it hadn’t taken long before our skipper, Simon, had us within view of them. Our group of about 15 people let out collective “ooohs” and “ahhhs” as the whales put on a show; spraying water from blowholes that went metres into the air and arching charcoal-coloured backs that glistened in the sunlight. After observing their behaviour, it was considered safe to swim and we were split into two groups of six. But as we were soon to discover, even perfect conditions don’t guarantee a successful swim.

“If you’re not a good swimmer, I suggest you pull out now. These creatures can move quickly and won’t hang around for you if they don’t want to so you need to swim as fast as you can to keep up with them,” instructed Jess.

Ready to go and lined up along the platform at the back of the boat, our group waited on the signal from Jess to enter the water. I was surprised at how involved the whole operation was. After the whale’s location was given by the skipper, Jess was to point out the direction to swim and give the cue for the team’s head swimmer to lead us into the water. Our swimmer was Rachel Nye-Chart, a young dive instructor with an infectious personality. Standing next to her on the platform, I couldn’t help but feel my excitement grow and that we were about to embark on something truly magical, as she visibly shook in anticipation and let out the odd shriek of joy, as if doing this for the first time, like the rest of us.

“Go, go, go,” yelled Jess and we all plunged into the water in pursuit of Rachel. Heads down, snorkels up, flippers flying, we tore through the water with everything we had. Shouting back on the boat made us stop and look about. Our whales had changed direction. We looked to Rachel, who changed course to swim in the new direction being pointed out to her. Before long I was questioning my fitness as I started to feel the burn and as my lungs drew hard on the snorkel for air. More shouts had us stopping again suddenly and colliding with each other in the confusion. Our whales had moved again. As we waited, snorkels came out from mouths to maximise oxygen intake. It seemed I wasn’t the only one feeling it.

Back on the boat, our spotter plane soon located another humpback. Two more swimming attempts were made with our two groups alternating turns but, again, no success. It seemed the whales just didn’t want to play and we would have to be content to just watch, which really wasn’t too disappointing as we were treated to a breathtaking display of antics, including much fin raising and tail lobbing.

But then the spotter plane radioed to report the sighting of a whale shark and a contagious surge of renewed excitement spread on board as we headed in search of it. For some, including myself, swimming with a whale shark was on the bucket list and the Ningaloo reef is the only place in Australia where the opportunity to do so exists.

“OK everyone, we can be a bit more relaxed swimming with this guy,” Jess informs us. Unlike humpbacks, whale sharks tend to cruise at a slower pace and even though strict guidelines are still in place for swimming with them, their smaller size and more predictable nature make it possible to get up closer for longer.

There’s nothing that can prepare you for the feeling you have when you catch sight of a whale shark under water for the first time. A mixture of joy, excitement, wonder and respect hits you all at once. Swimming alongside our 5m, grey and white-spotted friend truly feels like a privilege as we are in its territory and it calls the shots on how long and how close it will allow us to swim with it.

The gentle, relaxed pace means we can move about to view the shark from different perspectives, including head-on, and when it comes straight for me, I remember Jess’s advice and quickly swim right to avoid its huge gaping mouth. At one stage, it feels as if the shark is playing with us, having us swimming comically and frantically in circles to avoid it. He seems as curious about us as we are about him. After a while, though, he sinks slowly into deeper water until out of sight and we assume he must have had enough.

As we ready for departure, there is a commotion up at the bow. “He’s back,” someone shouts. Laughter and excitement erupts from everyone as we all head to the front of the boat to watch our whale shark slowly make its way back to us. The shark does a lap of the vessel before brushing up against the hull. Sitting with legs dangling over the side, it stops below us, lifting its head out of the water to peer up at us. “He still wants to play,” Jess laughs.

Interacting with these gentle giants can bring many emotions to the surface but the overriding feeling that persists long after leaving the water seems to be a sense of peace. 

We live in a world where we want everything now and when so much of life is spent rushing around, it’s nice to have the chance to go slow and to be reminded that it’s alright to do so. After all, the best things in life take time...but are always worth the wait.

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