“They only reach speeds of three miles an hour. Not fast, in the scheme of things,” says marine biologist guide Natalie Yeates. In the scheme of things, perhaps. But, when a creature about the length of a double-decker bus swims straight towards you, three miles an hour feels pretty zippy.
“Remember to swim once you’re in the water,” Natalie adds, addressing our group of 10. Like a wet-suited queue of lemmings, snorkels in mouths we wait to slip off our boat in Australia’s Ningaloo Reef. “It sounds daft, but some people forget to move; these fish don’t hang around.”
Bobbing atop the Indian Ocean feels a long way from Exmouth, the frontier-feel town we left an hour ago. About 800 miles north of Perth, it’s a place where bohemian souls settle, and emus outnumber cars on its dusty roads. A tiny tender has whizzed us to a 40ft vessel at sea, crewed by Natalie and three more of the Live Ningaloo team.
Calm sapphire waves turn slate grey as clouds sweep across the sky, and we wait on tenterhooks. Waiting for a whale shark is a bit like waiting for a bus; you never know if, or when, it’ll show up. The air, however, is fogged with anticipation rather than the lethargic lull prior to the arrival of the 210 to Finsbury Park.
Here, beneath the surface, lie wonders; Australia’s largest fringing reef, a biodiverse UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to no less than 400 types of coral and explosions of psychedelic-hued fish. Ninagloo’s remote location means it’s under-the-radar compared to the Great Barrier Reef. The schlep is worth it though, to see marine megafauna royalty — the whale sharks (sharks, not whales) — which roam here between April and September.
Despite their gargantuan size (up to 40ft, weighing up to 21 tonnes) and gaping jaws, whale sharks are docile filter feeders, and today we’ll snorkel with them in the wild, if any show up.
First; safety. Rules and regulations: no touching, no flash photography, at most 10 swimmers in the water keeping at least 10ft from the whale shark’s head and 13ft from its tail. Some whale shark ‘experiences’ are less scrupulously regulated, leading to overcrowded waters and distressed animals. A capped number of permits and strict rules mean Ningaloo is a shining example of responsible whale shark tourism.
Above, a spotter plane whirrs. Its pilot is on the lookout for shark-y silhouettes, sharing real-time insight with our captain, Murray, so he can position the boat — at a safe distance — to coincide with passing sharks. Suddenly, Natalie is in the water, giving hand signals to indicate the shark’s trajectory, and the formation we’ll take. In we go, thrusting our masks under the water. Cruising past is a hulking great 26ft whale shark, oscillating from side to side, its deep blue skin a riot of spots and stripes. Its vast caudal fin swishes like the tail of an aquatic Labrador.
I freeze. I’ve seen manta rays in Indonesia, and swum in tornadoes of jackfish in Borneo, but nothing feels as exhilarating as this. “Swim!” Natalie screeches at me as my head pops above water. A hasty front crawl and I catch our starfish-shaped convoy. Arms cut into water — murky with the microscopic plankton, which the sharks feast on — and fin-clad feet kick hard. With each flick of the whale shark’s tail a current reverberates through the water, its force is astonishing. About 20 minutes later, heart booming like a bass drum, with a stitch, I’ve swallowed three margaritas’ worth of salt. I climb back on the boat. Running on adrenaline, 10 minutes later we line up again. The bus gods are on our side; some days none come, on others, they all show up at once.