It’s difficult to know what provides the bigger shock — the size or the clarity. We gracelessly leapt into the water a few seconds ago, snorkels taking in water and fins flapping shambolically to get into position. Latitude 22’s skipper had picked the spot deliberately, knowing what was coming. But we were struggling to see it. Were we in the wrong spot? Is it too deep and obscured to make out?
But then the whale shark comes into view. Hearts race, eyes pop, senses of wonder are brought galloping into life. It’s on its own, gently gliding through the most preposterously perfect deep blue, in a scene that looks like it’s been put together via several painstaking hours on Photoshop.
It’s the mouth we see first — an elongated postbox slot of a thing designed to hoover up plankton with the utmost efficiency. Then comes the rest — and there’s a lot of ‘rest’ to come. It’s four to five metres long, covered in white spots and weighs several tonnes. And it’s more than happy to nonchalantly breeze past gawping snorkelers.
By whale shark standards, it is a relative tiddler. They grow up to 12 metres long, making them easily the largest fish in the world. But despite being so big, we know surprisingly little about them. Those that show up at the Ningaloo Reef, just off the coast of Western Australia, tend to be juvenile males. They arrive for a few months after the full moon in March, which is when the reef’s coral spawns. Plankton is attracted by this all-you-can-eat buffet, which in turn provides a feast for the whale sharks.
Where they are for the rest of the year nobody really knows. Attempts have been made to tag them, but the tags haven’t been able to cope with the depths the sharks dive to. One theory is that the females stay in the deeper, safer water to raise their calves, but it’s all guesswork.
On the second leap into the water, visibility is less good. But that’s because the plankton is speckling the ocean like stars in a weirdly blue sky. Another shark makes a good attempt at clearing things up, coasting through with its mouth agape. Its gills flare as it passes, a sure sign of feeding activity. Its tail wafts sinuously and seemingly effortlessly from side to side, the propulsion unit of the gentlest of giants. The fear factor is zero — these are not the sharp-toothed monsters usually conjured up when the mind processes the word ‘shark’.
This time, though, we’re not going to just let it go past. The flippers kick into gear and we follow. It is travelling slowly, the whale shark equivalent of mooching pace. But there’s an optical illusion of travelling at speed, as the swells wash overhead and the plankton is carried by the current. It feels like a high-velocity chase, when it’s nothing of the sort. We keep a respectful three- to four-metre distance, but everything is relative, and when swimming alongside something so huge, it seems like we’re practically riding it.
Eventually it dives down where we can no longer follow. But there’s news when we return to the boat. “We’ve got two circling each other.” No further exhortation is needed; we’re going back in…