Bonnie swimming with a whale shark along the Ningaloo reef

Swimming with Whale Sharks In Ningaloo Reef

I slid off the back of the boat and into the deep blue ocean water. During the first few moments as I plunged beneath the surface only the bubbles from my descent were visible. When they cleared I saw a large shape in front of me. Within seconds a mouth as wide as the length of my arm appeared. Swimming directly towards me was the creature I came here to see. 

Turning to my side I began to gently paddle my fins to push me just out of the direct path of the whale shark. I slid aside looking at his tiny eye and moving out of the way of his fins. He glided through the water while I re-positioned and began to swim beside him doing my best to keep up with this gentle giant, the biggest fish in the ocean. 

Note: The biggest animal in the world is the blue whale, but they are marine mammals not fish.

A whale shark just tasting the water
Photo credit to Chiara Bussini.

Keeping the Whale Sharks free and wild

I have been longing for years to swim with a whale shark, but I wanted to see one in the wild. The longest a whale shark has lived in captivity is 18 years, most much shorter than that. In the wild, they can live up to 130 years. I don’t want to see a whale shark in a huge jar unless he is there as a rescue for rehabilitation and then be released if possible.

We considered swimming with these great creatures last year while we were in the Philippines. It is a huge tourist attraction in Oslob, Cebu. After some research however we discovered that they feed the sharks to keep them in the bay which disturbs their migration pattern. It has also been reported that the whale sharks there have multiple nicks and cuts from boats because they associate them with food. 


We read terrible reviews of the thousands of people who flock there all swimming around in the water together with a couple of whale sharks. It did not sound pleasant or healthy for the sharks. It would have been cheaper to see the whale sharks in the Philippines, but we decided to wait for a better experience.

The tail of a whale shark with a swimmer beside it
The gentle forward motion of the whale shark was a lot of work to keep up with using our tiny fins. Photo credit to Chiara Bussini.

Regard for the life of the beast -King solomon*

We chose to go with a tour in Exmouth, Western Australia because feeding is not allowed and regulations only allow 10 people around a shark at once. Whale sharks come to the Ningaloo reef to feed in the thousands between March and August.

Spotter planes scan the ocean for these gentle creatures that swim just below the surface of the water. When a shark is spotted the coordinates are given to the boat and off we go. Once the boat is near the shark ten of us along with a guide and a photographer slide off the back of the boat for a chance to swim with the largest fish in the sea. We repeated this drill a few times during the day. It really was like a drill, get ready, sit near the end of the boat and be ready to slide in as soon as the captain yelled “go!”  It was exhausting and it was worth every moment.

We try to stay away from the whale shark’s face and behind the pectoral fin so that we do not disturb him. Sometimes though, as what happened on one of my swims, he changes directions and heads right towards one of us. It is a beautiful experience.

Jellyfish
There were lots of these beautiful jellyfish below the whale sharks. Photo credit to Chiara Bussini.

Whale Shark

A whale shark swims with their mouth partly open to taste the water as it glides through the ocean. When they taste plankton in the water they open their mouths wide taking in literally tons of water and tiny plankton. Filters along their gills catch the plankton but allow the water to continue to flow through. Once the gills are full the whale shark swallows the plankton.

A juvenile will consume 46 lbs (21 kg) of plankton per day.

Plastic in the ocean is a problem. Plastic easily enters the large open mouth of a whale shark and is swallowed along with real food. The problem with plastic is that it remains in the stomach signaling to the whale shark that it is full. If the whale shark takes in too much plastic it can essentially starve to death.

Sting Ray, fish, and coral
Sting ray just hanging out under the coral. Photo credit to Chiara Bussini.

Ningaloo Reef

The Ningaloo reef is 162 miles (160 km) long. It is the only large reef positioned very close to a landmass which makes it possible to snorkel over the reef right from the beach. In a country with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, this certainly ranks high in the fun factor for us.

We spent a few days snorkeling from various beaches in the Cape Range National Park adjacent to Ningaloo reef. It felt like we were swimming in a large aquarium. The number and variety of fish were amazing. Within a few feet of the shore large white fish of multiple variety began to swim around us. They matched the color of the sand. The closer we got to the reef the more colorful the fish.

large clam with blue stripes
Large clam along the Ningaloo reef. Photo credit to Chiara Bussini.

Look, a shark!

As we walked along one beach Trin spotted a couple sharks. 

“Look!” He yelled excitedly. Then he threw on his mask and ran into the water swimming towards them to see them closer. They were small reef sharks, fairly harmless and shy. They quickly swam away.

We saw a variety of boxfish, one of them the tiniest little yellow box with black polka dots. It was so adorable. We saw rays, turtles, sea cucumbers, play-doh colored fish, round fish, fish like long needles, colorful box fish so many more that I can’t even identify. 

One of my favorites was the banded sweep, a white triangular fish with black stripes. They seemed curious about us. The banded sweep about five inches in diameter swam all around us and then looked directly into our mask as if to say, “who the heck are you?”

After snorkeling multiple sites we camped in the Osprey campground. 

Two cuttlefish hiding under a coral ledge in Osprey beach
Two cuttlefish under a coral ledge just off the beach from our campsite on Osprey beach.

Cuttlefish

We planned to spend the following day hiking the canyons within the Cape Range NP. But then the camp host told us about the cuttlefish living under one of the coral ridges on the beach right next to our campsite. We would have to go in a low tide to see them which was early the next morning.

We put off hiking for a few hours, donned our wetsuits and jumped into the ocean first thing in the morning in pursuit of cuttlefish. The cuttlefish are shy and can change colors to match their surroundings so they can be difficult to find. 

Finally, under a corral ledge, we found three cuttlefish. They look like prehistoric creatures. It was exciting to hang out in the water a while diving down to observe these beautiful, intelligent invertebrates. 

Cape Range National Park along the knife edge ridge.
Knife edge road looking down into shot hole canyon in Cape Range National Park

Cape Range National Park

The North West Cape Peninsula which encompasses the Cape Range National Park has an uplifted plateau along the ridge of the peninsula. This ridge in the center of the peninsula contains rugged limestone gorges.

After swimming with the cuttlefish we hiked through Mandu Mandu Gorge and Yardie Creek Gorge. Rock wallabies (they look like small, dark grey kangaroos) hopped along the cliff edges.

Bonnie snorkeling above the Ningaloo reef
Swimming above the Ningaloo reef was like being in an aquarium. Photo credit to Chiara Bussini.

Large Filters

It feels a little surreal to be traveling again while we watch and read about the chaos in other parts of the world. We are incredibly grateful to be here in Western Australia where community spread of COVID-19 has mostly been eliminated. Travel is encouraged to help businesses that rely on tourism. No one here wears masks. We practice social distancing, but the masks are somewhat pointless with the spread already being contained and the borders closed.

The amount of information spreading across the internet with vastly differing conclusions and suggestions, the blame, the hate, its insanity. Exponent, one of my favorite podcasts, recently discussed the overload of information available on the internet and how so much of it is false, yet the truth is also there. The truth is like tiny plankton in a sea of salty water. We just need good filters that are maintained by discernment and listening. 

Maybe the opportunity this week is about setting good filters on our social feeds. Personally, I love to have many different viewpoints in my feed, but I eliminate the hate-filled ones. Hate is like plastic. Pollution in the gills of a whale shark sending the wrong signal and eventually killing the whale shark by starvation from good food. Hating an entire population based on race, voting preference, or any other individual aspect is blinding. It keeps us from listening to the opposition and actually learning.

We all laugh, we all cry. Most of us want a better world but have different ideas on how to accomplish it.  “Love thy neighbor” is the greatest opportunity in the world.

*King Solomon, said to be the wisest man who ever lived, talked about how important it is to care for animals in his Proverbs.

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3 thoughts on “Swimming with Whale Sharks In Ningaloo Reef”

  1. Love, love, love this blog. There is just something absolutely peaceful about the ocean. I felt like I was swimming right there with you

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