Whale sharks appear every year at Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, one of the most pristine and important coral reef systems in the world
How can you not want to go somewhere called Ningaloo Reef?
I first heard about this irresistably named place reading my Lonely Planet Australia in rainy England while I was preparing to go backpacking around Oz in 2003. Just saying the word brought a smile to my face. It was also the first time I’d heard about whale sharks, the biggest fish in the world, gentle giants who feed on krill and come to Ningaloo Reef every year between April and June to feed on the coral spawning there. When I read about the whale sharks, I just knew I had to go to Ningaloo.
Easier said than done. Ningaloo Reef is located in one of the most remote places in Australia – half way up the Western Australian coast, over a 1000 miles away from Perth, itself the most remote capital city in the world. (It’s the capital of the state, not the country). Getting to Perth is a five hour plane trip just from Sydney, and then getting to Exmouth, the tiny town nearest to Ningaloo, is another hour or so in a small plane or a three day bus trip up the coast, stopping off at other places of interest along the way. (There’s a great company called Easy Riders who run these buses who I’d thoroughly recommend). Whichever way you cut it, you’re going to spending considerable effort to get there.
Once you do arrive in Exmouth, it can be quite a system shock. It’s the archetypal one-horse town. There’s two pubs, both owned by the same guy, and their opening days alternate. There’s a supermarket and couple of shops. There’s a burger van on some nights who do cracking burgers. There’s a few hotels. And that’s about it. There were plans to build a huge marina project but the locals got it stopped, concerned about the environmental impact. I remember overhearing a classic conversation between a tourist and a resident:
“So where’s the town centre?”
“You’re standing in it, mate”.
Exmouth is perched on the edge of the vast West Australian desert, looking out into the Gulf Of Exmouth. The sky is perpetually vast and blue, the sun baking the red brown earth below which stretches out in a unbroken flat plain to meet it at the horizon. The town itself has a temporary feel, like everything has been cobbled together and could be taken down and removed overnight – maybe a legacy of most of Exmouth being flattened by a typhoon a few years ago. If you want to live out the cliche of feeling very small in the vastness of the desert, this is the place to do it. The desert and the sky are so huge they make not only you but the town around you feel like an imposition. As Nick Cave recently said in an interview, “”We kind of cling to the edges of the country and build our houses facing out to the sea. We don’t want to know about that huge, vast, mysterious, terrifying expanse that is the middle of Australia.”
Diving on Ningaloo Reef
Underwater, the barreness of the desert gives away to an overwhelming panoply of marine life. The waters around Ningaloo Reef are gin clear, with 20 metre visibility letting you drop in and see swathes of pristine coral reef stretching away beneath you. Reef sharks lazily hang around on the sandy bottom, turtles slowly munch coral, octopus pop in and out of their hidey-holes, great clouds of fish flit around out in the blue… it’s truly breathtaking. The dives are all fairly shallow as well, no more than 18 metres and there’s little current – in short, there’s little to distract you from looking at the amazing life on the reef. It’s easy to get in and out to the dive sites too – generally it’s less than 20 minutes in a small rib to get out to them from the shore.
Exmouth Navy Pier dive
Besides the reefs themselves, there’s also the fabled Exmouth Navy Pier dive, rated as one of the best dives in Australia and maybe the world. There’s certainly a lot of life amongst the girders of the Navy Pier, but on the two dives I did there, it was pretty murky viz and the amount of other dives in the water made me feel a bit claustrophobic. You may see more species per cubic inch here, but I much prefer the wide open space of the reef itself. The Pier dive is one of those dives you simply have to do if you come to Exmouth because you hear so much about it – everyone else seemed to find a lot more exciting than me. For my money, I much preferred my dive under Busselton Jetty, further down the Western Australian coast.
Ningaloo Reef is not as big as the Great Barrier Reef over on the east coast of Australia – but at 280 kilometres long, Ningaloo is one of the largest and most significant coral eco systems in the world. It’s also still one of the most pristine coral reefs in the world, which is why it still attracts the star attraction of Ningaloo – the whale sharks.
Whale Sharks at Ningaloo Reef
There are only a couple of dive operations in Exmouth, but they both operate whale shark expeditions in the same way. They use spotter planes to find the whale sharks as they come in to the reef and then send the diveboat after them. They are so confident they can find the sharks that they will take you on a second trip for free if they don’t find one the first time. Australia has a strict policy about “interacting” with whale sharks – no more than 8 people in the water at a time with whale shark, no touching, keep out of its way…and no scuba diving either. You’re only allowed to snorkel with whale sharks on these expeditions.
Of course, if you are scuba diving on the reef and a whale shark turns up while you’re there, then no one can do anything about that. But scuba diving is not allowed with these spotting expeditions, and it’s a good rule in my book. I can imagine the chaos of 8 divers jumping in to go see the whale shark – not only would the poor thing be frightened to death by being crowded, divers themselves could get a bit carried away and not watch their depth and air.
Besides, snorkelling is quite enough with whale sharks. When I went out on an expedition, we saw two sharks – the divemaster goes in first and everyone follows once she’s positioned herself so the group doesn’t slam into the whale shark itself. What happens next is just spectacular. Dip your head under the water with the mask and snorkel, realise the viz is easily 30 metres, look around…and there it is, the biggest fish in the world, moving slowly and with consumate grace through the water with a whole entourage of cleaner fish…straight towards you. It really is like watching a Star Destroyer move through the blue – the sense of space and the sheer size of this creature is mesmerising. As it gets closer, you realise that a) it’s actually moving quite fast and b) it’s really bloody big. Six metres long easily. Six metres! Three times my height!
The whale shark continued to unconcernedly come straight at us – they’re renown for being curious about other creatures in the water, but despite their size, they are easily scared off. Our group frantically finned backwards so the shark could pass between two clusters of us – it passed straight through us, its huge, powerful tail less than a metre away from me. If I’d wanted to, I could have reach out and touched it. The group tentatively paddled with the whale shark as it moved along the surface for a few minutes, getting faster and leaving most of us straggling behind. Then it was gone. I could see it disappearing into the depths when I put my mask back into the water. The whole encounter for which I’d travelled half way around the world lasted no more than 10 minutes. And I felt absolutely elated.
Snorkelling back to the boat which was a couple hundred yards away, I suddenly realised we weren’t alone in the water. Looking down, there were two large grey shapes about 20 metres below us. It turned out they were minke whales, gliding together seemingly without being bothered by us splashing around above. At the time, I didn’t know they were minke whales, so my first thought was not “I am privileged once again to witness these amazing creatures in their natural habitat”, but more “What the fuck is that?” I’d been told tales by the divemasters the night before that every so often the spotter plane gets it wrong and the big shape in the water below to which the expedition boat is directed turns out to not be a whale shark but actually the far more aggressive tiger shark. Hence why the DMs jump in first to check before the customers get in. Which seems wholly reasonable to me.
Whale Sharks In Danger?
Joking aside, my trip to Ningaloo really caught my imagination. I’ve subsequently become fascinated by whale sharks and read up quite a lot about them as well as enjoying a couple more magical encounters with them in Thailand. (See my posts about Geoff Taylor’s amazing book Whale Sharks: The Giants Of Ningaloo Reef; The Best Places To See Whale Sharks in Thailand; and my article about diving off Koh Lanta, where I saw a whale shark and five manta rays in one dive).
Going to Exmouth also opened my eyes to the burgeoning ecological and pollution problems that have to be constantly battled to try and keep the oceans in a decent state. While I was in the town there was a big protest movement, which was ultimately successful, to stop the development of a marina in the town, because Exmouth and the reef just couldn’t cope with such an influx of visitors. I think these issues are always complex – but it’s important to get involved and try and understand them and to speak up about the damage being done to the oceans – not in a preachy way, but simply to let people know, because it still remains largely out of sight and so out of mind.
There’s a lot of concern about the popularitty of the whale shark expeditions too, and whether it’s actually good for the sharks themselves. I think it’s important to find a way to manage it so that people still get the chance to see the whale sharks in the natural habitat without causing the sharks distress – and also to use a way to fire more people’s imaginations and suggest concrete ways of how they can help and how all of our lives, whether we can see it or not, have a huge impact on the amazing world around us. The whale sharks are a real symbol of that, a creature that is harmless to humans but inspires awe, but is endangered due to overfishing and coral reef destruction. I for one want the annual arrival of the whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef to remain as the highlight of Exmouth’s yearly calendar for many years to come.