“Whale Sharks: The Giants Of Ningaloo Reef” is a unique book by Geoff Taylor that provides an amazing photographic and text document about the whale sharks of Western Australia
This is, in every sense, a magnificent book – a hefty, oversized hardback chock full of spectacular photographs as befits its subject matter, the biggest fish in the world: the whale shark. Weighing in at several tons and measuring up to a staggering 12 metres in length, whale sharks remain an enigma to even the most expert marine scientists. Little is known about them – where they come from, where they go, how they breed – or even how many of them are still in the oceans. What is known about them is due in no small part to the book’s author Geoff Taylor, an English doctor who emigrated to Western Australia in the 1970s. Dr Taylor heard about the mysterious creatures passing by Ningaloo Reef, a vast coral reef system half way up the West Coast, over a thousand miles away from Western Australia’s capital city Perth, itself officially the most remote capital city in the world. Taylor’s fascination for finding out more about the whale sharks led him to live in Exmouth, a tiny coastal town perched next to Ningaloo surrounded by thousands of desolate square miles of the outback.
Being so close to Ningaloo and able to observe its monthly changes, Taylor realised that the whale sharks’ arrival at the reef seemed to correspond with the coral’s annual spawning – the reef’s reproductive frenzy which leaves the water thick with secreted eggs and sperm. Despite their fearsome size, whale sharks eat only plankton, hoovering in huge quantities of water through toothless mouths the size of a sofa to feed – for them, the spawning is a gastronomic delight which draws them back year after year. This realisation is straightforward enough to recount, but less than twenty years ago it was still a completely unheard of theory – and sighting whale sharks around Exmouth’s coast was still a definitively rare event.
Once the connection was made between the coral spawning and the whale sharks’ migration, word quickly spread of whale shark sightings and the beginning of the 1990s saw a flurry of film makers for the likes of National Geographic heading for Western Australia to capture footage of these amazing creatures. Taylor himself was caught up in that first wave of documenting the whale sharks and his book is a visual testament to his success in doing so. Besides capturing spectacular photos and video footage, a program of tagging the sharks was also set in place to try and learn more about them.
That the text in “Whale Sharks” is as good as the truly double-take inducing photographs gives me particular pleasure. Too often a book that has great images is lessened by will-this-do text slung in around it. What’s often forgotten is that whilst images capture the attention, words are what stimulate the imagination – they provide the context and the passion of how these photos came to exist in the first place and, in recounting just how difficult it was to take photos of the whale shark in its natural habitat, provide a unique insight into man’s discovery, interaction and, some would argue, exploitation of these creatures.
Go to Exmouth now, 15 years on, and you’ll find a burgeoning whale shark industry – spotter planes go out every morning to locate the whale sharks and radio their position to boats full of eager snorkellers. So popular has swimming with whale sharks become that the Australian authorities have imposed thoughtful and strictly enforced limits on human encounters with them: no more than 8 people in the water at a time, no touching and no scuba diving around them. Even so, there are concerns about the whale sharks and the state of aquatic life in general around Exmouth.Taylor’s book indicates there has been a marked decline in the fish stocks around Ningaloo Reef in the last 20 years and he is distinctly ambivalent about the consequences of the publicity he helped bring to bear on the whale sharks. The sheer popularity of encounters with them seems to be damaging the marine environment and, of course, no one is quite sure what it is doing to the sharks. There is a lot of money being made around the whale sharks, but selling the message of looking after them and their habitat is in danger of being neglected. Taylor’s book captures the beauty of these unique creatures and also sounds a distinct warning about their future, all the more effective and convincing for being phrased with the calm, rational logic of a doctor.