Places I Love – Swimming with Whale Sharks at Ningaloo

If swimming with whale sharks isn’t on your bucket list, then it should be!

I recently had an amazing wildlife encounter when I swam with whale sharks at Ningaloo Marine Park.

Ningaloo Marine Park lies off the North West Cape of Western Australia – it’s a 13-hour drive or a 2-hour flight from Freo.

Ningaloo Reef is the longest fringed coral reef in Australia, stretching 300km along the coast, from the North West Cape to Red Bluff. The untouched coral reef systems are teaming with marine life. The reef is UNESCO World Heritage listed and was established as a Marine Park in 1987. It covers an area of 264,343 ha.

The reef is home to over 500 species of fish, 300 species of coral, turtles, dolphins, dugongs and rays. Ningaloo Reef is the only place in Australia where you can swim with the ‘Marine Big 3’— whale sharks, humpback whales and manta rays. Whale shark season typically runs from March-October; humpbacks July-October; and manta rays all year round.

Being in the water with the world’s biggest fish was an experience of a lifetime – both exhilarating and serene, and somewhat humbling. I loved every second. I felt like a dwarf next to these massive creatures. They are harmless filter feeders – their diet consisting of plankton, copepods, krill and fish eggs. They glide through the water like ocean liners with their vacuum type jaws open. Their backs are covered with white dots and ridges that seem to dance in the light slicing through the ocean.

Little is known about these magical creatures or their migratory patterns. Whale sharks are primarily solitary but aggregate at numerous sites globally. The majority of whale sharks at Ningaloo are juvenile males between 3 and 12 metres in length. Between 300-500 visit Ningaloo each year. An 18 metre long whale shark was recently sighted at the Galapagos. It is thought that sexual maturity is at the age of 30 when they reach about 9 metres and their lifespan is about 100 years. A 12-metre fish weighs 11 tonnes.

They can dive to depths up to 1900 metres and travel over 1000 kms. Whale sharks have been around for 245 million years. The first recorded sighting in Australia was in 1936 and whale shark ecotourism began in 1989. Nearly 36,000 people swam with whale sharks at Ningaloo in 2022.

So if you want to swim with the world’s largest fish, you need to book a tour. It’s a full day experience. I was collected from my accommodation at 7am and driven to the boat jetty. After a safety briefing, we had a snorkel inside the inner reef. Then our boat headed outside the reef to deeper water. Spotter planes find the whales’ locations and radio the boats. Only 10 people are allowed in the water at a time. Each group is accompanied by two dive instructors – many of whom are marine biologists and scientists. We had nine swims in total and encountered 3 different whales. There are very strict guidelines about keeping 3 metres away at all times.

Our day finished with another snorkel in the aquamarine water. It was like swimming in an aquarium, with amazing coral, colourful fish and turtles.

Numerous charter boats run full-day, all-inclusive whale shark tours from both Exmouth and Coral Bay. I used Kings Ningaloo Reef Tours.

STORY by Jean Hudson @jeansodyssey photographs by Kings Ningaloo Reef Tours. Jean is our Shipping Correspondent and also a regular feature writer and photographer here on the Shipping News. You may like to follow up her informative Places I Love stories, as well as other feature stories and Freo Today photographs, right here.


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