Snorkeling with the Whale Sharks

I did minimal specific planning for my time in Australia and, for that matter, my informal to-do list is embarrassingly short: seeing kangaroos, seeing the Sydney Opera House, and climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  These three items could probably be knocked out in a day or two, and this leaves me with about 140 days to spare.

While in Perth, I became aware of the “nearby” Ningaloo Reef.  Perth’s CouchSurfing wiki recommended it, wikitravel supported that, and someone I talked to said the magic words, “better than the Great Barrier Reef”.  I write “nearby” in quotes because Australia’s large size means that the 15-hour drive is a relatively short distance.  Fortunately, one can fly there in under 2 hours.

The whale shark tour operators offer very similar products.  For about $400, you join a group of 20 to do a morning snorkel on the reef while spotter planes search for the whale sharks, then go and snorkel with the sharks, and, time permitting, an afternoon snorkel on the reef.  Whale sharks are wild creatures, and they don’t always show up for the tour.  The standard is to offer a second tour if no sharks are spotted on the first, so I made plans to fly in on Friday, tour on Saturday, use Sunday as a backup, and fly back on Monday.  I ended up booking with Three Islands Whale Shark Dive because their website and TripAdvisor reviews made it seem least likely that I would drown with them …and because I could book online when I made the decision just three nights before the tour.

I arrived in tiny Exmouth airport on Friday, took the one shuttle bus to town, and checked into my hostel.  Ningaloo Reef is definitely the reason to be here; of the four others in my room, two of them also had whale shark tours booked for Saturday, one did the tour on Thursday, and the last one was learning to direct SCUBA tours.

On Saturday at 7:15am, I was picked up from my hostel for the tour.  We were on the boat in an hour or two and then headed out to our morning snorkel.  The boat was staffed with a skipper for the boat, a guy who drove the inflatable, a videographer, and two guides (Should they be called snorkel leaders?).  The guides were consummately personable.  In addition to introducing themselves to each person individually, while we waited for the inflatable to ferry the rest of the group to the boat, they went back through and chatted with us.  The guide I spoke with had studied at Curtin University, just down the road from my houseshare in Perth.

Once everyone was on the boat, we headed to our morning snorkel.  This is when it struck me that today would be a bit more difficult than my previous snorkeling experience.  I had snorkeled only twice before, off quiet beaches in Indonesia last July.  I only received casual instruction from my fellow tour members, but it was sufficient, and I had a great time.  Back in Indonesia, I could check out my mask’s seal and get used to the feeling while I was in calm, shallow water.  Here in Australia the water was only slightly rougher, but standing up to drain or adjust my mask was not an option.  I would instead need to tread water.  Wearing fins makes this relatively easy in terms of physical exertion, but this was my first time treading water in fins and, for that matter, it was my first time swimming in the open ocean.  The guides were kind and professional and provided me and another unsure snorkeler with a quick lesson and each a flotation noodle to aid in treading water.  Despite Vaseline on my mustache, my mask gradually took in water but after a couple adjustments I got a good seal and was able to relax and enjoy the coral and all the colorful fish around me.

Before too long, we were called back to the boat and, after a meal, the boat headed out in search of the whale sharks.  We were briefed on how it would work.  Only ten could swim with the shark at a time, so we were split into two groups, each led by one of the guides.  They would position the boat in front of the shark, then Group One would drop in.  When the shark got away from them and the boat was in position again, Group Two would drop in.  The leader would go first and raise one arm to indicate the location of the shark, though once we were in the water, we were to keep our heads down so we could see the shark and position ourselves appropriately.  I was assigned to Group Two.

When we reached the area near the whale shark, Group One readied themselves at the end of the boat.  They got the order “Group One, drop in!” and slipped into the water.  This was the cue for my group to get in position, and I sat down in the front row.  Pretty quickly, we got the order, “Go! Go! Go!”.  This wasn’t the “Group Two, drop in!” that I was expecting.  But when “Go! Go! Go! Go!” was repeated some seconds later, I figured it had to be for us, so I dropped in the water.  I looked back, and the rest of my group was still on the boat.  I put my head back in the water, though, and pretty soon I saw it!  The whale shark was on my right side, swimming in the same direction.  I kicked my fins to keep up with it, and I had time to admire its speckled skin and see that there were three or four remora along the bottom of the shark.  It was cruising in a straight line and reminded me of a bus on the highway.  Later in our debriefing, we would be told that this was a four-meter juvenile male, small for a whale shark, though still quite large for a fish.  While swimming along, I thought about whether my distance from the shark was the required minimum of three meters from the body and four meters from the tail.  I was probably OK, although it occurred to me that I had no practice judging underwater distances.  I didn’t feel like there were any other snorkelers near me, and I looked up to see what was going on.  The rest of Group Two was in the water, and they were starting to gather in a group to be picked up.  I swam over to join them.  The boat maneuvered to pick up Group One, and the inflatable came to us so we could hang on while the other group loaded.  Once clear, my group swam over and boarded.

The guides reiterated some of the instructions, and within probably ten minutes, Group One was once again in position, ready to drop in.  I decided to sit out for a bit, though.  My heart rate was quite high, I was feeling a little light-headed, and I was a bit perplexed by the quantity of water dripping from my nose.  I had achieved the goal of snorkeling with the shark, so it didn’t seem worthwhile to push myself too hard.  I should mention that the sea was significantly choppier here than at our morning snorkel.  As my condition improved, the sea got worse.  Each group did probably another five drops, though the numbers sitting out grew to about 40% due to fatigue or sickness.  More than one person heaved over the edge, but the group’s spirits remained high.

At the end of it all, I was much better informed about how fortunate I was over the weekend.  The previous day’s tours had been canceled because the sea was too rough.  I suspect the day for my tour was considered borderline.  The following day’s tours were canceled due to rain, so it would not have worked as a second try.  And no-sights do happen; while my tour company touted 100% sightings earlier in the season, I saw in the guestbook that a tour in the previous week had not found any whale sharks.  If you don’t want to chance it, avoid buying a non-refundable, non-changeable return ticket.

I have no remarkable photos from the experience.  They sell a DVD of the day for $50, but we generally look identical in our stinger suits with masks and snorkels.  (Here’s an example.)  And I don’t think I could pick my whale shark out of a line-up.  (Was it one of these?)  Thus, I will rely on this blog entry to help me reminisce on my special day.

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