Ningaloo reef is the Great Barrier Reefs’ smaller, prettier sister. While the Great Barrier Reef covers much of the northern east coast of Australia, Ningaloo covers a relatively small area of the west coast. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a huge reef covering about 5000 square kilometres. The best part? You can visit it from shore. In coral bay you can swim in lush coral gardens 50 feet from the beach. Turtles and rays are spotted on almost every snorkel, its perfect for children. Stay out long enough and you’ll surely encounter some sharks.
Off the beach you can see Blacktip Reef, Whitetip Reef and Grey Reef sharks regularly. If you are lucky you’ll find Tiger Sharks and Dugongs. Daily, there are manta ray trips. They have spotter planes to help locate the resident school. But the real stars of the show are the Whale Sharks.
The Whale Sharks
Every year in April or May the coral spawn brings in hundreds of whale sharks, mostly juvenile males, to feed on the eggs and sperm drifting in the currents. This also brings in tourists. One operation out of Coral Bay and a few out of Exmouth run trips every day in season.
For us, day one and day two saw no sharks. Even with spotter planes these whale sharks are not guaranteed. We had a couple of false alarms with planes reporting sharks only to have them dive before we got there. I still can’t complain. Just being out on the water in the open ocean is a thrill – watching the flying fish or dolphins. We even came across a small scalloped hammerhead and a jumping marlin. I love the variety and unpredictability of the pelagic zone.
Day three brought us the jackpot. Beautiful calm weather and whale sharks. Enough sharks that we didn’t have to compete with other boats. All in all I swam with five whale sharks. One as small as 13 feet and one as large as 36 feet. My mind was almost blank the entire time. This was my first time in the water with the world’s largest fish and it had been one of my ultimate dreams since childhood. The guides enforced the rules religiously – no more than 10 people per shark at any given time, no touching, no freediving, no flash cameras, stay behind the pectoral fins. I was happy to oblige despite some of the rules impeding photographic opportunities. Even with this regulation, four of the five sharks dove for deeper water within a few minutes of us joining them in their environment. Far from a scientific observation, it nevertheless led me to believe it’s possible we may be bothering these animals. The debate over education vs. potentially bothersome interaction is a topic for another article, but we must keep in mind that the shark comes first, always.
My time spent at Ningaloo Reef is an absolute highlight of my life. For those that love the ocean it is a perfect place. I hope it is somewhere I can go back to for an extended period.
Hope to see you out there, at Ningaloo!