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Swimming with whale sharks

by Elisa Parry

Swimming with a whale shark has always been on my bucket list, despite the fact that the idea of being in the water with a shark terrifies me. But there’s nothing quite like that feeling of taking a giant leap outside of your comfort zone. The thing with bucket list items is that they can often stay on your list for years before you get the chance to make them happen. Luckily for me, I was able to tick this experience off during a holiday to Exmouth and yes, it was every bit as magical as I had imagined.

If I’m honest, I didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before. While I was excited to see the whale sharks up close and personal, a large part of my brain was worrying about the slightly less friendly sharks and hoping they would kindly keep their distance (spoiler alert, they did!).

Catamaran on Ningaloo Reef

The day began with a brief snorkel on Ningaloo’s inner reef to test our gear, before cruising to the outer reef in search of our first whale shark. The spotter planes were up, the hunt had well and truly begun and before long, we were in position, wet-suited up and ready to dive in at a moment’s notice.

While you might think it would be easy to spot a five-metre whale shark from a boat, it’s not. Luckily, our experienced guides knew what to look for. We were quickly split up into two groups (you can only have 10 people in the water with a shark at the time) and then it was time for the first group (including myself) to dive off the back of the boat and into the big blue!

Whale shark on Ningaloo Reef

Under the instructions of our guide, we formed a line in the water. The whale shark would be swimming towards us. I will never forget the feeling of waiting and watching for that dark shape to appear in front of me. We had unseasonably large swell, so visibility was only a couple of metres at best. One minute all I could see was dark blue water, the next, there it was, shockingly large, it’s mouth wide open. I was so in awe I almost forgot to swim alongside it!

Person swimming alongside whale shark

We got to repeat this process five times throughout the day, with three separate whale sharks, each with their own beautiful and unique markings. On one occasion, while we were waiting for the boat to pick us up, a leopard shark swam beneath us. While I admit, I may have had a mild freak out (I’m not very brave!) when I looked down to see a fin beneath me in the water, we were actually incredibly lucky to have seen a leopard shark on the reef. They are a close relative to the whale shark and I was quickly assured they are friendly and harmless (phew!).

As if whale sharks and leopard sharks weren’t enough, we were then treated with a visit from five beautiful oceanic rays (no, they don’t have stingers!). These rays were enormous, and very curious – swimming right up to our group to check us out.

While we were in the water with the rays, two humpback whales began to approach us. Our guide quickly gathered the group together as we waited for the whales to reappear. They dived down and we lost them and so began swimming back to the boat about 50 metres away. I just happened to look up at the right time and watched as the two whales cruised between myself and the boat. While the visibility wasn’t good enough to see their bodies through the water, they were so, so close and it was honestly one of the most thrilling moments of my life!

Back on the boat and it was time to head home. The show wasn’t over though, we saw plenty of whales breaching as we sailed back to the harbour. We returned to land salty and a little sunburnt with smiles plastered on our faces. This is certainly a RedBalloon experience I’ll never forget!

Images supplied by Ningaloo Blue.