The whale sharks and whales of Ningaloo Reef are majestic, wild and rare. We swim with the gentle giants in Australia’s spectacular North West.
Most people would be thrilled just being on Ningaloo Reef. While the southern cities – Sydney, Melbourne, my home town of Perth – are shivering through winter, I find myself on a boat in Western Australia’s North West, shimmering blue waters surrounding me and a near-cloudless sky overhead. On my body: boardies, hat, sunnies. On my mind: none of the distractions and deadlines that plague this landlubber from day to day. Instead, my most pressing thought is whether to reapply sunscreen. It’s the sort of pace and lifestyle I could easily get used to.
Yet relaxation isn’t what brings me out on the water this morning aboard the Venture IV with 20-odd fellow passengers and crew. Whale sharks are the reason all of us – like so many visitors to this World Heritage-listed reef – are here. Or, more precisely, we’ve come for the chance to swim with these giants of the deep.
Whale sharks, as the name suggests, are big. The largest recorded specimen measured almost 13 metres and weighed about 21.5 tonnes, making them the biggest fish in the ocean. While they can be found in tropical and temperate waters around the world, between March and July each year 300 to 500 gather on Ningaloo Reef to feed on the plankton produced by mass coral spawning.
The mood on deck is relaxed but that changes quickly when a spotter plane radios word of a whale shark sighting. As the 18-metre boat’s high-powered engines roar into action, guides go back over the rules for swimmers (no touching the whale sharks, no flash photography, approach them only from behind or from the side). Snorkels are cleaned. Cameras are snapped into underwater housings. Torsos wriggle into wetsuits. A sense of anxiety descends and the atmosphere on the boat hardens, doubly so once we’re in the water and awaiting the arrival of the tour’s headliner.
While the creatures and their mottled skin photograph beautifully (fun fact: the pattern on every whale shark is unique, making it possible to identify and track each one with simply a photo), no amount of megapixels can capture the experience of seeing them up close in the flesh. Sometimes a whale shark will be rolling solo, other times it will be anchoring an armada of fish, slowly drifting through Ningaloo Marine Park, oblivious to – or ignoring – the funny-looking goggled mammals swimming around and alongside it like an underwater street gang, giddy with excitement.
Though whale sharks have been observed at Ningaloo since the early 1980s, formalised tours only began in 1993. In that first year, 1000 people swam with them; in 2016, 27,500 travellers made the eco pilgrimage. Last year, these visitors to Exmouth and the Ningaloo Marine Park had another reason to head north-west: swimming with humpback whales.
Each year, more than 30,000 humpbacks make the 11,000-kilometre journey from Antarctica to their breeding grounds off the Kimberley coast. This migration begins in June and ends in November when the whales regather in the Exmouth Gulf before starting the return trip. Following the removal of most populations of humpbacks from the endangered species list, trials began last year in Ningaloo with selected operators offering separate tours to see the near-mythical creatures.
“It’s awe-inspiring to be in the water with these gentle giants,” says Debra Ferguson of Exmouth Diving Centre, one of the operators involved in the trial. Whereas whale sharks swim in a somewhat predictable manner, the humpbacks’ size and unpredictable nature require a more cautious approach. Children under 14, for instance, aren’t permitted to swim with humpbacks and have to stay on the boat, as do less-confident swimmers. Tail-slapping whales are considered too aggressive for human interaction so guests must stay at least 50 metres away from the animals (with whale sharks, the distance is five metres). Make no mistake – getting in the water with humpbacks comes with plenty of asterisks and caveats but when the planets align, magic can happen.
“Even if you only glimpse one, it’s so special,” says Ferguson’s husband, Mark. “It’s not like they’re in a zoo and you can just see them. To get that close to a wild animal safely is a fantastic experience. We normally tell people that when you swim with a humpback whale, quite a few people cry... and that’s usually the crew.”
I don’t see any tears from crew members during our humpback-watching experience (alas, the erratic behaviour of the specimen we encounter means that swimming with humpbacks remains on my bucket list) but it’s moving to see how into it the operators are. As we all marvel at the sight of a humpback breaching the water’s surface over and over, Naomi, a Novocastrian studying to be a chiropractor, glows as she talks of swimming with dugongs, rays and tropical fish while snorkelling earlier in the week. On her right arm is a tattoo of a whale shark. Violeta Brosig, the boat’s photographer for the day, is a picture of joy and enthusiasm, whether she’s under the water snapping guests and sea life or up on deck with the rest of the passengers enjoying the afternoon’s water show.
Watching and swimming with whales is only part of Exmouth’s charm. Although most of the people in town sport some sort of tan, the locals can be identified by their easy, knowing happiness (not to mention athletic physiques). The sea features prominently in life, from recreation to eating: Blue Lips Fish & Chips (3 Thew Street; 08 9949 1130) is probably the easiest way to hit your RDI of seafood, while self-catering types might like to drop by the excellent Fresh Fish Shack (27 Pellew Street; 08 9949 1920) to stock up on Spanish mackerel, coral trout, prawns and other locally caught fish.
Despite being 1250 kilometres north of Perth, Exmouth remains au fait with food trends. The Short Order Local (0421 777 864), a van headquartered outside of the RAC caravan park, serves brilliant coffee, fresh juices and bacon-and-egg rolls. Factor in brightly coloured outdoor seating and a playlist that’s as cheery as the service and you’ve got a great start to the day. Then there’s Froth Craft (5 Kennedy Street; 08 9949 1451), a combined microbrewery and restaurant that trades from morning till late with a focus on live, folky music. And from the department of things-you-don’t-expect-to-find-in-a-regional-centre-of-4280-permanent-residents: See Salt slings very serviceable bowls of Vietnamese pho in the mornings.
That said, Exmouth does possess an endearingly kooky country charm. Locals talk with pride about the lack of traffic lights here, and news that the shire council put a four-metre-tall fibreglass prawn in the town centre will please those who consider Coffs Harbour’s Big Banana and the Big Pineapple on the Sunshine Coast among the nation’s more notable tourist attractions.
Outside of town are the decaying remnants of Naval Communication Station Harold E. Holt, an outpost set up by the US Navy to aid submarine communications during the Cold War; black-and-white police cars drove on the right-hand side of the road and US dollars were in circulation. The base was an apple-pie-like slice of America in Australia’s North West whose non-restricted areas are free for curious visitors and locals to wander through.
As far as accommodation options in town go, Mantarays Ningaloo Beach Resort is the place you want to call home, especially if you can snare a bungalow or apartment with ocean views. The in-house Mantaray’s restaurant serves an accessible menu featuring local seafood and its invitation extends beyond resort guests.
The region’s best bed for the night, however, is Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef, a beachside safari camp hiding in plain sight among the dunes in Cape Range National Park. While the set-up has elements of glamping, owners Sally and Stewart Cranswick prefer the term “eco luxe” to describe Sal Salis.
Wilderness tents feature chemical-free composting toilets and the site is primarily solar-powered but wi-fi and mobile reception are non-existent (insert sigh of relief or gasp of shock here). What you will find, though, is a help-yourself bar stocked with Western Australian beer, wine and spirits, and meals and snacks prepared by in-house chef Brendon Haberle that include everything from raisin-bread French toast with berry coulis and maple bacon for breakfast to crumbed scallops with red cabbage coleslaw at dinner. To offset all that consumption, camp staff run daily activities depending on weather conditions and tidal movements: kayaking, snorkelling, hikes at Mandu Mandu Gorge.
Or you can just do nothing, feet up in your tent hammock, listening to the sound of the gently breaking waves. It’s the sort of pace and lifestyle I could easily get used to.