Spotting whale sharks, manta rays and humpback whales in a single long weekend? On Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef it’s possible – but only for a few weeks each year…

Wild(life) swimming in Ningaloo Reef

It’s difficult to know how you’d react if you were staring into the wide-open mouth of a creature the size of a bus. I say you, dear reader, because I do know how I’d react, as this was the exact situation that I found myself in on a fairly chilly July afternoon floating somewhere in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Western Australia.

I’d love to tell you that my heart was filled with courage and a steady camera hand was taking an award-winning picture, but the reality is that I was, in fact, struck completely paralysed and, rather than rise to the occasion, I simply floated there, as the giant jaws of the whale shark – over a metre in width – came straight towards me.

My adventure had begun earlier that day when I arrived in the town of Exmouth, access point to the Ningaloo Reef – the world’s largest fringing reef (one that’s growing from the shore so is easily accessed from the beach). Here, defence officials and oil rig workers easily outnumber the tourists and backpackers, the sort found in their hordes on the country’s more-famous reef over in Queensland, especially on a shivery day like this.

But despite July being the Australian winter, I’d chosen the month for a very particular reason. It presented the only few weeks each year when it would be possible for me to go from swimming with whale sharks one day (who hang around until August), to swimming with humpback whales on the next (as their annual migration towards Antarctica begins) and – to cap it all off – swimming with manta rays on a third (there in greatest numbers in winter). This creates an underwater megafauna trifecta unrivalled anywhere in the world. On this first day, I was here to swim with the state’s most famous underwater creature.

Aiming for the treble

“Things you need to know about swimming with whale sharks before you get into the water,” began our guide, as we bobbed over the choppy blue water, dolphins already leaping in our wake as though we’d entered a seaside version of Narnia. “First is no selfie sticks – we do not want to disrupt the whale sharks’ swimming. Second, do not get any closer to it than three metres; and third – which should be easy enough if you are obeying rule two – no touching.”

Mention Ningaloo to most Australians and whale sharks will immediately spring to mind. They are as synonymous with the region as the Opera House is to Sydney. Yet despite their image being plastered on everything from buildings to minibuses, their existence is only a fairly recent discovery. In fact, up until the 1980s there had only been a miniscule number of recorded sightings – just 320 worldwide. Yet scientists believe they have been around since the Jurassic period at least. Fast forward to 2021 and their presence is – here at least – much better known; so much so that the Parks and Wildlife Service had to regulate human interaction to minimise our impact – hence the rules I was given on my way out to see them.

It seems that no one had ever explained the rules to the whale sharks themselves. This is how I found myself coming face to face – or more exactly wide-open mouth to wide-open mouth (I had a snorkel in mine) under the waves.

I’d started the same way as everyone else. Jumping off the back of the boat and waiting patiently in a line for the 10-metre fish to do a swim by. We’d been instructed to let it swim alongside us then, if we were feeling energetic and wanted to stay with it a while, we would need to swim, fast.

Peering into the dark, I waited patiently. Then, from out of the blue came an oval shape. As I stared at it, I realised it was the whale shark’s jaws, agape. As filter feeders, they suck in huge volumes of water as they swim, before dispersing it all out again having taken the small krill and copepods for a snack. I was mesmerised by its size – even at about 15 metres away it was gigantic. I was so focused on trying to take in its enormity I that I didn’t register that it had changed direction and was now swimming directly at me.

“I was so focused on trying to take in the whale shark’s enormity I that I didn’t register that it had changed direction and was now swimming directly at me”

Whale sharks eyes are on the side of their heads, so if you are directly in front of their gargantuan mouth, they simply cannot see you. As it drew closer, I wondered what was going to happen next – they may be large but, at around 5kph, they are pretty speedy for their size. I knew I should get out of the way, but I was transfixed, dazzled by it, unable to think clearly about how to move. When it was nearly within touching distance something clicked in my brain and I started to madly scull my hands so that I moved backwards. He swooshed by me within a metre and I felt the water displace around me. I lifted my head out to the surface in shock.

“Don’t get so close,” called one of the guides. All I could do was nod.

whale shark swimming

The author had a close encounter with a whale shark (Phoebe Smith)

The author had a close encounter with a whale shark (Phoebe Smith)

My next swim was much more by the book. Watching the gentle giant pass at a respectful distance I managed to snap a photograph and then kick with my flippered feet as hard as I could, keeping my arms down by my sides for maximum speed, so that, for at least a couple of minutes I could keep up with him.

I say him, because he had a noticeable injury to his dorsal fin, meaning that he was easy to find later on the boat’s database of regularly sighted whale sharks. One in five have some kind of injury according to a recent local study – due to strikes with large ships. However, in a welcome bit of good news, another research project (this time done by the University of Southampton in the UK) found that some whale sharks have been seen to re-grow damaged limbs.

As we left the cool waters that afternoon, toasting our success with flutes of Prosecco and feasting on fresh fruit, I hoped that next time I came to these waters I’d see my same whale shark, with a healed fin.

Fish swimming in reef

Rock cod and blackspot sergeants dance around Ningaloo Reef (Tim Fitzharris / naturepl.com)

Rock cod and blackspot sergeants dance around Ningaloo Reef (Tim Fitzharris / naturepl.com)

Dugongs from above

A rare sighting of elusive dugongs (Phoebe Smith)

A rare sighting of elusive dugongs (Phoebe Smith)

Ray swimming in sea

Coral Bay’s resident manta rays glide through the waters (Getty)

Coral Bay’s resident manta rays glide through the waters (Getty)

Lighthouse

Vlamingh Head Lighthouse opened in 1912, with its light being visible for 41km out to sea (Phoebe Smith)

Vlamingh Head Lighthouse opened in 1912, with its light being visible for 41km out to sea (Phoebe Smith)

Clowfish swimming by anemone

A group of common clownfish nestled in a sea anemone (Alamy)

A group of common clownfish nestled in a sea anemone (Alamy)

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Fish swimming in reef

Rock cod and blackspot sergeants dance around Ningaloo Reef (Tim Fitzharris / naturepl.com)

Rock cod and blackspot sergeants dance around Ningaloo Reef (Tim Fitzharris / naturepl.com)

Dugongs from above

A rare sighting of elusive dugongs (Phoebe Smith)

A rare sighting of elusive dugongs (Phoebe Smith)

Ray swimming in sea

Coral Bay’s resident manta rays glide through the waters (Getty)

Coral Bay’s resident manta rays glide through the waters (Getty)

Lighthouse

Vlamingh Head Lighthouse opened in 1912, with its light being visible for 41km out to sea (Phoebe Smith)

Vlamingh Head Lighthouse opened in 1912, with its light being visible for 41km out to sea (Phoebe Smith)

Clowfish swimming by anemone

A group of common clownfish nestled in a sea anemone (Alamy)

A group of common clownfish nestled in a sea anemone (Alamy)

Hoping for humpbacks

For the second of my swims, I had to get in my minibus and travel a little further south along the coast. Getting to Coral Bay involved a 150km (2-hour) drive, inland first, passing by the twisting burnt orange canyons of Cape Range National Park and the spindly yellows of termite mounds on the Learmonth Minilya Road, before the turn off invited me back to the coast.

Coral Bay itself is compact and relatively undeveloped, with just a smattering of small resorts sitting behind the sand and scrub of the water’s edge. Its ‘high street’ is a modest collection of souvenir shops selling inflatables and beachside paraphernalia, which are far outnumbered by the companies offering to take you out to show you the reef.

But you don’t actually need a boat to see it. Within just five minutes from the door of my apartment at the end of the road, I was on the beach in my wetsuit and snorkel, to squeeze in a quick exploration of the bommies (coral outcrops) before sunset.

In the short time I was in the water, I saw unicorn fish, wrasse and blue tangs, as well as urchins and huge plumes of swaying sea grass and ribbonweed. My appetite firmly whetted for my encounter of the marine-mammal-kind the next morning, I went to bed shortly after the sun sank beneath the waves.

“They’ll be just seven of you in the water at one time,” said the captain as we left the sheltered bay and headed resolutely for the open water. As he explained the whale rules to the 14 passengers gathered in his cockpit, spotter planes were scanning the sea for cetacea and reporting back to the waiting boats below.

First allowed in 2016, the chance to swim with humpback whales is still in a trial period with licences given to just a handful of operators while monitoring occurs to see if the practice impacts them negatively. As such the rules are strictly enforced: no more than seven people in the water; vessels must stay at least 50m from the whales (they must choose to initiate the interaction rather than vice versa); and no swimming when calves are present.

“I have to mention that these are 100% wild animals,” he finished. “We cannot ever guarantee an interaction, all we can do is hope they are in a playful mood.”

Almost as soon as he had finished his sentence the air behind his right shoulder was filled with a plume of spray, followed by another, then another in quick succession. Before I could shout ‘blow’, three humpbacks had breached one after the other, seemingly in competition to see who could get the biggest splash. The ship noticeably listed to one side as we raced over to watch them jump a further four times. At which point we looked at the captain, expecting to be told to ready ourselves for an interaction, but the answer was no.

“We only get in with calm whales,” he explained. “No surface slapping or breaching – it’s for our own safety.”

For the minute we had to be content to watching these 40-tonne mammals leap impossibly high from the deck. But a crackle on the radio from our eyes in the sky indicated that we may soon be getting our feet (and bodies) wet.

“Group one go, go, go,” came the call a little while later and myself and six others leapt into the water obediently. Adrenaline was pumping around my body, my heart was pounding, but from the water level it’s very difficult to see a blow. Hearing it, however, was much easier. Not one, not two, but a pod of nine humpbacks were swimming straight towards us – fast. It sounded like a freight train.

“Heads in water,” came the yell, and I obeyed. At first I saw nothing but blue, endless blue, stretching forever beneath my neoprene-encased body. But then white shapes materialised beneath me – fins, bellies, tails. The shapes of whales of multiple sizes drifted below. One began to rise up towards me, its eye clearly locking with mine, before lowering back to the others and continuing onwards. Then came the sound. A string of deep, long-drawn-out notes that seemed to vibrate through the water and through my body. Time seemed to move in slow motion until they were gone.

I lifted my head out the water to be surrounded by six faces, grins plastered to them, tears rolling down more than a few cheeks.

That afternoon we managed to get into the water with them two more times, at which point I don’t think anyone could have emotionally taken any more encounters. Even the crew, who had stoically remained calm throughout, were now gushing to each other about the ‘best day ever’.

During the last year, alarming reports confirmed that a company is trying to get permission to build a huge industrial port up in Exmouth – near to a place called Qualing Pool, where mother humpbacks are known to rest and feed their calves before migrating south. This would bring in mammoth cruise ships and cargo vessels. Conservationists and the Environment Protection Agency are calling to stop the plans. Ultimately, the best thing that travellers can do to prevent it is visit when we can, to show that tourism to see the whales is more beneficial than floating resorts.

Canyon

“One humpback whale began to rise up towards me, its eye locking with mine. A string of long-drawn-out notes vibrated through my body”

A morning for manta rays?

My final day arrived in a blistering sunrise, and I readied myself to tick off the last on my list of megafauna – manta rays. Having no barbs or stings that are found on other rays, these 8-metre winged giants resemble a flock of birds flying underwater alongside you. But it turned out my idea of a perfect day was not the same as the locals.

“What do you mean it’s cancelled?” I cried incredulously, gesturing at the blue sky. It turned out that wind was the problem and no operator in town was going to see the mantas that day. “We have space on a snorkel and glass bottom boat tour,” I was told. “Although it might be a bit rough.”

Determined to make the most of my last day in the area, I signed up and before long was joined by six other hardy souls – the boat could hold 30 – on the choppy waters. But once I slid into the water and put my head under, all became peaceful once more.

Within minutes angelfish swam alongside me, their long, trailing fins making them appear every bit as seraphic as their name implies. Large cods and huge mouthed groupers scudded by, while elongated trumpetfish and the equally-musical-sounding flutemouth seemed to pause amid the scene.

Then what appeared to be a huge rock began to move towards me. It was a green turtle, her massive body effortlessly lifting through the water. Instantly I was appeased. Mantas are beautiful, but I’d take this turtle as a good substitute. Just as I was congratulating myself on this sighting, I got another – one that made even my turtle seem less of a find.

Turtle swimming

The author swam with turtles in Ningaloo Reef (Phoebe Smith)

The author swam with turtles in Ningaloo Reef (Phoebe Smith)

Two dugongs – aka sea cows, aka mermaids of the sea – mooched past. And, if you’re wondering how they reacted when a strange creature drifted towards them with a mouth agape, I can report that, unlike me, they were calm and cool and casually floated out of the way.

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Photography in this article: Phoebe Smith, Shutterstock, Alamy, Getty