Swimming with whale sharks in Ningaloo

by | 5 May 2019

Swimming with whale sharks became a dream come true during our road trip in Western Australia. But do you know why those gentle giants are so legendary? It is because they are the biggest fish in the ocean! I can see some of you frowning… Yes when it comes to size, some whale species are actually bigger but remember, whales are mammals, not fish! Let’s come aboard, we’re going to tell you everything there is to know about this unforgettable day.

Ningaloo Marine Park

Ningaloo Marine Park is located in north west Australia. It spreads roughly from 50km south of Coral Bay up to Exmouth. It is part of a bigger region – the Ningaloo coast – classified a World Heritage site by UNESCO. If this area is of so much importance, it is mainly because of its coral reef which is extremely close to the continent (it is very easily reached snorkelling from the shore) but also because 300 to 500 whale sharks meet here every year.

Why do whale sharks come here?

Every year, 7 to 10 days after March full moon, an event that is as amazing as it is strange happens: coral blooming. The “eggs” coral release attract huge quantities of both krill and plancton. Those tiny organisms attract in turn whale sharks. And voilà!

Swimming with whale sharks

Before telling you everything about our experience, we’d like to point out that we are not the authors of the pictures illustrating our day at sea. All of them were taken by awesome Jake Parker who works for Three Island Whale Shark Dive. This young Australian photographer shares our belief that wildlife photography should benefit wildlife conservation. Don’t hesitate to follow his Instagram account @jake_parker_imagery.

Warm up

In the morning, we board the boat, meet the crew and set sail.

We make a first stop close to corals and jump in the water for a first snorkel of about half an hour. We get to observe lots of (more or less) colorful tiny fish. We don’t really see more than what we saw in the past few days when going into the water from the beach, but it’s still enjoyable!

Briefing

While our skipper is moving the boat out of the lagoon, we are gathered at the back of the boat: it is time for the crew to tell us what will be happening next. A light aircraft is flying over the area looking for sharks. Once found, the pilot will give their position to our skipper so that we can head there.

Once in the water, there is a set of strict rules to follow in order not to disturb sharks. The most important is not to get closer than 3m and never swim in front of their pectoral fins. This is because we don’t want them to change their path because of us. Diving and going below sharks is also forbidden because they would feel threatened by such a behaviour. We are basically only allowed to follow them, just like the other fish escorting them all the time.

In the water with the giants

After a few miles and several maneuvers, we finally end up in the water. We are lined up behind our guide. The whale shark swims past us and we start to follow it. It is going at a rather slow pace so we easily get to observe it. You will probably find my comment obvious  and cheesy but yes, this is a beautiful animal! After about ten minutes, we go back onto the boat and the second group gets in the water. We will do that several times. We swam with three different sharks in total.

One last time in the water

After lunch on board and once we are back in the lagoon, we are offered one last snorkel. Our guides ask us to let ourselves drift along a coral reef. But I’ve had enough of being hit by the other participants elbows or fins so I decide to move away… That was a great idea because I found two rays and a remora resting in the sand!

Practical information

As I mentionned earlier, we went on the activity with Three Islands Whale Shark Dive. If you decide to go swimming with whale sharks after weighting the ethics pros and cons, we definitely recommand this company. The entire crew was very professionnal and friendly. We were a little bit worried when we saw how many people were waiting to board at the jetty but we ended up spending a great day!

You can get a free bus transfer from your accommodation in Exmouth to Tantabiddi jetty. Since we wanted wilderness, we camped in Cape Range national park at Neds campsite (hello little cockroaches in the bush loo!). We therefore had to be at the jetty at 8am.

All the snorkel gear you need is available on the boat. But if you have your own equipment, come with it! Sunscreen is also available onboard but we would recommend that you go with your own cruelty-free and coral safe one…

About food: breakfast is served after the first snorkel, lunch after whale sharks and a snack (of cakes, cheese and beer!) after the second snorkel. Food onboard was rather tasty and most importantly there was lots of vegetarian options.

Let’s finish with the most important topic: price. When we did this activity in april 2019, the cost was $395 per person, which is about 250€.

Swimming with whale sharks in Australia: how ethical is it?

This is a subject of discomfort but the question needs to be asked. Since here at The giraffe and the grizzly we don’t want to talk rubbish in order to help us sleep at night, we did a bit of research and asked many questions. We want to thank Brittney from Three Islands Whale Shark Dive for her honesty and for taking the time to answer us.

Funding conservation

When we were sailing towards land at the end of the day, one the crew members thanked us for participating. He told us that being there was really important because part of our fare was used for whale sharks conservation

About 5% of the price paid by each participant go to the Whale Sharks Management program of the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions. This is almost AUD $20 per person (a little bit more than €10). At first glance it seems not to be enough but when you make the calculations at the end of the year, we are talking about AUD $500k (more than €300,000) from all the licensed whale shark operators.

On top of it, Three Islands Whale Shark Dive has an “ecotourism” certification. This is given to organizations with strong, well-managed policies and commitments to sustainable practices throughout their business.

Reducing the impact

As I already mentionned, there is a long briefing about which behaviour is allowed while in the water in order to keep disturbance to a minimum. We found those rules were respectful of the animals because their aim is to make sure sharks don’t feel threatened and that we do not interfere with their natural movements. Moreover, only one boat is allowed to be in contact with a specimen at a time. This helps to reduce the pressure on individuals. It would obviously be extremely naive to pretend this activity has no impact but the purpose is definitely to keep this impact to a minimum.

Last but not least, those guys at Three Islands Whale Shark Dive have commited to offset their carbon emissions. This is very positive because sailing boats and flying a plane are activities with a high carbon impact… For each tour they conduct, native trees and shrubs are planted in Western Australia. This carbon emission offsetting method has detractors, because you need to wait for your tree to grow before it efficiently aborbs carbon. It’s true that it is not the optimal solution (the best one would have been not to emit in the first place…) but doing that is already a great step and we definitely give it a thumbs-up!

No to Monkey Mia!

This doesn’t have much to do with whale sharks, but it has to do with wildlife observation ethics, and it takes place not too far from Ningaloo (see the map at the beginning of the article). Monkey Mia is a resort that was build around an activity we strongly disapprove: feeding wild dolphins. This is great, this is amazing, dolphins show up everyday at the same time and the luckiest tourists (or the ones who paid the most…) can even feed them themselves!

When they started doing it back in the days, it helped to study dolphins and to learn more about their behaviour. But today this is just an attraction which purpose is to attract tourists from all over the world. Especially now that the resort has been acquired by a major australian company (specialized in insurance) which wants its investment to be as profitable as possible. They have already doubled the accomodation capacity. And since this increased audience needs to be satisfied, they have planned to quickly introduce new members to the dolphin colony, against the advice of experts in dolphin behaviour. As far as I am concerned, stories like this one really upset me.

Even though we would have loved to see dolphins, we have completely boycotted Monkey Mia. We encourage you to do the same.

More to discover:

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