For me, there is something truly terrifying about jumping off the back of a boat into the middle of the ocean.
The five of us had arrived by boat on the outer Ningaloo Reef on the second last day of the whale shark season. The conditions were perfect and we had just been through the safety and ‘whale shark etiquette’ briefing for our swim with the ocean’s largest fish. “There’s nothing to be nervous about” Dave said to me, no doubt sensing my increasing anxiety. I shot him a cold stare (a look that I may have given him a few too many times over the last few days) “Sorry,” he replied. “I am just trying to be more sensitive!” What could I possibly be nervous about? I was only about to leave my babe on a boat, plunge through a two-metre swell, and come face to face with a real shark that was roughly the size of our caravan. As I sat on the edge of the boat, ready to jump in, Olivia looked to me for affirmation. My feigned look of confidence seemed counterintuitive, particularly when someone was about to yell “Shark!”, and in response, I was to help launch my firstborn into the water and not out of it.
I dove beneath the surface and instantly I was surrounded by the clearest blue waters. Beautiful rays of sunshine bounced through the water from above. As the eight-metre whale shark swam gently past us, the insignificance of our physical size and the importance of the diverse ecosystems of the underwater world became a reality. No longer did my opinion on this or that count. Rather, I had become a mere spectator in the wonder of the spectacular show of nature unfolding before my eyes. The whale shark was not performing for us. We were not at a zoo or watching a staged marine life show. We were in the wild. “You are kind of like annoying flies buzzing around the whale shark’s head”, our crew had briefed us.
For those short few minutes that I swam alongside the whale shark for the first time, I was overwhelmed with awe and exhilaration. My heart and ability to feel truly alive was detached from my head and ability to process the risks of swimming with this rather large creature. It came as no surprise that our experience swimming with the whale sharks was one of our most special days as a family on the trip so far.
I will admit to being hard to convince that we should go on a whale shark tour. It was not so much the cost. Although, it is a very expensive day out for the family. To be honest, it’s more the idea of tours generally. Part of me just doesn’t dig going to an amazing natural location, only to be shoulder to shoulder with a flock of other tourists. Kim might say it is my overdeveloped Neanderthal instinct. I’d rather go out solo in my little boat chasing Spanish Mackerel in ocean conditions that might be described as ‘questionable’ for any vessel that fits on the roof of a car. So positioned, my idea of a ‘wildlife interaction’ is silently experiencing a mother humpback whale and her newborn calf surface unexpectedly within spitting distance of the boat’s hull. Blessedly, this is something that has already happened to me four or five times on this trip.
No tours are more hyped-up in this neck of the woods than whale shark swims. Whenever we have phoned home over the last month, a question we have invariably been asked by family and friends is along the lines of, ‘So, are you going to swim with whale sharks?’ Well, I’m here to say, despite my innate reluctance, when it comes to whale shark tours, the hype is legit.
Several different people had independently told us that, should we pull the trigger and book a tour, we should do so with Ocean Eco Adventures. I won’t regurgitate the marketing spiel here, but… our personal experience gives us little difficulty in joining the sizeable online review chorus singing the tune that, quite simply, they are the best in the business. The clincher came when we set up camp at Ningaloo Station next to the parents of the bloke who owns and operates the business. That little six-degrees-of-separation was enough for Kim, once we were back in mobile signal, to promptly make the call and book us in on what, according to the weather forecasts, looked set to be the best day for sea conditions that we’ve had since being here for over a month (it turned out to be exactly that).
At the risk of sounding completely repetitive and, perhaps even cliché, the overwhelming highlight of the experience for me was seeing how much our girls got out of the day. Well, Mia and Olivia at least. Alice, trooper that she is, found the soothing sounds and vibrations of 1500hp of marine engines and a rolling two-metre swell to be the perfect environment for her longest day sleep to date.
Olivia had earlier said that she just wanted to ‘get a quick look’ at a whale shark, and that would be enough. Well, by the end of the interaction, she had done every single available whale shark swim. By our estimates this meant that she would have come close to snorkeling a kilometre alongside the spectacularly marked leviathan. I was beyond thrilled when, time-after-time, we would return with our guide to the marlin board on the back of the boat for a breather and I would ask Liv, ‘Sweetie, do you want to have a rest?’ and every single time her reply would be, ‘Maybe after the next swim, Dad.’ I found this to be particularly impressive given that, on our very first swim, the giant filter feeder came unexpectedly close to our daisy chain of ten snorkelers and one of my first visions below the surface was seeing its enormous head pass within mere centimetres directly beneath Olivia’s comparatively tiny frame. Rather than freaking Liv out, this only seemed to rev her up more to make the most of the experience. What a champion!
Mia, although confident with her snorkeling (only a few days earlier she had nonchalantly completed an hour-long drift snorkel with me off the SUP out in the middle of Coral Bay), ultimately decided that she was not going to jump in with a whale shark. Fair enough for a four-year old. Instead, she had a wonderful day on the top deck of the boat, spotting humpback whales, manta rays, and even taking a few impressively in-focus photos with my telephoto lens. By the return trip to port, she had resolved a new career aspiration – boat driver!
What a day. If you ever find yourself in this part of the world in season, believe the hype. Go swim with a whale shark. Even better if you have the opportunity to share the experience alongside the wide-eyed wonder of a kid.