Ningaloo Reef

Ningaloo Reef

Exmouth is a small town of 2k residents located in the northwest corner of Australia. It was founded as a military base during WWII, and in 1967, the US Navy built a communication base in town transmitting very low frequency radio signals for the Navy operating between India and Hawaii. Nowadays the town’s claim to fame is its proximity to Ningaloo Reef, home to large numbers of whale sharks during coral spawning season. Opting not to spend time driving up the relative barren west coast, we flew up from Perth for 2 days to swim with the whale sharks. Had I known in advance (with better research) that whale sharks can also be found in Baja California, a 2-hour flight from home, we probably wouldn’t have made this particular side trip. Baja California would have been a better choice given that there’s more to do aside from whale shark tours, along with nicer accommodations and tasty food.

The red we’ve come to associate with the Australian Outback.
On the road from the Learmonth airport to Exmouth, scenery resembling the desert scape of Baja California and American Southwest.

Whale sharks are the largest shark species in the world. Their size is the reason for their name, and the largest whale shark ever measured came in at 61 feet, 10 feet short of a semi truck. Years of research and tracking show that only the juveniles return to the reef area, while the adults go off to no one knows where. Which means we would be swimming with the smaller whale sharks, not the megalodon-sized adults.

This shot taken by our tour photographer made the 13-feet shark look much larger than it is. Yours truly is standing on the bow, wrapped in a beige towel.

Despite it’s shear size, the whale shark is absolutely harmless to humans, as they are filter feeders like whales. During coral spawning season, thousands of planktons from the depths are attracted to the region, and that is what draws in the sharks. Whale sharks also come up towards the surface for a bit of thermal regulation.

Our tour started with the company picking up all the guests and depositing us at the pier for our tender transfer to our boat for the day.


Then it was off to the first of many snorkel sites. First stop was in the calm and shallow coral garden, a great first stop especially for those of us who hadn’t snorkeled in 4 years. Along with the usual reef fish, we saw our first sailfin catfish, which is endemic to this parts of the world, and something we wouldn’t have seen in Baja California.

After the “warmup” session, the boat headed out to the deep blue ocean where the waters were much more choppy. The atmosphere got a bit more serious during debriefing. With a marker and a drawing of a whale shark in the center of a white board, the crew diagrammed out how and where to position ourselves in relation to the sharks. It had a hint of a military operation. The way everything works is once the aerial spotter sees a whale shark from above, he will radio the the captain to position the boat accordingly. Then the crew will tell us to get ready, and on the “GO! GO! GO!” command, we are to jump off the boat into the deep blue ocean. It felt like we were storming Normandy. There was no time to contemplate what else was in the depths. There’s a story of a novice aerial spotter who once mistook a tiger shark for a whale shark. Imagine coming face to face with one of those bad boys.

The human frenzy underwater during one of our first couple of swims.

Snorkeling with whale sharks isn’t like snorkeling around the stationary coral reefs. Sharks swim and dive at speeds we can’t keep up, which means once the shark is gone, we have to haul ourselves back onto the boat that’ll take us to the next shark. In and out, rinse and repeat. Some people got tired, others got motion sickness, and Joe got too cold. This attritional process meant less and less people in the water later on and with better viewing.

Diving down
Smaller group
Whale sharks have tiny eyes with poor vision. They compensate with a set of olfactory bulbs on the sides of their mouths, as well as their sixth senses, along the lateral grooves, that detect vibration.
Whale shark with its entourage
Massive tail
Me with a 16-footer

Our final snorkel was back in the shallows. Highlight of this site were the 2 massive cow tail sting rays lying on the ocean floor. Each were probably 12 feet in length.

Dolphins in the shallow waters

This was a great experience that I highly recommend if you’re in the area. Great friendly crew, and you’ll have the time of your life.

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