NINGALOO REEF, WA
I couldn”t believe it. This was it. This was the big one. The spotter plane had found a whale shark and the boat was already speeding us towards it. The guide had told us to start getting ourselves together before he scampered off, and as we were already zipped snugly into our steamers and allocated snorkel gear, it didn’t take long before I was ready for action.
I clumsily pulled on my mask, over-zealously tightened the straps, and then quickly loosened them again before I lost all feeling in my face. I stuck my fingers under my fringe and painstakingly, sloooowly dragged out all the stray hairs stuck in the seal. I shoved my feet into the well-worn banana-shaped flippers, alternately pushing in with my toes and pulling up with my fingers, coaxing the rubber to unfurl and sucker tightly around my feet.
Everyone around me was doing the same, going through their own rigourous and completely pointless checklist.
It was like an over-acted Monty Python sketch. We were all prepped, ready to launch into the water at the slightest signal from the skipper. It could’ve been a scene from a spoof spy movie: Frog Squad – The New Batch. Like a small squadron of amateur aquatic emissaries we sat on the wooden benches, vainly scanning the horizon through our Plexiglas visors.
We waited. And waited. Nothing. I lifted my mask as it was fogging up and I felt a bit daft. The boat continued to motor into the seemingly endless open blue. We waited. Someone rapped a nervous staccato beat on the wooden deck with their flippers.
The guy opposite me lifted his mask and absent-mindedly helped himself to the stacked plate of nibbles at his elbow. They’d fed us continuously all morning, mound upon mound of munchies, and it was already touch and go whether I’d be able to get out of my skintight wetsuit later, but I followed his lead and grabbed a handful of crisps anyway. The motor thrummed, the waves splooshed, and we waited.
Idle pockets of chatter sprung up amongst the group, until the guide suddenly appeared and 40 pairs of eyes pinned him to the deck like bullets. He laughed when he saw the tension etched across every masked face and lycra-clad body. “I didn’t mean get ready ready. Sorry guys, but we lost it…”
The group looked scandalized. I was ready to pull a Joe Pesci and shoot the guy in the face.
“…BUT we’ve spotted another two whale sharks so we’re going after them now!”
Mentally I put down the sawn-off. I hadn’t even clocked that the boat had changed course, but I guess the unwavering characteristic of open water is that it all looks the same.
Murmurs of enthusiasm rippled around the group, and the air of expectant excitement started to simmer again. My heart picked up the pace and started beating a rumba against my ribcage.
Two whale sharks. Two. That was even better. I’d waited nearly four months for this moment. Not much is known about this amazing animal – despite being the largest fish in the world they are elusive, appearing at certain times in just a few locations in the world to feed before disappearing again for much of the year.
When I’d learned that these benevolent leviathans appeared for about 10 weeks annually off Ningaloo Reef in WA, I’d planned this entire trip around that small window.
The area is World Heritage-listed, and deservedly so – in the run up to today I’d spent a few lazy afternoons propelling myself over unspoiled corals and a kaleidoscope of fish. I’d spotted all the usual suspects – multitudes of parrotfish scrunching away at the coral; great domed turtle shells hanging seemingly weightlessly as their owners grazed nonchalantly on sea grasses; and I even saw the beautiful but deadly fanned spines of a lionfish as it rested motionless on a rock. And unlike Cairns, there were no rafts of tourists to disturb them.
Disappointingly I hadn’t spotted any dugongs, but then that wasn’t the encounter I was here for.
The second coming
As the boat continued to cut a swathe through the swell, the guide explained there were a few boats all heading to the same site so we’d have to take it in turns with the sharks. We’d already been briefed on the protocol: “You have to stay five metres away from its tail, three metres away from its sides at all times, and under no circumstances is anyone to get immediately in front of the shark.”
No fear there – the last thing I wanted was a gob bigger than Jade Goody’s hovering towards me.
“Okay everyone, onto the dive platform, and wait for my signal.”
Same routine. Mask down. Hair out. Spit on finger and swish it around mask as a precautionary afterthought. Flippers back on. Deep breaths.
And then back to the waiting. But this time it was different – there were boats on either side, people frantically dashing around, and the whale shark was there, right there. I thought I could just make out an outline a short distance away, demarcated by the bobbing snorkels.
But what if it swam away? Panic stated to bubble up in me. What if it decided to go up a gear and I couldn’t keep up?
What if it dived down before I got my turn? What if…
“Okay, go! GO GO GO!”
Oh shit, I was up.
I plunged headlong into the water and spent the first few frantic seconds gyrating 360 degrees trying to locate the guide. Through the bubbles and general confusion I followed the movement of bodies, searching through the gloom for my first glimpse, and then there it was.
Just a few metres below the surface, light from the waves above delicately dancing across the smooth curvature of its dappled back, was the whale shark. Awestruck, I took in the lines of its body, the elegance of the tail flukes as they fanned through the water, and the trademark leopard-like spots blending seamlessly into the white underbelly.
But the thing that awed me most was the sheer size of the fish. At 11 metres, it was by far the largest thing I have even been in the water with, and when I”d finned over as close as we were allowed – and as close as I dared – it occupied my entire vision, solid and gargantuan. I had to remind myself to breathe.
Look, but don”t touch
I really wanted to touch the shark, feel the texture of the skin and have some kind of contact, some form of interaction with this silent denizen of the deep, but of course that was the number one “DON’T” in the rulebook.
It was like a small mobile reef – underneath there was a full compliment of housekeepers and hangers on joyriding on the shark’s slipstream, efficiently paring away any parasites and feasting on any fallout as the shark fed.
There were even daredevil fish riding the nose like dolphins ride the bow of a boat. Every now and again one would lag a little and disappear into the dark void of the mouth, only to dart out again a moment later, tail working overtime, propelling it back to its comrades.
The fish were certainly more adept at this than the snorkellers – those people that got ahead of themselves and suddenly found they were caught up front with the gaping void of the whale shark’s mouth yawning towards them were soon frantically twisting and kicking to get out of the way.
And then suddenly it was over. The next team were due in and our guide was waving us out of the water. My 15 minutes of absolute wonder were up.
Grinning like the village idiot, I hauled myself back up onto the dive platform. I saw my feelings of elation reflected on every face on the boat, and I was sure of one thing – it had been well worth the wait.
The experience: Western Xposure Ph: (08) 9371 3695.