Updated: Jan 29
Tips for getting the best swim with whale sharks on the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia as explained by photographer Brooke Pyke.
Photo Above: Two people swim along side a giant whale shark on the Ningaloo Reef.
Photo by Brooke Pyke.
It's the once in a life time moment that everyone dreams of. Diving into the bright blue waters off the Ningaloo coast and swimming peacefully along side the oceans largest shark, the whale shark. And yes! Whale sharks are sharks, not whales. The name can be somewhat misleading but they are in fact a shark as big as a whale.
There are many places in the world that these gentle giants are known to roam and aggregate, but Ningaloo is one of the best places to swim with them in the most eco friendly way. And in certain months you are even guaranteed to see one! The town of Exmouth on the coast of Western Australia is a hub for marine megafauna swimming tours and it is from here that you can see them up close and in person.
Photo Above: A diver photographs a whale shark on the Ningaloo.
Photo by Brooke Pyke.
WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE WHALE SHARKS ON THE NINGALOO
Whale sharks are filter feeders, they feed on one of the smallest organisms in the ocean called zooplankton. The word plankton comes from Latin and translates literally to 'wanderer' as it's an organism that is carried around the ocean at the mercy of the tides and currents. The reason that whale sharks visit the Ningaloo Reef is to feed on zooplankton. It is estimated that as many as 600 whale sharks will visit the coast during the season. The season for whale sharks officially runs from March until July each year as that is when the peak number of whale sharks are in the area. Approximately 85% of them are juvenile males. There is the occasional female shark around too but generally it seems like all the male teenage sharks like to visit this nutrient rich area to bulk up and grow quickly, just like humans during puberty. As most of the sharks visiting the Ningaloo are juveniles they are quite small, small meaning about 6m on average. The largest whale shark ever recorded was a whopping 18.8m! But even if our sharks here aren't quite so huge, they are still seriously impressive and do make you feel very tiny as you paddle alongside them.
The arrival of the whale sharks for the season kicks off after the coral spawning events that happen around the full moon in both March and April each year. The coral spawn that is released all over the reef starts to drift around in the currents and this begins to attract various types of zooplankton. Luckily for the whale sharks their large mouths are designed to suck in as much water with delicious plankton as they can. In an hour of feeding they can filter as much as 6,000L of water!
Once the season for whale sharks finishes in July, the number of them on the reef starts to dwindle and by August most of them have moved on. Although occasionally throughout the year the odd one will stick around and there are quite probably a few that stay in the area all year. Where all the visiting sharks go next is still a bit of a mystery. Satellite tagging has been done but that didn't give researchers a lot of clear evidence as to where there next destination was. The sharks that were tagged went in all different directions with a general trend going north. There is so much that we are still to learn about these incredible animals and much about them remains a completely unknown to science. We still aren't sure where they go to give birth or how they mate as, non of these things have ever been witnessed.
WHEN TO VISIT AND SWIM WITH WHALE SHARKS
The best time of year if you want the chance to swim with a whale shark is between mid March and early July. Personally my favourite time of year for whale sharks is April and May, this is when the highest number of sharks are on the reef. But also when the weather and water clarity are at their best. Once we get closer to winter we get bigger swells, occasional rain and stronger wind that effects the coast. Luckily the whale sharks don't mind so much about that, but for us humans it makes swimming with them more difficult.
Photo Above: A whale shark feeds with ist mouth open wide.
Photo by Brooke Pyke.
WHAT ARE THE RULES FOR SWIMMING WITH WHALE SHARKS
As I mentioned earlier, Ningaloo really is the most eco friendly place in the world to swim with a whale shark. There are strict regulations in place set out by The Department of Parks and Wildlife to ensure that minimal disturbance is made to the animals natural behaviour. There are rules such as: group sizes are limited to 10 swimmers at a time with the shark, trained guides accompany each group, distances around the animal is kept to a minimum of 3 metres, no touching, no riding. All this means you get a thoroughly enjoyable and calm experience with enough space for everyone around the sides of the animal not disrupting the animal. When all these rules are followed the shark will quite happily let us swim alongside as if we are just another fish.
Each whale shark operator also must hold a license to conduct swim tours with them and there are a total of 15 permits on the Ningaloo. 12 whale shark boats operate out of Exmouth and 3 out of Coral Bay. Each boat can take a maximum of 20 swimmers (2 groups of 10 that will alternate) to swim with whale sharks and up to 3 observers who can watch from the boat. Part of the cost you pay for your tour also covers a marine park fee and that money goes towards the management and conservation of the area.
FINDING THE SHARKS
The sharks can be almost any where along the Ningaloo coast and it changes daily depending on where they may be feeding. Sometimes they can be very shallow on the back of the reef or out wide in deep ocean. To find them the boats use a spotter craft which are light weight planes with a pilot trained in spotting. Ideally they are looking for a whale shark feeding at the surface swimming slowly. Once the pilot finds a shark, they communicate with the skippers via radio and guide them to the exact spot where they have spotted a whale shark. Each group then takes a turn to swim with the shark. In other areas of the world different methods are used such as baiting or feeding and group numbers are not controlled. This unfortunately is not the best for the animals health and wellbeing as it changes their behaviour and makes them rely on humans for food.
HOW TO SWIM WITH A WHALE SHARK
Step one, follow your guides instructions upon entering the water. You will be given a thorough briefing before the swim before you enter the water. It's important to remember once you are alongside the whale shark make sure you maintain at least 3m from the side or 4m from the tail. Being a large ocean going creature they can and often do move fast so don't expect to be able to keep up easily. You will need to swim alongside it so a certain level of fitness is recommended. If you get tired you can always stop swimming and go back on the boat. To help with swimming though open ocean, make yourself more streamlined by swimming sideways facing the shark (which is swimming just below the surface). I recommend also to bring freediving fins as that helps give you some extra power through the water. Tour operators do however supply regular snorkelling fins that do the job. If you're not an avid snorkeler get a bit of practise at the beach before going out on your whale shark tour. Be comfortable swimming with fins on, using a mask and snorkel including how to clear the water from both. Remember whale sharks live in deep open ocean. Sometimes there is swell and surface chop so it's not like swimming in a lagoon or pool. Most companies supply all the gear you need (mask, fins, snorkel, wetsuit or stinger suit). But if you have your own you know fits you and is comfortable definitely bring it.
CAN YOU SCUBA DIVE WITH WHALE SHARKS ON THE NINGALOO REEF?
Due to whale sharks spending so much time at the surface, scuba diving is not really necessary and all the whale shark interaction tours are run as snorkelling tours. With the added weight and drag of scuba gear it would make keeping up with them very challenging. as they are always on the move while feeding. You can however book scuba diving tours that visit the Murion Islands and the Exmouth Navy Pier if you want to scuba dive while you're visiting.
Photo Above: A group from Live Ningaloo enter the water to swim with a whale shark.
Photo by Ningaloo Aviation https://ningalooaviation.com.au/
Who to book with?
There are two companies I can recommend using for your whale shark swims out of Exmouth. Live Ningaloo is who I work for as photographer. They are the only company that run an exclusive operation with only 1 group of swimmers (10 people max). You can book with them here: https://liveningaloo.com.au/ . The other company I have experience with is Ocean Eco Adventures, they run a big and well run boat that accommodates 2o people comfortably. You can book with them here: www.oceanecoadventures.com.au/
How much does a tour cost?: Depending on which company you book with the price can vary from $450AUD - $650AUD
What do the tours include?
Some tours vary slightly on what they include but in general each tour will offer the following in their pricing: Morning lagoon reef snorkelling, whale shark swimming, spotter pilot, Marine Park fees, lunch, morning tea, snacks, tea & coffee, drinking water, snorkelling gear rental, snorkel Guide, professional underwater photographer, marine biologist, transfers to the boat ramp from Exmouth town.
When should we book?
Spaces on each tour is limited to 20pax (or 10 if you want to book with Live Ningaloo) so book as early as you can to avoid missing out! Spaces can fill up 6 months in advance around peak season and school holidays.
Make sure to also book accomodation early in advance as there are not many options due to Exmouth being such a small and remote location. There are a couple of hotels such as Manta Rays Resort and Exmouth Escape Resort. Then there are camp sites and small 1-2 bedroom units in the two camp grounds at either RAC Caravan Park or Ningaloo Caravan Park. Budget accomodation options are: Potshot Hotel which has dorms and basic private rooms. There is also great wilderness camping along the coast in the Cape Range National Park which are close to the reef and have only basic ammenities (drop toilets), you must bring your own water. You can book those here: https://www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/news/item/2336-online-bookings-for-all-campgrounds-at-cape-range-national-park . Camp sites south of Yardie Creek you must bring your own toilet as well and the camps can only be accessed by 4x4 vehicle.
Where is Exmouth and the Ningaloo?
Exmouth is located on the northern tip of the Ningaloo reef which is 1,200km (745miles) north of Perth. Once you arrive in Perth, to get to here you can fly to Learmonth Airport which is a 30 mins bus ride to Exmouth town centre. It is worth remembering that you are arriving in a very remote part of the Australian outback. While Exmouth has all the comforts of home, it can also be quite limited. There are no taxis or public transport so hiring a car while you visit is a great idea so you can get around and explore the coast and national park.
Want to know more about whale sharks on the Ningaloo? Have a read here.
Read more about other megafauna tours such as Mantas & Humpback Whales swims here on my blog 'Destination Ningaloo'
Thanks for reading! I hope this info has made planning your whale shark swim a little easier.
See you on the Ningaloo,
For more follow my adventures @brookepykephotography on instagram