Swimmin’ with Whale Sharks in Ningaloo, Western AustraYEE-HAH!!

Exmouth, Day 6.

Finally, the long-awaited day has come!

(AND the long-awaited post, I hear some of you mutter)

OMGGGG!!! *insert Jaws theme music*

Swam with Rhincodon typus – known as ‘rinky dinks’ by me and ‘whale sharks‘ by everyone else – today, and it was totally worth the 20 year wait!

At 7.15am got picked up by MJ and Kirby of Three Islands Whale Shark Dive and we headed for the Tantabiddi Boat Ramp just outside Cape Range National Park. MJ’s name was easy to remember but for some reason I kept thinking Kirby’s name was ‘Rigby’. And sometimes even ‘Digby’. Whut?

At Tantabiddi we were taken by Zodiac to our boat, the Nedo-K, and met the rest of our awesome crew. Except for deckie Marshall, I was pleasantly surprised to discover they were all women! MJ was our photographer, Digby – I mean Kirby – and Liv were our spotters/guides in the water, and Elise, who’d been a guide until last year, was enjoying her first season as skipper. And there was Tiff as well, piloting the spotter plane, doing bog laps of the coast to find whale sharks for us. Of all the tours I’ve done I’ve never encountered an all-female crew before, and they were brilliant! I wanna be just like them when I grow up.

We got the rundown on all the important info including something I already knew; if you get the sick, chunder over the side not in the loo. I hoped I wouldn’t have to as there was barely any swell, but I’d forgotten seasick pills so it was a possibility.. As we headed into Ningaloo Marine Park we crammed ourselves into our wetties and got fitted for snorkelling gear, then scanned the water spotting manta rays and turtles.

Ningaloo Reef Marine Park in winter. OMG
We’re not gonna need a bigger boat. Watermarked photos reproduced with permission from 3 Islands Whale Shark Dive and MJ because her shots are waaay awesomer than mine.

Turtles dived as soon as we got near, but a pair of friendly mantas strut/glided right past the boat like enormous underwater bats.

Next time I come to Exmouth I am totally going swimming with these guys too.
Next time I come to Exmouth I am so swimming with these guys too.

We headed first to an area of Ningaloo called Olive’s Reef. Beginners and less confident swimmers had a snorkelling lesson while the rest of us explored the beautiful corals and stalked the fishes.

All ours! And the fishies'.
I infinitely preferred snorkelling here to Turquoise Bay; it’s deeper, there’s less people and more coral and fish. I heard someone even saw a turtle! Not me though… shit.
Sea star light, sea star bright, first sea star I see today...
Sea star light, sea star bright, first sea star I see… today.
Useful Fact #123: Did you know the presence of clams is a great indicator of a healthy reef?
Useful Fact #2563: Did you know the presence of clams is an indicator of a healthy reef?
Absolutely stunning! I tried diving too but my buoyant wettie and ridiculously floatatious body wouldn't allow it.
Absolutely stunning, and incredible visibility! I tried diving too but my very buoyant wettie and ridiculously floatatious body wouldn’t let me. I felt like those barrels bouncing on top of the water in Jaws when the shark’s trying to dive; “She can’t stay down with three barrels on her, not with three she can’t!

Afterwards we had morning tea while Digby and Liv gave us the lowdown on whale shark etiquette.

  • For a start, whale sharks are filter feeders, like whales, but are fish – the biggest arsed fish in the world. After the coral spawns in March, there’s massive amounts of food in the water and hundreds of whale sharks, mostly young males, come to Ningaloo to spend their days swimming and eating. Ningaloo is party central for your typical teenage boy whale shark.
  • They have teeth, but only match head size, and they can’t bite you. And even if they could, they couldn’t swallow you as the back of their gullet is only about the size of a human fist. Those videos that proclaim “whale shark attacks diver!” are hilarious because it’d be the kind of attack you cop from your 6 month old baby: gummy mouth gaping, wanting to be fed, while he adorably drools all over your face. You have more to fear from a 2 foot high toddler with baby teeth than a 6 or 7 metre teenage rinky!
  • Whale sharks are short-sighted and seem to think bubbles are food. So if one comes at you don’t panic and thrash the water with your flippers to get away because they’ll just be curious and follow you around and no one will help you because they’ll be too busy laughing. It’s also why whale sharks sometimes snuggle up to divers. This video made me almost piss myself:

AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH SHAAAAAAAARTED!!!!! *CRASH* *snort* … I laughed til I cried.

  • That video also demonstrates why we’d keep a safe distance – out of its path and at least three metres from its head and sides; four metres from the massive scything tail. And no duckdiving because their tummies are soft and vulnerable and they’ll dive away if they feel threatened, leaving us minus one whale shark.
  • The girls used toys to illustrate how Tiff would locate a whale shark, then Elise would manoeuvre the boat into position, and then we’d hop in the water in formation with Digby and Liv. Hilarious and educational!
If we get into trouble the charming Prince Charming will be on hand in his trusty Zodiac to come and rescue us.
If you get into trouble – eg your arm falls off – Prince Charming will hoon in on his trusty steed Zodiac to rescue you.

Filter feeders cruise up and down the water column following food so Tiff had to find rinkies that were staying near the surface long enough for us to swim with them. We were a good ways down the coast when word came that Tiff had found one, so we split into our groups, grabbed our gear, and got ready.

3... 2... 1...
SO PUMPED!! 3… 2… 1…

… Splashdown! I kicked clear of the marlin board looking in all directions, but saw only a few jellies. I lifted my head to look over at Liv and make a kind of “wtf” gesture, and she barked “face in the water!!” I obeyed, and the whale shark was right below us! I may have squee’ed through my snorkel, and I know I was grinning because water came in my goggles.

This is 'Cigar Head' and he's about 8 metres long. We caught him just as he decided to dive.
This is ‘Cigar Head’ and he’s about 8 metres long, diving away from us. He’s named Cigar Head because he apparently has a mark like a cigarette burn on his head… shouldn’t his name be ‘Ashtray’ then? Ashy for short?

We watched him disappear into the depths, then yelled and cheered as we got back on the boat… WOOHOO SO STOKED! Then Tiff radioed she’d found another one. Two, actually! A circling pair.  We got there ASAP.

Whale shark pair 1

We didn’t have to swim far; we just positioned ourselves in the centre of their orbit and watched them lazily circle us.whale shark pair 2

It was incredible being in the water with these enormous animals! They were like flying spotted buses, moving leisurely but deceptively fast through the blue void, their bodies graceful and fluid. We were so absorbed with watching one that we didn’t notice the other one had changed course and was suddenly headed straight for us.

Cue mad thrashing to get out of the way, quick smart! We scattered to either side and he glided nonchalantly between us, all 6 metres and 6 tonnes of him..

We swam with three more rinkies that afternoon. The last one stayed on the surface so long we hit our max time limit with him; an hour!

whale shark at Ningaloo Reef

At one point we were swimming along behind and I was almost hypnotised, watching his tail gently pendulum back and forth. I relaxed so much my kicking slowed without my realising it… then I looked around and couldn’t see the whale shark. Couldn’t see anyone actually.

whale shark sea and sky

Popped my head out of the water and spotted Marshall who’d been shadowing me; he must’ve thought I was having a heart attack or something. Gave him the “all good” sign and headed for Liv’s upraised arm.

whale shark backlit Ningaloo Reef

Plenty of whale sharks for us today, we were stoked!

You can't tell but I am saying
You can’t tell but I am saying “RINKIIIIIIIEEEES!”

By the time we finished up with the whale sharks we were sooo ready for lunch; I was particularly hungry as I’d barfed during the fourth or fifth shark swim. I’d started feeling a bit dodgy on the boat but figured once back in the water I’d be fine… nope. Got worse. Hung on for another half an hour, then managed a surreptitious chunder as I treaded water waiting to get back on the boat. (No way was I gonna be first to spew over the side!) After that I was fine.

Even when we came across the stinky week-old corpse of a humpback whale on the way back to Tantabiddi – that was cool! We stayed for about half an hour watching it getting nibbled on by several exceedingly large tiger sharks; Marshall was in the zodiac and a shark swam under it and I swear it looked bigger than the boat! Rather glad we were done swimming when I saw that.

Three in the afternoon and still glassy...
Still glassy at 3pm… that’s me doing the supermodel pose conked out on the deck.

Nearly fell asleep on the cruise home, lying in the sun rocking gently with the boat. Got back to Exmouth a bit after 4.30pm, wishing the day could’ve been longer. I was happy my whale shark experience wasn’t quite over yet though… more on that next post!

– Michelle

6 Comments Add yours

  1. OMG!!! So want to do this……swam with the tail of a whale shark once- the bugger took off before i got a good look at him. Totally jelly & totally motivated me to get my hide over there 😀


    1. Michelle says:

      He swam off on you? Bum! Well our first one did a runner but yeah… We had FIVE more after him! 🙂 I heartily recommend Exmouth as a fantastic getaway (in case all my recent posts hadn’t already tipped you off) and can’t wait to get back there with the boys 👣😆🐋🐬🐠🐚☀️


  2. Fairlie says:

    Wow. That sounds like an amazing experience. Ningaloo is a part of WA I haven’t been to, but would really like to visit. It has just never seemed to work into any of our plans to date.


    1. Michelle says:

      It’s such an incredible place, I believe it should be on every Aussie’s bucket list. It is remote, but that’s part of why it’s so special, and the distance protects it from overcrowding too. It is SO worth it though 🙂


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