The Ningaloo Reef, Australia

On the day of our dive with whale sharks (!) we excitedly got ready and made our way across to the front of the hostel where we were picked up by our dive instructors – we were so excited!

We headed first to the Exmouth Diving Centre to fill in a few forms (i.e. sign our whole life away in the event of drowning, jelly fish stings, oh and shark attacks…). We were given a quick brief about the day ahead [Talk about the tour provider we chose) before hopping onto the mini bus and making our way across to the pier inside the Cape Range National Park. We were so excited to get out on the water and get started, although the closer it got, the more the nerves started kicking in!

We hopped into the mini bus and were driven across to the jetty which was about a 45 minute drive away from the town. Our driver was a marine biologist and really passionate about the area and the species of marine life here. She told us about the history of the area and gave us a low down of what we could expect to encounter throughout the day.

On arriving at the jetty, in small groups we were loaded onto a dinghy and taken across to the main boat, the Jazz 2, where we met the rest of the crew and got chatting to the rest of the tourists on the boat. It was a really nice group, a range of people from families, solo travellers to backpackers like us. We all got on really well which made the day fun. Once settled, the crew gave us a talk about how the day would run, before telling us all about the incredible whale shark.

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Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the world. Whale sharks tend to live for around 100-150 years. They’ve been known to reach more than 18 metres in length and can weigh as much as 47,000 pounds, that’s about equal to five elephants! Their mouth can be 5 feet wide, with three rows of about 300 tiny rasplike teeth. As filter feeders, they eat only plankton and the occasional fish, so they’re not dangerous to humans. Still, it’s easy to imagine a whale shark swallowing an entire person, like Jonah in the Bible…. Plankton are their main food source, but they also eat shrimp, algae and other marine plant material, sardines, anchovies, mackerels, squid, tuna and albacore. They also eat fish eggs. According to The Nature Conservatory, whale sharks will wait as long as 14 hours for fish to spawn on reefs. Then, they will swoop in and eat the eggs. Canny!

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I must admit, prior to coming to Australia, I knew literally nothing about whale sharks – apart from seeing the one in finding nemo! Great white sharks may get more attention in the press, but they are completely dwarfed by the incredible whale shark!

Our dive instructors explained that they use a spotter plane to track the sharks which then reported the co-ordinates back to the boat. When the boat reaches the shark it goes on ahead to intercept it in its path. Shortly before the shark reaches the boat we, the divers, would get into the water where we would swim alongside it. We were told that, although the shark isn’t dangerous to humans in terms of an attack, we must be careful not to get too close to its tail fin as this would sweep us out the way no bother! We were also told not to swim directly in front of the shark as it wouldn’t see us; I’m sure the majority of us had no intention of getting in front of that huge mouth of its, nor indeed did we fancy  2.5 tonnes of muscle swimming right into us!

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We split into two teams and practised the dive. We jumped into the water and practised our understanding of the spotter’s hand signals, who would be telling us what direction the shark was coming from and when to submerge. We couldn’t wait to get started!

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Luck soon was on our side and before we knew it, ‘shark, shark’ was announced and team one got into the dive position. We were off!

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Wearing snorkelling gear and a wet suit we rolled backward off the side of the boat into the water. As soon as the bubbles cleared, I saw the whale shark directly under me. Instead of fear, I felt awe. The shark’s movements were slow but powerful. Lateral ridges along its back gave its body a muscular grace. Five long vertical gills on each side flapped open and closed, expelling water. Its gray skin—about 4 inches thick—was patterned with yellowish white lines and spots. Each whale shark has its own spot pattern, like a fingerprint, which allows scientists to recognize and keep tabs on them. Our instructors estimates that the shark we swam with was around 8 metres long – a big shark by any standard! We all tried our best to keep up with the shark for as long as possible, however although it appears to move slowly, it doesn’t half get some speed behind it! Exhausted, you have to eventually give up and watch it gracefully swim away into the distance.

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Luckily for us, the whale shark tends to stick to a pretty straight line as it moves through the water, this enables the boat to keep close tabs on it allowing for multiple dives along its paths. In total we were able to swim with the shark three times and it was genuinely the most incredible experience. I did have a close encounter however on the second dive. I unfortunately misread the spotter’s directions and instead of swimming left I swam right…. when I put my face underwater I got the biggest shock seeing the shark literally feet away from me coming right at me! I actually really panicked but was able to get out of its path just in the nick of time….!

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Back on board we were treated to a delicious lunch and a very well deserved glass of champagne to toast our successful dive. We were so impressed to hear that only one in every one million people has the opportunity to dive with whale sharks; it definitely was a once in a life time experience which I couldn’t recommend more.

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Soon it was time to sail back to the mainland after the most incredible day out on the water. Our luck however was just about to soar…

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One of the crew on the boat suddenly announced that he could see whales in the distance. A whole group of incredible humpback whales with a calf to tow. We were treated to the most incredible show from the whales; leaping out of the water, rolling in the air with their huge pectoral fins outstretched like wings, before crashing against the surface.  The noise was honestly deafening! This is called breaching and scientists are still trying to figure out why humpbacks do this. It’s not known whether they breach as a self cleaning method, or whether they genuinely just do it for fun. We all just stood there in complete awe for about an our watching this incredible event happening right in front of our eyes. We were so incredibly lucky to witness them! Humpback whales live on average for 45-50 years; they tend to reach lengths of 14-18 metres and weigh a whopping 50 tonnes – they’re definitely the giants of the sea! We couldn’t believe our luck that in one day we had swam with a whale shark and watched a whole pod of humpback whales.

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After the most incredible day on the water we arrived back to the jetty and headed back to the campsite for the evening. What a day to remember!

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