“Look down, he’s right under you”, I heard a spotter’s voice in the distance, as I adjusted my snorkel and stuck my head in the water. For a second the world froze. Right there, less than 3 meters away from me was the largest fish in the sea, a beautiful whale shark. Our eyes met, shooting waves of excitement through my entire body. Mesmerized and still in complete shock, I let out an almost silent “WHOA!” and fluttered my fins to catch up to the gentle giant as he continued to swim along the warm waters in Ningaloo Reef.
Swimming with a whale shark has been on our bucket list for ages. But it always felt like one of those extremely rare and adventurous activities that you could only experience in some exotic and remote destination, like the Galapagos Islands, Seychelles, or Mozambique. We had no idea that swimming with whale sharks was something you can do right here in Australia!
Turns out, you can!
Every year, between April and July, up to 1,000 whale sharks migrate to feed in the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, making it one of the best spots in the world to spot these gentle giants in the wild. Whale sharks can grow up to 16 meters in length, with a mouth over a meter wide which is designed for perfect consumption of plankton and krill. Despite their scary name, whale sharks are filter feeders and are absolutely harmless to humans.
There are dozens of companies offering Whale Shark tours in both Exmouth and Coral Bay. Most of them provide the same full day boat tour with 2 snorkels on the Ningaloo reef and lunch/snacks provided throughout the day. All the companies use shared spotter planes to increase their chances of spotting a whale shark although some try to use that as a differentiating point for their tour. And most of them have a comforting no show policy – if you don’t see a whale shark on your tour, you can come back the next day.
I’ll be honest with you, we had our doubts about signing up for a whale shark tour. At $390 per person, the tour comes with a hefty price tag, and the skeptic in me really questioned the value of the experience. We obsessively searched TripAdvisor for reviews.
“We literally saw one whale shark for 5 minutes.”, said one traveler in their review. “When you pay this much, you expect more time with an actual whale shark. “Don’t waste your money”, said another.
I was disheartened and let my hesitations set in. It wasn’t until the day before that we came across Kings Ningaloo Reef Tours, whose founder George King was the very first person to swim with whale sharks in the Ningaloo region in 1969. Their Tripadvisor Certificate of Excellence and 274 excellent reviews, few below 5/5, spoke for themselves. So it was decided, we were going to swim with a whale shark.
Our Day with Kings Ningaloo Reef Tours
We were picked up at 7:30am by a cheerful crew and a mini bus full of eager travelers. We were dreading the long ride (it takes about 45 mins to get from Exmouth to the pier), but Sasha, who introduced herself as one of our spotters for the day made it fly by. Other than being absolutely adorable, Sasha also happens to be a marine biologist, whose passion for whale sharks and for her work at Kings Ningaloo Reef Tours was evident from the get go.
She shared stories about the history of Exmouth and its indigenous people, told tales about the Naval Communication Station named after Harold E. Holt (Australia’s 17th Prime Minister whose drowning adds mystery to the history of Exmouth), and divulged captivating insights about Ningaloo Reef and Whale Shark Research and Conservation that takes place in the area.
Upon arrival at the pier, we were taken to the boat on a small, but mighty dinghy and introduced to The Magellan, our home for the day. Having spent the previous day diving from a much smaller boat, The Magellan felt luxurious, set up perfectly for a day out on the seas.
Shortly after our arrival and the mandatory safety briefing (these guys take safety very seriously), we were fitted with our own snorkels, fins, rashies, and wet suits, and began the journey to our first snorkel site. (P.S. The gear used at Kings was soooo much better than any diving company we dived with)
I grabbed a cup of tea (as you would expect) and made my way over to the marlin board. It was a perfect place to watch the ocean go by on a beautiful morning. It wasn’t even 9am and the sun was still making its way up from the horizon. The wind was playing with my hair and the light ocean mist planted millions of little salty kisses on my face. I could feel the Magellan’s strength underneath us. She was hard at work, making her way over the waves.
It wasn’t long before we were anchored in a bay, ready to explore the reef for the first time. We jumped in, guided by one of our spotters Krystal. She glided through the turquoise waters, pointing out the residents of the reef. We was just starting to get the hang of things, when suddenly our session was cut short.
“Sorry, to cut your snorkeling session short, guys”, said Krystal as we climbed back on board. “We spotted a whale shark! And it is only a short sail away! Bill (the captain) is heading there now”
Turns out Bill, the owner of Kings Ningaloo Reef Tours and the amazing captain of the Magellan, woke up that morning and decided to sail to that particular part of the reef, feeling like it would be a good place to spot some whale sharks that day. (Who needs spotter planes when you have Bill as your captain, right?)
So thanks to Bill’s incredible intuition we were off to a great start. We geared up for the big reveal.
Swimming With Whale Sharks
Following Krystal’s directions, our group of 20 was split into 2 groups of 10 (so as to not overwhelm the whale shark). We jumped in the water and quickly lined up behind Krystal, waiting for the whale shark to make its appearance.
“You will never forget the first time you see a whale shark”, Krystal reminded us a few minutes before we got in the water. “It’s a moment that will forever stay ingrained in your memory”
And she was right. That moment was magical. It was overwhelming. It was electrifying. It was scary and absolutely AMAZING. Even though the whale sharks are absolutely harmless, their sheer size and presence in the water makes you feel like a tiny little plankton.
The first swim was hectic. Our group was disorganized, trying to stay afloat, while huddling around the whale shark. We watched it pass right by us. I remembered Krystal’s safety instructions from earlier today. “Once the whale shark swims by you, it’s safe to try and swim along with it, if you can keep up of course”
I fluttered my fins and glided along the water. Finally gaining some speed. I managed to get ahead of many others and catch up to the whale shark, frantically fiddling with the settings on my GoPro. Max was well ahead, snapping away with our other camera.
We swam beside the shark for about 5-10 minutes. It was then the other groups turn. We climbed back aboard, still in awe. The Magellan sailed straight along the path of the whale shark, bringing us 300-500 meters ahead of it. We barely had enough time to catch our breath.
“Ready to go again?”, said Krystal.
We grabbed our equipment and jumped back in. This time, spending 10 minutes cruising along the whale shark. The next time it was 15 minutes, and then, a record breaking 20 minute swim.
The whale shark felt perfectly comfortable with us around it, so Krystal gave the go ahead for people to duck dive for a closer look. Max took the duck dive to the extreme, free-diving down to the very bottom of the ocean. He looks freaking cool doing it!
After 3-4 swims with the whale shark, everyone was satisfied, yet also exhausted. It takes a lot out of you to keep up with a gentle giant, but our group did really well.
When the crew told us it was time to sail away so that another group could have a go at swimming with our whale shark, no one even blinked an eye. After all, thanks to Bill’s intuition we were the first boat to arrive at the location of the whale shark and got a chance to spend almost 2 hours swimming with it before any other boat approached the area.
As we continued our journey along the reef that day, we got a chance to jump in the water a few more times and swim with 2 other whale sharks.
Some would say we were lucky, but I think it has a lot to do with Bill.
“He just loves the ocean”, Krystal and Sasha gushed on the bus ride to the boat. “We hear stories about other captains in the area and they just don’t care as much. They get in and get out, to them this is their job. If they are not feeling great one day they’ll just cut a day a bit short, so they can hurry back home. Bill never does that. He loves the ocean. Sometimes so much that they have to remind him that it’s time to go back”
We soon realized how true their words were.
The Time We Swam With a Manta Ray
It was around 2pm and we were sailing along the reef, slowly making our way back to the pier. We were showered and had already changed into our dry clothes, sipping on tea/coffee exchanging travel stories with Bill (the man has the most fascinating travel stories!) on the bridge.
“Hey look”, Bill interrupted someone’s story mid sentence. “There is a manta ray in the water. Do you guys want to swim with a manta ray?”
Our jaws dropped, our eyes filled with excitement.
“Are you serious? We would love to!”, we all shouted at once
“Well then, let’s make a stop. Jump right in”
We raced down the ladder and tore off our clothes. There was no time to worry about wet-suits, so we grabbed our masks and fins and jumped straight in. The manta ray was incredible! It was our first time seeing one in the wild and he was just as impressive as the whale shark. Incredibly graceful and absolutely gorgeous, he swam around us as we stood still watching his elegant movements. A whale shark and a manta ray – this tour couldn’t get any better.
After about 15 minutes in the water we climbed back aboard. 30 minutes later Bill made another stop so the group could get their second snorkel of the day. I was too tired to go back in, but Max had an amazing time, spotting a reef shark, a stingray, and a ton of fish.
Our day sailing on the Magellan was by far the highlight of our entire trip to Western Australia. Bill and his crew were the most amazing hosts, effortlessly delivering an experience that surpassed all of our expectation by and large. We couldn’t thank them enough for an amazing day on the reef! It was a day none of us will ever forget and a day I would gladly re-live over and over again!
So if you are still wondering if the whale shark tour is worth it? The answer is: It is worth every penny, especially if you choose to do it with Bill and the crew at Kings Ningaloo Reef Tours.
To find out more about Kings Ningaloo Reef Tours visit their website or call them directly at 08 9949 1764.
*Disclaimer: Kings Ningaloo Reef Tour offered us a discount on their whale shark tour, but all opinions are always our own. (That will never change!)
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