Big Fish: swimming with whale sharks at Exmouth

whale shark

The North West

There’s something about the North West of Western Australia. You can feel it the minute you step off the plane. I think it’s the warmth; it seeps into your bones, makes you take a deep breath, close your eyes and turn your face to the sun. It’s what relaxation feels like. And on this particular trip, it’s relaxation mixed with a tinge of excitement: tomorrow we’ll be chasing the biggest fish on earth, the whale shark.

My whale shark swim came courtesy of a very thoughtful birthday present from my very thoughtful partner. There are several operators who take tourists out to swim with the whale sharks on the Ningaloo Reef, but we chose 3 Island and they were brilliant. Whale shark season runs roughly from March to August, and we took advantage of the ANZAC day public holiday to fly up from Perth, which is an easy two hours (as opposed to a 14 hour drive).

View from the plane

View from the plane

The experience:

We are picked up nice and early from our accommodation and taken on a half hour drive to the jetty where we’ll get transferred to the boat. On the way out, the tour guide gives us some really interesting facts about whale sharks and other marine life we might see on our swim. When we get on the boat, the staff give us an entertaining puppet show to demonstrate how to swim with whale sharks, how far we have to stay from them and some very useful tips (like don’t try to hang on to their dorsal fin or hop on their backs, whale-rider style).

The company has a spotter plane to find the huge creatures from the air and then guide us towards them. We’re split up into two groups, one sitting on the marlin board, waiting for the signal to jump into the water. And then suddenly it’s go time! We jump in the water with our snorkles on as the staff signal that the whale shark is coming towards us. I put my face in the water and wait, the excitement building, until suddenly a massive shadow appears out of the gloom. I’m so awe-struck that I forget all the tips we were given in the puppet show, and I watch as the whale shark draws level with me and then starts to go past. It’s not until I notice the other people in the group swimming like mad that I remember I have to start kicking to keep up.

The speed of the whale shark is deceiving; the slow, rhythmical swishing of its tail makes it look like it's barely moving, but the fact that I’m kicking furiously and still falling behind tells me this thing is going fast. I keep kicking until all the other swimmers have given up, then watch the whale shark slide off into the big blue.

whale shark 2

Back on board, we’re pretty pumped. It’s an exciting and intimidating experience being in the presence of something so huge, something that looks like it could kill you with a swish of its tale (but just can’t be bothered).

We get in the water two more times that day, and by the third time I remember my puppet show lesson and start swimming a lot earlier, so I’m able to keep up for a lot longer. The third whale shark takes a dive, but then comes up from directly below us. As the massive gaping mouth comes straight toward me, I have to remind my brain that they only eat plankton, not tourists.

whale shark4

By the end of the day, we’re completely satisfied. Everything ran like clockwork; the staff were great, the lunch was really good, the weather was perfect and the stars of the show had turned on a spectacular performance.

on boat

The town:

Exmouth is a small town, although it has two IGAs (supermarkets), a handful of shops, a couple of bottle shops, some cafes and a restaurant. You can see it’s benefitted from some Royalties for Regions funding, with a skate park and water playground being added in recent times. There’s really nothing to the town itself, but it’s still nice wandering around at a slow pace in the warmth. Exmouth used to be the home of a bustling US naval communications base, which was built in the 60's, but these days there’s just a skeleton crew. However, the communications towers just 6 k's out of town, which loom out of the flat landscape, are still interesting to see. The low frequency towers, some of which are higher than the Eiffel Tower, are still used to communicate with submarines around the world.

Other things to do:

Turquoise Bay – About a half hour drive from town, you’ll find one of those stretches of coastline that is quintessentially West Australian: the whitest of sand, the bluest of water. It looks like absolute paradise. What the brochures don’t tell you is that at certain times of year it is also infested with red jellyfish. Like on the day we went. The flies on the beach were so bad, we hopped straight in the water, only to be mauled by killer jellyfish (OK, ‘killer’ is a slight exaggeration, but the sting was bad enough for me to consider whether peeing on it is really an antidote). It wasn’t exactly paradise that day, but I’m sure it lives up to its stirling reputation at other times.

Turquoise bay (including killer jellyfish)

Turquoise bay (including killer jellyfish)

Note killer jellyfish lurking in foreground

Note killer jellyfish lurking in foreground

Charles Knife Canyon – We drove about 20 minutes out of town, only to find the access road to the Canyon blocked. Not to be deterred, we drove around until we found another way in, and I’m really glad we persevered. The canyon runs through the Cape Range national park. The wide open, untamed landscape can seem fairly barren, until you stand still long enough for it to come to life. The high points of the canyon offer stunning panoramic views to the ocean. We were lucky enough to be able to watch a storm rolling in, adding more than a little moodiness to the experience.

canyon

Pebble beach – Pebble beach is only about 10 minutes out of town, and as its name suggests, there’s more than a few pebbles here. It’s fun walking along picking up different coloured and shaped pebbles, and you can walk all the way to the navy pier; a concrete monolith waiting patiently for a time when it might be used again.

Water activities – Exmouth’s tourism is focused around the water, so there’s the option of going diving, snorkeling or fishing. Between June and November, you can also go out whale watching.

Snorkelling at the reef

Snorkelling at the reef

Sunset at the lighthouse - The old lighthouse on the hill is a local favourite for watching the sun slide down. There's plenty of parking and it's a great spot to break out the wine and cheese and sit back in silence. If you stay long enough, you can also see the lights come on on the oil rigs in the distance; a reminder that there's life out there on the vastness of the ocean.

exmouth sunset

The accommodation:

We stayed at Exmouth Escape and would definitely recommend it. We had a three bedroom, two bathroom villa to ourselves, and it was really modern with nice, neutral décor. It also had a full kitchen which we used a lot instead of going out to eat. But, when we couldn’t be bothered cooking dinner, one of the best restaurants in town was about 10 steps from our door. Whalers restaurant serves up really good food, in good time and has a great atmosphere, especially if you sit outside overlooking the gardens and the pool. The wine list is also admirable. We also rented a car through Exmouth Escape, which we definitely needed because this is not the kind of place you can see on foot!

Exmouth Escape

Exmouth Escape

Notes:

Exmouth is about a 14 hour drive north of Perth, or a two hour flight. The airport is about 45 minutes out of town.

If you swim with whale sharks, you can either take your own snorkeling gear, or the company will supply it for you. They also have stinger suits and wetsuits on board. The cost also includes a photographer who supplies you with photos on a disc the next day. See whalesharkdive.com

Turquoise bay

Turquoise bay

What's your favourite thing about Exmouth? Comments welcome below.