I love the ocean, whether it's near it, on it or under it, I'm up for it. From night snorkelling with manta rays to swimming with whale sharks, my aquatic adventures are among some of the best experiences of my life.
Here's my Top 3 (with bonus experience!):
Night snorkelling with manta rays in Hawaii.
My friend and I were on Big Island in Hawaii when we saw a brochure advertising night snorkeling with manta rays. Despite my friend’s misgivings about being eaten by sharks, we booked ourselves on the tour and I am so glad we did because it was absolutely one of the highlights of my life.
The boat took us out to Manta Ray village on the Kona side of Big Island. It was great just to be out on the water and to see Hawaii from another perspective. We got to the bay just on dusk and there were several other big boats already there. The crew shone massive lights into the water to attract a plankton smorgasbord for the manta rays to come and silently feed on.
Holding on to a flotation device and with mask and snorkel already in place, we slipped off the back of the boat, into the black water and swam toward the lights. It was a bit nerve-wracking being in the ocean and not being able to see anything beneath us (which I didn’t admit to my friend), but it was pretty exhilarating at the same time. When we got to the spot where the mantas were feeding, we put our faces in the water and any thoughts about being eaten by sharks immediately dissolved.
The mantas were right beneath us doing big, rhythmical, smooth barrel rolls. They were massive, some at least 6 metres from wing tip to wing tip. At the top of their feeding circle, you could see their white belly, and then their dark side would be visible again as they completed the cycle and continued to go round and round. They came so close to us that I could see every dark spot in detail on their white underside. A few times, they even brushed against us, but didn’t seem fussed about it in the slightest.
Watching the mantas roll over and over was one of the most mesmerising and calming things I’ve ever experienced. I could have stayed there all night (if we weren’t in danger of hypothermia setting in in). I still use the vision of those manta rays whenever I need to calm my mind. It really was a special experience.
Whale spotting on the Nullarbor Plain, South Australia
I signed up for the Wheels and Whales tour with Chinta Air, a self drive tour that starts in the coastal town of Ceduna, about a 1 ½ hour flight from Adelaide. After arriving in the town, we hopped in the hire car and started the three hour drive back west toward our destination: the Nullarbor Roadhouse.
While the ocean probably wouldn't be the first thing you'd associate with this vast, sandy plain, it's actually one of the best places to spot whales in Australia. And we got to see them three ways; from the air, the ground and the sea.
They’re just a few minutes flight to the south at the Head of Bight, where they come for two reasons: to give birth and to mate. After they give birth to their one tonne babies, the mothers recuperate at the Head of Bight for several months, while they wait for their calves to build up enough strength to swim back to Antarctica. Between July and October, the area is basically a whale day care centre, where the Aunties of the group also hang around to help give the mothers a break and protect the calves from the threat of hungry Great White Sharks.
When I see the plane from which we are to view this incredible whale circle-of- life, I’m a little less enthusiastic about it all. It’s tiny. And by tiny I mean it’s about the size of my car and has one of those propellers on the front that looks like you need to wind it up. But, I was captive in the back seat of this plane-no-bigger-than-a-car and before I knew it, we’d done a textbook take off from the dirt runway.
We spent the next half an hour flying over the Nullarbor Plain and the Bunda Cliffs, spotting whales in the southern ocean. The sand was flour-white and the contrast of the azure ocean was striking. The area was jam-packed with Southern Right whales, and we saw several mothers and calves.
After the flight, we piled into the car to have a look at the Bunda Cliffs from the ground. The wind was absolutely howling when we arrived at the Head of Bight, but we got a fantastic view of the turbulent southern ocean. Several mothers and their calves came so close to the coast, you could almost reach out and pat them…
They teased us for ages, only swishing their tales above the surface for that iconic shot we were all waiting for every time I put my camera down. This was the best I could do…
After getting well and truly wind burnt, we headed back happily to the Nullarbor Roadhouse for a drink, to compare whale-watching notes and have dinner. The next morning, we were up again and back in the car, heading to Fowler’s Bay, which is about a 2 hour drive back towards Ceduna.
We hopped on a boat with Fowlers Bay Eco Tours so that we could see the whales from another perspective; the ocean. It didn't take long before we came across a mother and her calf, the youngster happy to bob up for photos, but never fully jumping out of the water (until I put my camera down, of course!).
By the time we headed back to Ceduna for our flight to Adelaide, I felt like we'd well and truly made the most of our whale watching experiences, but also came away with the realisation that I'm never going to make it as a wildlife photographer!
Swimming with whale sharks in Exmouth, Western Australia
There are several operators who take tourists out to swim with the whale sharks off Exmouth, 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.
We were picked up nice and early from our accommodation and taken on a half hour drive out to the jetty where we were transferred to the boat. When we got on the boat, the staff gave us an entertaining puppet show to demonstrate how to swim with whale sharks, how far we had 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 had a spotter plane to find the huge creatures from the air and then guide us towards them. We were split up into two groups, one sitting on the marlin board, waiting for the signal to jump into the water. And then suddenly it was go time! We jumped in the water with our snorkles on as the staff signalled that the whale shark was coming towards us. I put my face in the water and waited, the excitement building, until suddenly a massive shadow appeared out of the gloom. I was so awe-struck that I forgot all the tips we were given in the puppet show, and I watched as the whale shark drew level with me and then started to swim past. It’s not until I noticed the other people in the group swimming like mad that I remembered I had to start kicking to keep up.
The speed of the whale shark was deceiving; the slow, rhythmical swishing of its tale made it look like it was barely moving, but the fact that I was kicking furiously and still falling behind told me this thing was going fast. I kept kicking until all the other swimmers gave up, then watched the whale shark slide off into the gloom.
We got in the water two more times that day, and by the third time I remembered my puppet show lesson and started swimming a lot earlier, so I was able to keep up for a lot longer. The third whale shark took a dive, but then came up from directly below us. As the massive gaping mouth came straight toward me, I had to remind my brain that they only eat plankton, not tourists.
Walking under the Busselton Jetty
I had a diving incident a few years back, damaging one of my ears, and I haven’t been able to dive properly since. So at first, I was a little apprehensive about the idea of walking on the sea floor seven metres under the historic Busselton jetty. But I figured this might be my only chance to get under the water again without my ear having to be in the water, so I decided to give it a go.
We signed up with the only company that offers this type of undersea walk in Australia: Dive Busselton Jetty. They’ve invested in some new technology to offer undersea walks that differ from most others around the world in that rather than having an air hose connected to your helmet that leads up to a supply on the surface, you carry your air in a tank on your back. The helmets are a cool $20,000 each, so I figure they must be good!
We were met at the end of the jetty by the lovely staff who took us through a safety briefing and explained that once we had the helmet on, we had to keep our head straight to avoid water getting in and keep equalising all the way down to the bottom.
Once we were kitted up, we descended down the ladder one at a time and into the water, where first the tank, and then the helmet were winched down. The helmet weighs around 30kg and the tank about another 10kg or so, but that’s what stops you from bobbing back up to the top once you get to the sea floor.
As instructed, I took the steps two at a time then stopped to equalise, guided by hand signals from the instructor (they have to be done right in front of your face since turning your head with a giant helmet on is not an option).
By the time I got down the ladder, the other two were waiting at the bottom. It was a very weird experience at first, and felt something like I imagine it would be to walk on the moon (just a bit less bouncy). I couldn’t look down to see where I was putting my feet (as instructed in the safety briefing), so I just had to be lead around and trust the instructor. The water was quite green, and had a slightly eerie, otherworldly feel to it.
The helmet was reassuringly noisy, letting me know oxygen was continually being pumped into my air space. After a short circuit, we posed for some underwater snaps before I tried my luck at a couple of selfies, which is not easy when you have a giant head and limited dexterity.
Overall, we loved the experience, and it was especially exciting for my 12 year old stepson who had never been able to explore underwater like that before. The walk would be great for anyone who doesn’t have their dive ticket, but wants to know what it’s like to breathe underwater. And it was also fantastic for someone like me who can no longer dive to get that feeling again.
For more info, see www.divebusseltonjetty.com.au