“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.
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For a second, the world froze. Right there, less than 3 metres 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… we were swimming with whale sharks!
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 of Ningaloo Reef.
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Swimming With Whale Sharks In Ningaloo Reef
Swimming with whale sharks 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. Some of the most famous whale shark tours are in the tropical waters of Isla Mujeres, where the warm Gulf of Mexico converges with the Caribbean Sea, or Mafia Island, Tanzania. We had no idea that if we wanted to swim with whale sharks, Australia is a perfectly viable option.
Turns out, if you want to go diving with whale sharks, Exmouth is the perfect place!
About Whale Sharks
Whale sharks are the biggest filter-feeding shark and the world’s largest fish. The largest confirmed whale shark measured 18 metres long. These gentle giants prefer warm waters found in tropical areas, especially those with coral reefs and an abundant supply of plankton, their favourite meal.
The continental shelf off the central west coast of Australia is a known hotspot for whale sharks, and for good reason. The annual coral spawning of Ningaloo Reef fills the warm water with plankton, making this part of the world the perfect feeding spot for the whale shark. Other migratory destinations are Donsol Bay, Philippines, and Coastal East Africa.
Sadly, these majestic creatures are now on the endangered species list. They are highly valued on international markets, and demand for whale shark meat, fins, and oil continues to threaten the whale shark population. They are also victims of accidental capture in fishing gear and boat strikes, especially in areas with unregulated fishing industries.
Best Time to Swim with Whale Sharks
Every year during whale shark season, between April and July, up to 1,000 whale sharks migrate to feed in the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia. If you want the chance to swim with whale sharks, Ningaloo Reef is truly one of the best places to spot these gentle giants in the wild.
The Riviera Maya through to Isla Mujeres in Mexico attracts whale sharks between May and September, while other locations vary because of regional weather patterns. If you find yourself in Coastal East Africa, the best time to swim with whale sharks is from October to February. While in the Maldives, you can swim with whale sharks and manta rays from December to April.
Is Swimming with Whale Sharks Safe?
‘How big are whale sharks?’ you might be wondering. Whale sharks can grow up to 16 metres in length, with a mouth over a metre wide, which is designed for the perfect consumption of plankton and krill. Despite their scary name, whale sharks are filter feeders and are absolutely harmless to humans, so you can swim with whale sharks without fear.
Responsible whale shark tours will typically have a comprehensive safety orientation beforehand. They’ll probably tell you how to respectfully and safely interact with these magnificent creatures and general guidelines on snorkelling in open water, which always comes with risks. It pays to do a bit of research when selecting which tour operator to go with – make sure that safety and environmental responsibility are priorities to the company.
Can I Scuba Dive with Whale Sharks?
Yes! If you are experienced in scuba diving, this is a great way to get up close with the marine life of Ningaloo Reef and explore the coral gardens. Our tour operator specializes in snorkelling tours, but there are plenty of companies in the Exmouth area that offer scuba diving excursions. As with any other tour operator, make sure they are focused on protecting the species and ocean conservation and have fun!
Where to Swim with Whale Sharks
If you want the best whale shark experience, Exmouth is a good place to start. There are dozens of companies offering Exmouth Whale Shark tours and Coral Bay Whale Shark tours. 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 whale shark encounters, although some try to use that as a differentiating point for their tour. Most of them also have a comforting no-show policy; if you don’t see a whale shark on your tour, you can come back the next day. Even during whale shark season Ningaloo Reef isn’t guaranteed to have any in the area.
What Other Marine Life Will I See?
The Exmouth Gulf is home to lots of marine life. Depending on the season, you might see humpback whales or sea turtles. Manta Rays can be found throughout the year, but the best time to see them is from mid-May to mid-September, as this is when their numbers increase significantly.
Is Swimming With Whale Sharks Ethical?
This was something that weighed on our minds as we researched tours for whale sharks in Ningaloo Reef. Diving with whale sharks sounded great, but not if it would hurt them or the ecosystem.
Then, we came across Kings Ningaloo Reef Tours, whose founder George King was the very first person to swim with whale sharks, WA, in the Ningaloo region in 1969.
Kings Are Eco-Certified And Since The Beginning Has Close Relationships With Local Conservation Groups For The Protection Of The Whale Sharks In Ningaloo Reef.
They take great care to ensure that their activities do not damage the environment or alter the behaviour of any sea creature. Their policies include non-toxic sunscreen use, high-efficiency motors, low noise/gas engines, and a no-touch policy.
There are plenty of other Ningaloo whale shark tours, but this information and their Tripadvisor Certificate of Excellence and 821 excellent reviews spoke for themselves. We cannot stress enough that if you want to find the best whale shark tours, Exmouth is your best bet.
So it was decided we were going to go swim with whale sharks during the height of Ningaloo whale shark season.
Our Day With Kings Ningaloo Reef Tours
We were picked up at 7:30 AM by a cheerful crew and a minibus full of eager travelers. We were dreading the long ride (it takes about 45 minutes 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 before our swim with whale sharks, 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 and some whale shark diving.
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 wetsuits, and began the journey to our first whale shark snorkelling site. (P.S. The gear used at Kings was soooo much better than any diving company we dived with.)
We grabbed a cup of tea (as you would expect) and made our way over to the marlin board. It was a perfect place to watch the ocean go by on a beautiful morning until it was time for our Ningaloo whale shark swim. It wasn’t even 9 AM and the sun was still making its way up from the horizon.
With the wind playing with our hair and the light ocean mist planting millions of little salty kisses on our faces, we already felt exhilarated. We 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 were just starting to get the hang of things when suddenly our session was cut short.
“Sorry, to cut your snorkelling 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 Ningaloo Reef 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.
When it came time for us to finally swim with whale sharks, Western Australia didn’t let us down.
Our First Encounter While 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 and 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 make 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. We remembered Krystal’s safety instructions from earlier today before our whale shark dive began. “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 were swimming with whale sharks for about 5-10 minutes. It was then the other group’s turn. We climbed back aboard The Magellan, still in awe. The Magellan sailed straight along the path of the whale shark, bringing us 300-500 metres 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 swimming with the whale sharks. The next time it was 15 minutes, and then a record-breaking 20 minutes spent whale shark diving.
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; Exmouth whale sharks are probably pretty used to people. 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 Ningaloo Reef 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 and go swimming with whale sharks twice more.
Some would say we were lucky during our dive with whale sharks, 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 that would take us diving with whale sharks. “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 2 PM 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 and 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 swimming with him was just as impressive as our dive with whale sharks.
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 after diving with whale sharks to go back in, but Max had an amazing time, spotting a reef shark, a stingray, and a ton of colorful fish.
Swimming With Whale Sharks Is An Experience Of A Lifetime
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 expectations by and large.
We couldn’t thank them enough for an amazing day on the reef! Our swim with whale sharks in Exmouth was a day none of us will ever forget and a day we would gladly re-live over and over again!
Is swimming with a whale shark on your bucket list? Or maybe you have already experienced swimming with these gentle giants? Share your comments below!
*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!)