Swimming with Humpback Whales at Ningaloo Reef

whale shark Ningaloo Exmouth

“Go, go, go!”

I pressed my mask to my face and launched into the water, tripping over my fin on the way down.

By the time I cleared out my mask the catamaran was gone, leaving six swimmers bobbing in a tight line, stomachs churning with nervous excitement. Daisy, the guide, pressed a waterproof radio to her ear as the pilot in the spotter plane relayed news of the humpback whales.

“300 meters away and heading straight for you,” the voice crackled.

“250 meters,” it said. “200.”

After that, a long pause and garbled words I couldn’t understand. I braced myself for the disappointing news that the humpbacks had changed direction.

“150 meters,” Daisy said. “They’re going slow, but they’re still coming right at us. Get ready to put your face in the water and watch me because I’ll be pointing at where you should look.”

“130 meters,” announced the radio.

My adrenaline was pumping and my thoughts became extremely simplified. I was tense, ready to follow any directions given so that I wouldn’t miss the whales. Whales are coming, I thought. I am in the water with whales. This is happening.

“OK, it’s time,” Daisy said. “Get under and remember to stay on the surface. They should be passing right underneath us.”

Heart pounding, I submerged my face in the water and scanned the hazy blue for a recognizable figure. Daisy’s arm extended out of the corner of my eye but I had already seen them: two enormous humpbacks, gliding directly beneath us, so close I nearly forgot to breathe.

WHALES, the voice in my head said. THOSE ARE WHALES.

Humpback whales

This makes me teary-eyed.

Humpbacks

AUUUGGGHH WHALES

They went so slowly I was able to admire every detail, from the white patterns that swirled at the edges of their bodies to the graceful curves of their flukes.

One whale shifted position ever so slightly, training a curious black eye on the six pairs of legs at the surface, before rotating back and continuing its journey.

* * * * *

When we sketched out our trip around Australia, there was a long list of places we didn’t want to miss, but very few experiences. One that topped the list for me was swimming with whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef.

But we got jobs in Adelaide, which changed the direction of our travels. Unless we sped our way through the Northern Territory, we’d reach the northwestern tip of Western Australia in late September, several weeks after whale shark season ended.

I made my peace with it, telling myself that I now had a new excuse to plan a trip to Mexico (where it was probably cheaper), but I was still bummed.

Then I read about the humpback whale swim. In 2016 Western Australia’s Department of Parks and Wildlife launched a trial where tourists could swim in the water with humpback whales. A handful of existing whale shark tour operators were trained to deliver the tour under very strict guidelines, including:

  • No swimming if there’s a calf in the pod
  • No swimming with whales who have been breaching or tail-slapping
  • Swimmers are to stay 30 meters from the whales
  • Maximum five swimmers in the water + guide

Swimming with whales is not guaranteed and any interaction is on the whale’s terms; under no circumstances should you approach them in the water. A spotter plane searches in a grid pattern to identify suitable pods, then watches their behavior at length before making a decision.

As soon as I read about this, I desperately wanted to do it, but told myself I didn’t. At nearly $400, it was a lot of money for what could turn out to be a very expensive boat ride.

Humpback whales underwater

I would do this all over again if I could afford it.

Then my birthday coincided with our arrival in Exmouth, and I got a $15 voucher from Red Balloon. That reminded me that I’d received a $150 Red Balloon voucher from my co-workers in Newcastle. There was a reputable company on the experience list offering the swim for $325 each; suddenly the total was a price I was willing to pay.

The instant I saw the whales I knew it had been worth it, something I’m very lucky to be able to say. There were three groups of swimmers on our boat, so even if one group is able to swim with whales, the others might have a completely different experience.

All three of our groups swam with whales, but the photographer quietly told a member of my group that our whale experience had been the best.

* * * * *

“Briefing at the front,” Daisy shouted.

All thirteen guests on board the Windcheetah scrambled to hear what was next.

“We’ve decided to cut the afternoon snorkel,” she said, “because we’ve got a chance to get you in the water with a whale shark. Is that alright with everyone?”

It was.

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the sea, growing as big as a bus on their diet of plankton and small fish. The rules are slightly different when it comes to swimming with whale sharks; up to 10 swimmers are permitted in the water and you can get within 3 meters of its body, 4 meters of its tail.

Whale shark

Definitely looking sharky from this angle.

whale shark head

Less so from the front.

We were instructed to stay away from its head and warned that swimming underneath it is strictly off-limits. Once the shark’s pectoral fin passed us, we were allowed to swim along with it.

As I floated in the water, simplified thoughts took over again. You just swam with humpbacks and now you are going to swim with a whale shark.

My eyes focused on the sandy bottom, preparing for their first glimpse of the giant spotted fish; that’s when Jared tapped me and pointed straight ahead. There, on the surface, was a 3.5 meter whale shark.

It swam past our group, then circled around to get a better look at us. As its wide, gaping mouth came at me I realized that the whale shark was setting his own rules; he didn’t care about maintaining a 3-meter distance. The guide and I nearly collided with each other as we swam to get out of the way of its mouth.

swimming with a whale shark

That’s me! Swimming with a whale shark!

Man swims with whale shark

And Jared! Swimming with a whale shark!

We swam with the inquisitive whale shark for at least half an hour; somewhere along the way Daisy pointed out a turtle that had joined the group but I could barely process this addition to an already overwhelming scene.

“Congratulations,” Daisy told us. “You are now part of the .0001% of the population who has been swimming with humpbacks and whale sharks on the same day.”

The statistic may have been an estimate, but I am under no illusions—we definitely had a once-in-lifetime experience.

Couple swim with whale shark

Probably the only time the two of us will swim towards a shark in the open ocean.

All photos courtesy of Ningaloo Discovery.

Swimming with Humpbacks & Whale Sharks at Ningaloo Reef

  • We swam with Ningaloo Discovery and I highly recommend them. The 2017 swim cost A$325 per adult, which includes your gear, pickup from your Exmouth accommodation, photographs from a professional photographer, two snorkels + a whale swim if available, morning and afternoon tea, lunch, and a glass of sparkling wine at the end of the day.
  • Whale shark season runs from late March to late July, but there are sometimes a few that stick around (like ours did!) into October or later. Marine biologists suspect there is a small permanent population of whale sharks around Ningaloo.
  • Humpback whale swims run from August – November but there is no guarantee you’ll be able to swim with them.
  • The humpback swims are still a trial at this stage, while the government continues to determine whether it is a sustainable model.
  • The swim is open to all ages (there were two six-year-olds on our boat) but you should be a strong swimmer as you’ll be in the open ocean.
  • Finally, I do recognize that tourist activities involving wildlife can fall into murky waters. Regulations are in place to protect marine life and the environment, but these swims have undeniably been developed to bring tourist dollars into WA. I’m grateful for the chance I had to spend time in the water with these magnificent mammals, but it’s so important to follow the rules to minimize human impact. Humpback whales were previously endangered along the WA coast but recent conservation efforts have brought their numbers up to over 30,000.

 

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Swim with humpbacks

 

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