Adventures: Swimming with Whale Sharks

As I left Sydney for Western Australia, my wife's words were hardly encouraging: "remember, don't pat the ones with stripes. They're tiger sharks and they bite. Whale sharks have spots."

Whale sharks are the world's largest fish. A big one weighs 40 tonnes and is 15 metres long - that's 50 feet if you prefer an imperial fear quotient. They are also completely harmless. Like many whales, they live on tiny krill - not fish, seals or people.

From about March to May each year, over a hundred whales sharks can be found along the Western Australian coast near Exmouth. The exact season varies - apparently depending on the time of the spawning of the coral of Ningaloo Reef.

As I boarded the mini-bus early this month to drive to the wharf on the ocean side of North-West Cape, I was surprised to find most of my fellow passengers were Japanese.

"The whole whale shark phenomenon has received worldwide coverage - but in Australia, it's mainly been in diving magazines," Tony Medcraft, the proprietor of Exmouth Diving Centre, told me. "So the only Australians who know about it are divers - few realise that all you need to swim with whale sharks is snorkel, mask and fins."

Add a sense of adventure to that list. Minutes later, I was standing on the back of Tony's luxury 17-metre fishing boat, the Reel Affair, breathing through a snorkel and listening to the spotter plane overhead. When Peter Lake, the skipper, called "it's coming straight towards you: jump," we jumped. As the bubbles cleared I could see over 40 metres through the deep blue water.

At first, nothing was visible. The butterflies in my stomach turned into eagles. Then I saw it - a giant shape coming into view propelled by each sweep of its huge tail. It noticed us in the water and came over for a closer look. Fear fled to be replaced by a sense of wonder.

There was a group of us in the water. The seven metre whale shark came straight up in the middle of the group, broke the surface with his head then dropped down to a metre below the surface, standing on his tail.

For the next two hours it was as if we had adopted a puppy the size of a truck. It would develop a fixation on one of us and follow that person around. Conservation and Land Management rules for people swimming with whale sharks state that that you can't touch them, shouldn't get closer than a metre, and should swim out of their way.

No-one told this shark. As I floated on the surface it brought its mouth about 30 cm from my face mask and opened wide. Most of a whale shark is regulation shark shape but the face looks as if it was caught in a horizontal vice. The mouth of my newfound friend was about 1.3 metres across with an eye at either end.

When he opened this expansive maw it was like staring down a three metre well of flesh pulsating as his gills fibrullated. There was a fish of edible size living about a metre down his throat.

Now I know why I didn't become a dentist. I backed away. The shark advanced. I circled. The shark circled. The scene was starting to remind me of a school dance.

Then another swimmer came close and the shark shifted his attentions to her. I swam back to the boat to change film. When I jumped back in the water I found the shark waiting just below the surface behind the boat. It was like having a pet submarine.

That morning may be the most remarkable in my life. But it required no special skills. If you can tread water while breathing through a snorkel you can meet whale sharks.

However, unless you can swim strongly it's likely to be a fleeting encounter. Over the next couple of days, I realised how special our time with the friendly shark had been. I swam with five whale sharks over two days. Only one stopped to say hello. Another swam slowly so we could easily keep up and circle her at will. The other three had a pace that soon left us exhausted.

At these time the Exmouth Diving Centre's expensive operation proved its worth. As we tired, the ship's runabout picked us up and dropped us in front of the shark again. The spotter plane kept looking for more meandering, slower sharks.

Although most of our day on the Reel Affair was spend with whale sharks, it began with a dive on Ningaloo Reef. The diversity of coral and fish life here isn't as remarkable as the Great Barrier Reef. However, there is a spectacular juxtaposition of large open water fish and huge schools of bait fish.

Exmouth is the only place in the world where you can be sure of encountering whale sharks. It's likely that they also visit Queensland waters but they are too far offshore for viable spotter plane operation. And without the plane you just won't find them.

I was very impressed to observe that everyone at Exmouth Diving Centre was genuinely enthusiastic about whale sharks and very protective towards them. After observing them on a daily basis, Tony, Peter and Ron Campbell (a dive leader who has worked and photographed here for years) have amassed a wealth of knowledge about whale sharks.

Indeed, according to ecological scientists who were in Exmouth while I was there, many of the divers' observations break new ground. Dr Alistair Birtles and Peter Valentine from the Tourism Department of Queensland's James Cook University were here to observe WA's wildlife management rules.

It's hard to manage whale sharks because little is known about them. No-one knows where they travel during the year, why they come here, how many there are - even how long they live or whether males or females are larger.

Since a whale shark possibly gave rise to the story of Jonah, they have largely existed as the subject of improbable sailor's tales. That makes the wonder of swimming with them very special. There is nothing between you and this fabled denizen of the deep but a few metres of water.

The photographs on this page clearly reveal that. They were taken with my wife's small point-and-shoot waterproof Nikon camera. For wildlife shots in Africa, take a 300mm lens and an expensive SLR. For whale sharks, you're so close that any camera that keeps water out is good enough.

Exmouth is a very unusual outback town. It was created in 1967 as the support town for a US Naval communication base. Most of the Americans left a few years ago. Now it has a small permanent population plus visitors who come for the beaches and fishing, Cape Range National Park, Ningaloo Reef, and a passing parade of humpback whales (from July to September) and nesting turtles (from November to February).

But when I think of Exmouth, my first thoughts are not of 13 radio towers up to 388 metres high (taller than the Empire State Building, in US terms) or the red desert earth that begins at edge of town.

Rather, I think of a huge tail two metres high sweeping through a four metre arc. And of a Japanese girl not looking where she was going and being swept aside by the whale shark's tail like a pawn off a chess board. The shark dived and the girl apologised for scaring it away. She later said that the contact didn't hurt but rather felt like a giant hand pushing her aside.

A few years ago, only a handful of people had ever swum with whale sharks. This year several boats were leaving Exmouth each day with about eight swimmers on each. Even with sensible regulation it will be fascinating to see how long one of the world's most miraculous wildlife encounters will continue.

Fact File

A day with the whale sharks with Exmouth Diving Centre costs $299. This includes the half hour transfer to the boat, an optional dive on Ningaloo Reef, a salad lunch and soft drinks. It also includes the cost of the aircraft and the runabout to keep you in contact with the whale shark. More information can be obtained from Exmouth Diving Centre, PO Box 573, Exmouth WA 6707, tel (099) 491 201, fax (099) 491 680.

There are other operators selling truncated versions of this tour for about $200. Others are charging considerably more.

The cheapest Ansett return airfares for Sydney to Perth start at $399. From Perth, there is a special Great Deal holiday with airfares and three nights accommodation at the Potshot Hotel Resort for $429 - extra nights cost from $36. For more information, contact Ansett Australia on 131344.

That really is a great deal when the standard return economy air fare from Perth to Exmouth is $622. The Potshot is the best accommodation in town: it's modern, air conditioned and comfortable. There's a pool by the bar - and a large crab and prawn dinner costs just $13.

For more information on Exmouth, call the WA Tourist Centre on the Mezzanine Level of the City Centre, 247 Pitt St, Sydney, tel (02) 261 2800 or Exmouth Tourist Bureau on (099) 491176, fax (099) 49 1580.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd