Exceeds Expectations

Tue. 28th May 2019

Expectations risingThere are a number of reasons to be nervous today and not just because of the anticipation of the experience to come – on my priority list of things to see and do, swimming with whale sharks is very high up. As this is a completely ‘in the wild’ activity, there’s no guarantee that we’ll even see a whale shark. I’ve also just listened to the briefing on how the swimming will go and the emphasis is on – when you see the whale shark, start swimming and try not to fall behind. Naomi, the photographer and effectively the underwater leader ends with the comforting words of “don’t worry, you won’t be the first person to swim slower than a whale shark”.

Parrot fish and friendsAs usual, it is a mixed group of 20 punters, plus Janet (observer), gathered on the boat as we head out from the boat jetty in Coral Bay. Ningaloo reef lies offshore and (of course) the whale sharks are on the far side of the reef. The problem is that the reef runs a long way parallel to the coastline and at times the channel is very narrow as the boat makes its way north to the exit to the Indian Ocean.

Naomi at workBefore we get there, there is a ‘warm-up’ snorkel at Coral Maze one of many marked snorkelling stops on the inside of the reef. As the sun is shining and the day is already getting warm, this is no hardship at all and it is a good opportunity to check that mask, fins, snorkel and most importantly of all, my camera in its housing are all working properly. It’s a guided snorkel and Annie and Sophie lead us around the coral formations and signal when they spot something particularly interesting.

Incredible patterns in the coralIt’s mesmerising. We’re further out from the shore and so the water is that much clearer but not that much deeper. The coral forms incredible shapes – like deer antlers, like flowers and even like a giant brain. And then there are the fish – all colours shapes and sizes, and mostly not at all bothered by the presence of clumsy humans in their domain. The highlight, of course, is when a turtle is spotted gliding through the water so effortlessly and elegantly. For a while it is content to laze around and find some weed to eat but eventually, it decides to head off and then there is no keeping up with it.

Won't ever get tired of watching turtlesThis blog doesn't write itself you know!To help us find the whale shark, a spotter plane is sent up from the nearby airport while it is up and looking we are speeding up inside the reef and there isn’t much to do apart from enjoy the morning coffee provided on board; write up notes for the blog; chat with some of the other passengers; and sit on the front enjoying the sunshine watching the coast go by and looking out for fish. At one point a few dolphins come out to play around the boat and later a hammerhead shark is spotted. A tough way to spend an hour or so. But how fast do whale sharks swim?

Lined up and ready to go - but will I be able to keep up?Well, I soon get to find out as the call comes down that a whale shark has been spotted. While the boat heads over we are organised into two groups of 10. Our time in the water is limited (by the marine authorities) to an hour with the shark and no more than 10 people around it at any one time. Sensible rules, but that drives a need to be organised and efficient. The first group form up on the platform at the stern and once Naomi has found the shark and confirmed which direction it is swimming, they slide into the water and line up to watch the shark as it swims past.

My first glimpse - and I'm not supposed to be in front of him!Once the first group are in the water, myself and the rest of the second group take their place on the platform and wait for the instruction to get in. All the while the tension rises. As per normal, once in the water not only do the nerves go and the experience is all that I could have hoped for and more. It turns out that our shark at a mere 5m in length is a bit of a tiddler (they grow up to 18m). Even now, two days on, I can’t get my head around how big an average 9m or 10m whale shark would seem in the water – this one was easily large enough.

This is about where I am supposed to be - just love the lighting effectsThe great news is that he seems to be in no sort of a hurry whatsoever and is just lazing along in a continuous ‘S’ shaped path. It turns out that staying out of his (as confirmed by Naomi) way is more of a challenge than keeping up with him. He isn’t interested in us as food (the biggest fish in the world eat plankton and krill and – the reason they are here each year – coral spawn). Actually, he just isn’t interested in us at all. But I still wouldn’t want him to swim in to me.

Where does a whale shark swim?With just 10 in the water (plus the leaders) it isn’t too much of a scramble to get a good view – and, as it turns out, some amazing photographs. I’m unbelievably pleased with how the pictures have turned out. I’d like to claim it was skill but actually having great lighting, very clear water and a large, slow-moving fish that stays close to the surface doesn’t half help. The biggest challenge was when I tried to get the whole fish in frame. Perhaps if I had an even more expensive camera and a very whizzy underwater housing like some of the pros, I’d get better results still??

...Anywhere it wants to!In all, we got 4 swims with the whale shark with perhaps half of the allocated hour actually spent in the water swimming alongside him. I lost track of time, mesmerised by the size and grace of the shark – and his attendant shoal of fish. Sadly, all too soon we are called back and it is time to head back to land. On our way back to the jetty, we are scheduled to have another snorkel inside the reef but we are sidetracked by the spotting of a manta ray. We slip back into the water but soon learn what we might have found with the whale shark – these big fish can move quickly when they want to! Despite swimming as hard as I could for as long as I could, I got no more than a glimpse or two of the ray. More confirmation that we were very lucky with our shark.

Click the picture and then try to spot the shark!The last snorkel of the day provides one final surprise. We’re again back in the shallow water coral formations inside the reef. There are fish in all shapes, colours and sizes (other than XXXXL whale shark) in abundance. In particular, I’m taken with this school of yellow fish that just stretched back into the distance as far as I could see. I was so glad my camera was able to capture the scene that it was only later, when I was processing the photo that I spotted the reef shark lurking among the coral. So, that would be fish on the menu for him then!

A fitting end to the tripWe had a treat waiting for us too when, tired and exhilarated, we got back on the boat for the final time. All lined up there were some glasses of fizz waiting for us. Well quite right too. Its not every day that you tick off one of the things you’ve been wanting to do for years and years. It’s even rarer when everything comes together – the sunshine, the lack of wind, the clarity of the water, an idling shark, helpful leaders. It’s a wonderful day when everything just exceeds expectations.

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