Measuring the length of a school bus and weighing some 19 tonnes, whale sharks are the world’s biggest fish – and one of the rarest. As a result, the chance to cruise alongside one of these gentle giants – at least close enough to see its distinctive mottling and the mesh-fine gills it uses to sieve plankton – is particularly hard to find. But just off the mid-west coast of Western Australia is one of the world’s few remaining habitats where the sharks, listed on the IUCN Red List as “vulnerable to extinction”, are anything but scarce.
From March to July, the massive fish congregate along Ningaloo Reef, just in time to feast on the krill that swarm when the coral starts to spawn. Though they also are often sighted in similar climates – in the waters off India, Thailand, Belize and Mexico – nowhere else are whale sharks found in such great numbers and with such chronological precision. As much of the species’ migratory patterns remain unclear even to those who study them, especially as the fish often dive up to 1,500m deep and spend a long time away from the water’s surface, the predictability of their appearance in Ningaloo is an especially rare boon.
“Satellite tagging has revealed that whale sharks probably head north, for instance to Christmas Island, when they leave Ningaloo, but much about them – their exact migratory movements, breeding grounds and gestation period – is still a mystery,” said Brad Norman, co-founder of the Ecocean Whale Shark Photo Identification Library and a whale shark researcher since 1994.
One of the easiest ways to glimpse the creatures is with a conservation-focused day cruise company like the Exmouth-based Ocean Eco Adventures, which tracks the animals down with a spotter plane. Well-informed guides lead single-file snorkelers to swim with the fish, keeping a respectful distance of 3m from the animal’s side and 4m from the tail. Such measures are vital to minimise human impact and ensure whale shark survival. Visitors, meanwhile, are encouraged to help the endangered species. Since the spot patterns on whale sharks are as individual as human fingerprints, Norman said, each one can be tracked – and even day-trippers can help by snapping photos and uploading them to the library’s website.
Sailing and snorkelling Ningaloo
While whale sharks are one of the area’s biggest draws, they are just one aspect of Western Australia’s extraordinary wildlife. Covering 2.5 million square kilometres – one-third of the Australian continent – this remote and sparsely populated region is a vast playground for all manner of creatures. Echidnas (spiny anteaters), kangaroos, wallabies, wallaroos and emus roam the outback and grassy plains, while ospreys and wedge-tailed eagles soar overhead. In the Indian Ocean, off the region’s 20,871km coastline, turtles, dugongs, humpback whales, dolphins and manta rays splash and swim.
One gem in the area is Ningaloo Reef, Australia's largest fringing coral reef, which was formed close to the shore, spans 604sqkm and was listed as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2011. Plans currently are underway to make Ningaloo Reef part of Australia's visionary plan to create the world's largest marine park, which will surround the entire continent and cover 1.9 million square kilometres of ocean. For now, however, Ningaloo has none of the crowds found on the east coast’s Great Barrier Reef. Even though its shallow, turquoise waters are accessible to anyone with a snorkel and flippers, there is barely a soul on the sugar-white beaches that frost Ningaloo’s 300km of coastline.
Beyond whale sharks, Ningaloo is home to more than 500 species of fish, turtles (hawksbill, loggerhead and green), manta rays and dugongs, all of which can be spotted year round. From mid-March to July, migratory humpback whales can be spotted playing with their newborn calves before they make their long journey south to Antarctica, transforming the waters into a giant aquatic nursery with acrobatic shows of breaching and tail-lobbing.
With so much underwater diversity, it can be easy to look, but not see – which is where the marine experts on live-aboard catamaran Sail Ningaloo come in. These multi-day cruises take groups of maximum 10 guests out to the reef lagoons off the coast of Coral Bay, a small town 150km south of Exmouth. Several dives and snorkels daily come with briefings, including tips like how to tell a blue damselfish from a pouty sweetlips, where to find turtles and how to float when observing manta rays. The sites that groups visit stretch from Asho's Gap, a cleaning station where docile grey reef shark let fish nibble away as nature’s answer to a spa treatment, to the Fishbowl, with its rainbow-hued clouds of tropical fish.