Ticking swimming with whale sharks in WA off my bucket list

Whale sharks
Whale sharks

​My bucket list just got shorter by one major event – I finally fulfilled my wish to swim with the whale sharks. These majestic creatures visit Ningaloo National Marine Park every year following the spawning of the coral on the reef that fringes the most western point of Western Australia, along Cape Range National Park near Exmouth.

My first attempt was eight years ago when we were doing our first lap around the block in our Landcruiser and caravan, but I had timed it all wrong and arrived a couple of weeks too early. Evidently I needed to have coordinated my arrival with the first full moon after the autumn equinox when the planets were aligned, but we had tickets to fly from Darwin to the UK a month later and could not afford to hang around waiting for these gentle giants to arrive. Ever since then this has been on the top of my bucket list.

Read more: The whale sharks of Donsol

Lucky for me I have a daughter-in-law, Bec, who had her listening ears on when I was telling her we were planning a trip to Ningaloo to see the whale sharks. Not long after on my 60th birthday, low and behold, there was a voucher to swim with the whale sharks in my birthday card from both my sons and their wives – what treasures they are!

Exmouth, WA

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We arrived on the peninsular a few days early and spent some time camping in the Cape Range National Park, snorkelling in the coral rimmed, pristine bay. We hiked into the various gorges and the spectacular vistas from atop Yardie Creek Gorge were breathtaking, as was the trek up Mandu Mandu gorge – talk about puffed out! I was hoping to find some emergency defibrillators nearby.

Having survived Mandu Mandu Gorge, by Friday morning I was well rested and ready for anything. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, at 7.20am I rendezvoused with the bus to take me out to the boat harbour. After several days of very choppy conditions, the sea was luckily relatively calm this day. However, being a poor sailor, I took a couple of pills just in case and only just managed not to hurly burly overboard en route to the outer reef.

The coastline

By 10.20am the spotter plane had located the first whale shark of the day and we motored to within swimming distance of it and dropped off our crew member, Sian, who indicated to us the most opportune moment to dive in.

Geared up with goggles and snorkels and decked out in stinger suits due to the recent arrival of Irukandji jellyfish on the reef (just another one of Australia’s life-threatening creatures), we were poised to take the plunge on the cry of, “Go, go, go” then swim like the clappers for the 100-200m that separated us from Sian’s waving, yellow, rashie-clad arm.

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The visibility was still fairly poor — it was a bit like looking through aqua milk — but it was as we were told to expect it. Within two metres of us a giant fish suddenly appeared before our eyes, all six meters of it, as if out of the ether. One minute there was just ocean and the next, there is the largest fish in the sea staring us in the face. It was awesome!

A whale shark

Although the whale shark was just idling by, we on the other hand had to swim hell-for-leather just to keep up with it. After repeating this endeavour five or six times over a period of an hour and a half, by the time we returned to the vessel I was about to collapse. It’s a good thing my bucket list is getting shorter – another box ticked.

Read more: 5 Australian road trips worth writing home about

Travelling around Australia for the past year, I’ve been amazed by so many beautiful things that weren’t even on my bucket list but certainly should have been. I think the whole trip is one big bucket list.

So, what’s the next item to cross off? I’m not sure. I’ve still to see cherry blossom time in Japan, the wildebeest migration in the Serengeti or the trees change colour in the North American autumn. But I really need to leave something on the list, because, let’s face it, once I’ve ticked every box all that’s left is to kick the bucket, so maybe I’ll leave the bungee jumping in New Zealand to last. My great-grandkids can push me there in my wheelchair on my 99th birthday. That’s something to look forward to.

Is swimming with the whale sharks on your bucket list? Let us know in the comments.

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