Things to Experience – Connect with Nature by Swimming with Whale Sharks

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Things to Experience – Connect with Nature by Swimming with Whale Sharks


A whale shark at Exmouth 2006

Imagine being in the warm waters of Western Australia’s pristine Ningaloo Reef. When it’s still, you can see the ocean floor some 20 metres below you with an occasional reef shark cruising around the outer edge of the reef. You know it’s only a ‘reefie’, but it still looks exactly like one of those ‘Hollywood bullshit-induced nightmares’ that can rapidly change the colour of your bathing costume. That depth can be a little disconcerting, even as a reasonably strong swimmer, but the anticipatory excitement of what you hope to see imminently is making adrenaline begin to course through your veins. You are surrounded by two small groups of fellow adventurers who are just as nervous and excited in equal measure. You’re on the surface with your mask just below it, looking out for an elusive creature, hoping that this will be the big moment.

Before you can possibly prepare yourself, a massive shadow begins to emerge from the slight murkiness ahead. In your mind this thing is like a submarine heading straight towards you, with the difference being that this one is alive. Then suddenly this gigantic mystical fish reveals its full form ahead of you with its gaping white mouth and distinctive stripes and spots. As it swims towards the gap between the two groups, you turn and start kicking with everything you’ve got, to try to build momentum and swim with it.

Among my recommended ‘Things to Experience’, one of the most life-changing events was that of connecting with a whale shark. If you ever have the opportunity to snorkel alongside one of these gentle giants of the sea, believe me it is an experience you will remember for the rest of your life.

The First Time

Whale Shark Swimming Past
Whale Shark Swimming Past

My first encounter was in 2005 at Exmouth in Western Australia. I was backpacking at the time with my Swedish girlfriend, Vicky and her best buddy when we went on an exciting day excursion at the Ningaloo Reef. As these wild creatures are sometimes unpredictable, our day on the boat didn’t result in a single sighting, despite the tour company employing the services of a spotter plane. Luckily for us, they offered a guarantee where we could go for a second day for half price. This time, the crew did find one, but unfortunately there was a rather large tiger shark hovering a little too closely for comfort, so they wouldn’t let us into the water. This was a not-to-be-missed holiday experience for the Swedish girls, who felt they might never have this chance again, so we negotiated a deal for a third day on the boat, even though we had to hang around in Exmouth for several days – hardly an imposition, as it’s a lovely place.

This time, the Universe looked kindly on us and rewarded our determination. As we encountered a whale shark, they positioned us ahead of its expected course. On this first sortie though the fish turned away and I found myself chasing its huge tail, which believe me, is not a race you will win. After about nine minutes, I ran out of steam. I had seen it, but not as well as I would have liked.

On the second run, however, I jagged it perfectly at the front of my group. I found myself swimming alongside the whale shark, measuring approximately eight and a half metres, looking directly into its big, beautifully soulful eye. I was kicking my fins as fast as I could whilst it gracefully and majestically cruised effortlessly in my company. This blissful moment seemed like an eternity. The tranquillity emanating from this sensationally enchanting creature pulled me in, as if I was in some kind of trance. I felt this incredible connection and sense of oneness with the entirety of nature. For me, the concept of time evaporated with this intoxicating connection and with it a message to my soul that everything was OK with the world, and that I had nothing worth worrying about. In reality, they said I swam alongside the ‘eye of eternity’ for about thirteen minutes before I simply couldn’t keep up. The elation I felt at this encounter was overwhelming. I was buzzing.

Where This Happens

They Don’t Really Bite!

The Ningaloo Reef, which is the world’s longest fringing reef, located off the coast of Western Australia, is renowned for its stunning marine biodiversity, including its population of whale sharks. These gentle giants are the largest fish in the ocean and are known to gather in Ningaloo’s waters between March and July each year. If you haven’t snorkelled before, don’t worry – as long as you can swim competently, the instructors at the various Whaleshark Tour Operators in Coral Bay and Exmouth will look after you.

At roughly the same times every year, these beautiful creatures visit the North-West Cape and feast upon the myriad plankton and krill that fill the waters of the Ningaloo Reef when the coral is spawning.

They are actually the largest of the shark family, but unlike the man-eating legends of Hollywood’s spin, these graceful fish are gentle and harmless to mankind. If only the converse was true as well. Certain countries are still known to commit barbaric acts towards them.

They have been reported as growing up to 18 metres (about 60’) in length, though the ones who visit Ningaloo each year are typically between four to twelve metres, and weigh up to 15 tonnes, with a mouth that can be over a metre wide. If frightened, they will usually dive and have been known elsewhere to achieve alleged depths of 700 metres!

The various tour operators take you to the outside of the reef, and after testing your skills with a practice swim and snorkel, they give you a great lunch on board. Then they have spotter planes in the air, looking for whale sharks. When they find one, they radio the co-ordinates to the boats.

The skipper will position the boat so that the snorkelling group can enter the ocean directly in the path of the whale shark. Now you can imagine your excitement as a living creature the size of a small boat comes into your line of sight surrounded by a host of other smaller fish.

That aside, you will also see plenty of other wonderful creatures during the day in this very special marine park, and you don’t even have to venture more than waist-deep to see passing schools of brightly coloured fish.

Jo was standing next to this model of a medium-sized whale shark at Donsol to give an idea of scale.

Don’t miss this spectacle. It’s not cheap, but you won’t regret saving up for it. And if you want even more of a guarantee, you can go to Donsol in the Philippines, as Jo and I did in 2016. They used to hunt them there before realising the huge tourism potential of making their bay a marine sanctuary, where whale sharks are protected. For only $30AUD we swam with no less than five whale sharks in a four-hour morning boat ride, though it did take three flights, a boat ride, and a long bus ride to get there!

I promise you that you will never forget the experience of swimming alongside one of the most graceful and majestic creatures in our world, so go ahead and add ‘swimming with whale sharks’ to your bucket list of things to experience.




Tony Inman

Tony Inman is an author of several books, mostly in the self-help arena. An entrepreneur with over 40 years of leadership & management experience in numerous companies in Europe and Australia, Tony has founded many of his own businesses in several fields, employing hundreds of staff and generating millions of dollars. He has worked with thousands of people, including many small business owners all over the world to develop and implement strategies for effective change and the achievement of their unique definition of success.

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