Letho's Blog

Coral Bay and swimming with whale sharks

by on Mai.09, 2011, under Along The Coral Coast

May 08, 2011

We woke up very early at the Warroora Station campground at 14 Mile Beach, intending to drive back to the nearby Coral Bay.

Quickly get away before the caretaker catches us .. :)

Quickly get away before the caretaker catches us .. 🙂

In Coral Bay we had breakfast and were soon ready to hop into the water for some great snorkeling. Only a few meters away from the beach lies what we came here for: the Ningaloo Reef. Similar to the Great Barrier Reef it is a coral reef stretching along the Western Australian coast from below Jurien Bay all the way up to Exmouth. This means we had almost been going along the coral coast all the time since we started in Perth a week ago!

Although the Ningaloo Reef is not as big as the Great Barrier Reef, it has a lot of spectacular marine life to offer: turtles, rays, sharks, dugongs and lots of tropical fish in its beautiful coral gardens. Coral Bay’s outstanding feature is that you can get into the water on one side of the beach, let the current take you with it and swim along the coral reef to the other side of the beach. It’s actually called „drift snorkeling“.

So we stepped into the crystal-clear water, negotiated some sandy areas, large patches of seaweed and finally arrived at the coral gardens only 100 meters or less away from the beach. Although not as diverse as the Great Barrier Reef (e.g. no swim-throughs or big coral walls) the ocean floor was covered all over with beautiful corals in all shapes and colours, without any disruptions and as far as our eyes could see. And we saw a lot of tropical fish, e.g. damsel fish, parrot fish, wrasses etc. We accompanied a lovely sea turtle for roughly 20 minutes swimming and grazing in the gardens, occasionally resurfacing for a fresh breath of air. We had no luck with rays or sharks today, however, this was a fantastic time in the water just as we had wished it to be at the Ningaloo Reef. 🙂

At noon we hit the road again to be in Exmouth in time to book a very special trip – see below. We had enough time to take a look at the Charles Knife Gorge where we drove along the rims of the gorge with some amazing views of the land- and seascape.

Charles Knife Gorge

Charles Knife Gorge

We took some panorama shots for you to enjoy, here’s the first one:

Charles Knife Gorge panorama no. 1

Charles Knife Gorge panorama no. 1

And the second panorama:

Charles Knife Gorge panorama no. 2

Charles Knife Gorge panorama no. 2

After arriving in Exmouth we hurried to research for the next big thing: boat trips where we could swim with whale sharks! We had already learned before that the trips would cost us much more than we had expected. On the other hand we reckoned that this was a real once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There are only a few spots in the world where you are allowed to swim with whale sharks, and we were exactly here at the best time of the year to do it.

Whale sharks aren’t really whales. In fact they are the largest fish in the world up to 18 meters long, therefore their name is derived from their unbelievable size. Although technically being sharks they pose no threat to humans: they employ a technique called filter feeding, very similar to whales, whereby microscopic food as e.g. plankton, krill or algae is extracted from the sea water via the shark’s gills.

We compared different companies, negotiated, waited for feedback and a few hours later we had booked our trip: one day on the Ningaloo Reef with a company called Ningaloo Reef Dreaming, including one scuba dive trip on the reef – and all that for the best price in town! That was after we informed them what their competitors in town had offered us before. 😉

We stayed at the Yardie Homestead in the Cape Range National Park for the night, eagerly waiting for our trip the next day.

May 09, 2011

We were picked up at Ningaloo Reef Dreaming headquarters early in the morning. On the way to the Tantabiddi beach (where all the other companies have their boats as well) we stopped shortly at the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse.

Also on the way was the „Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station“, a very large communication grid used to communicate with submarines in the Indian Ocean. Interestingly the facility’s towers are higher than 300 meters – that is higher than e.g. the Eiffel tower!

Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station

Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station

We arrived at Tantabiddi Beach and were taken to our primary vessel in small inflatable dinghys:

The itinerary for the day was: scuba-diving first, then hunting for whale sharks. Thus we set up our scuba gear, were briefed and shortly after that arrived at the dive site:

The dive itself was really good fun: we saw not only lots of fish, but also turtles, a white-tip reef shark, a big ray with 1.5-2 meters wingspan and a tawny nurse shark. In our opinion we found scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef to be more exciting, but then we had dived only at a single spot at the Ningaloo Reef.

One key-argument to choose Ningalo Reef Dreaming was that they have an own spotter plane:

The company's own spotter plane
The company’s own spotter plane

Meaning they don’t hire or share a plane with other companies. The plane’s only job is to detect sharks (big, dark, moving shades below the water surface) and notify the sea vessels. Back on the boat from the dive it took only minutes until one of the crew members shouted out: „Whale shark spotted!“ This was the signal for us to get ready ASAP. The vessel’s engines roared as it gained speed to get quickly to the shark’s location. As previously announced it was a hectic atmosphere: snorkelers getting in their gear, skipper and crew rushing to get to the desired location and spot the whale shark, instructors coordinating their efforts to direct the snorkelers…

And then we were in the right position to be dropped into the water. The spotter (a crew member swimming closely to the shark all the time) jumped in, then did we. What we saw next really blew our minds .. I was later in the water as almost everyone else. Crew members shouted at me to get out of the way and pointed to the water. When I looked through my mask and below the water surface, I encountered this 10 meter male whale shark swimming almost directly towards me!

After paddling away a bit I tried to follow the other snorkelers and the shark, but soon lost sight of the shark. After being picked up by the boat again, I was once more released into the water and in front of the shark. And this time I managed to get straight to the spotter’s right side – there was this giant fish peacefully floating along, and we with it. We swam with it for almost half an hour, enough time to very carefully observe every detail: the shark itself, its white speckles, the fish schools hiding under his belly or swimming next to him to gain some extra food from the shark’s leftovers .. an incredible experience and nearly indescribable!

We were picked up by the boat after some time. The shark was given to another boat of the same company in order to share the experience. And what happened? It dived down into the deep sea! 🙂 So it was gone at first, but soon rediscovered by the spotter plane. We had a second turn with the shark, and again we swam along with it for almost half an hour. This time I switched positions to observe it from its left side and its back. Again – an awesome experience!

After having spent a full hour (the maximum allowed per boat and shark) we „gave“ the shark to other companies. Now we finally realized how lucky we actually had been today: we were only 10 people instead of the usual 20 on our boat, so we could all jump into the water at the same time without waiting. Furthermore we were not only the first ones, but the only ones at this day to discover a whale shark. When we had already done a full hour of swimming with this gorgeous giant all the other companies and the snorkelers aboard were still waiting for their first look at a whale shark! Simply unbelievable. We later learned that the whale shark trips in the following days were all canceled due to bad weather – double luck for us. 🙂

We went for some final snorkeling on the reef:

We returned to Tantabiddi Beach, totally happy with our experience.

To complete an extraordinary day we made a good barbecue and drank a couple of beers, again at the Yardie Homestead.

Beer and Barbie

Beer and Barbie

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