Whale Sharks in Exmouth

9 Apr

SUCCESS!

As soon as we arrived in Exmouth yesterday, our first stop was the tourist information center where we were determined to book a tour swimming with the whale sharks. Luckily, there are 7 different companies that run from Exmouth to the Ningaloo Reef. A couple of them were already booked out, and when Britt and I pressed the employee to tell us which company provides the best tour, she simply replied that they are all paying customers so she can’t give an opinion on the matter… but would we like to book with 3 Islands? At the time I thought she was just trying to book us on that tour because there was plenty of room, and she was trying to even out the numbers on all the different boats. But in retrospect, I’m fairly certain she was trying to hint to us that we would have the best experience with them. I’m so glad we went with the 3 Islands tour!

3 Islands picked us up from the visitor information center this morning and then swooped around to pick everyone else up at their accommodations (including ours, but we hadn’t booked that until after we booked the whale shark tour). It was probably a half hour drive around the top of the peninsula to the other side where a small dingy waited for us on the beach. We took turns hopping onto the dingy, which shuttled us out into the deeper water where our proper diving vessel was anchored. The crew gave us their greetings and introductions (and some morning tea and biscuits) as we set off to a snorkeling spot along the inner reef. Similar to yesterday, they were giving us the opportunity to snorkel around and get used to our equipment… and probably scan to see who would most likely need rescuing. Not only was the current not as strong as it was outside of Coral Bay, but the visibility was also significantly better. Right from the beginning, we knew this would be a great day of snorkeling!

The snorkeling sight was only about 5 or 6 meters deep, but within a half hour I saw parrotfish, pufferfish, starfish, venomous catfish indigenous to the Ningaloo Reef, and a rather large and intimidating moray eel… just to name a few.

wrasse and parrotfish

stars and stripes pufferfish

starfish

black sailfin catfish (venemous)

feeding on a jellyfish

(I was too scared of the eel to get close enough for a proper picture.)

After we snorkeled around a bit, the crew waved at us to return to the boat. The spotter planes had already taken off and were radioing in to the boat the location of a whale shark. By the time we arrived at its location in the outer reef, the whale shark had already dived down into deeper water. Because they are actually sharks and not whales, there is no reason that the whale shark actually needs to surface since they don’t require oxygen. They prefer the surface for its warmth, but may dive down either because they feel threatened or because they want food, in which case they would dive down and then resurface with its mouth wide open to catch plankton and krill. We waited a moment, but this particular whale shark never resurfaced so the spotter plane tracked down some more sharks for us.

By the time we were ready to jump in the water, I could barely sit still I was so overwhelmed with excitement. 16 people were on our boat but only 8 people (plus our guide) are allowed to swim with the shark at any particular time. Therefore our guide was the first one in the water, and the first group was instructed to quietly slide into the water behind her. “Keep your head down!” No sooner had we jumped into the water that the massive whale shark appeared right in front of us. Even though no one could hear me, I was still saying, “oh my goodness, this is unreal!” through my snorkel. All you see underwater is this massive creature swimming towards you, then its mouth opens as big as the windshield of a Greyhound bus and you get a vision of being sucked into its body like Pinocchio. Of course it ducked right underneath us, and as soon as we gained composure, we were racing after it.

After the first group got their chance to swim with the shark, our guide would motion for us to stop and then the next group would drop into the water a slight distance in front of the shark and pick it back up. We would trade back and forth like this a handful of times until the shark finally dove deep below the surface outside of our visibility. Then the plane would indicate our next location for finding a whale shark. Though the spotter planes help, there is no guarantee that any whale sharks will be in the area, even during the peak season, simply because they are wild animals and they decide when and where they want to go. We were extremely lucky to have seen so many whale sharks! What’s even more remarkable is that in one particular snorkeling session, there were 2 whale sharks swimming together. We were frantically swimming trying to keep up with the first one and then all of a sudden another one popped up underneath us. It scared the wits out of me! Only one guide on our boat has seen 2 whale sharks swimming together before and she thought it was probably 3 or so odd years ago… and she takes these tours out almost every day!

Whale sharks are the largest creatures in the sea, the biggest recorded being 18m long! The whale sharks we saw today had not yet reached maturity and ranged from 5-8m in length. (Apparently the really big ones are found around Taiwan!) In addition to its size, the most alluring aspect of whale sharks is its total mystery in the world of marine biology. The migration patterns vary significantly between each individual whale shark and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for their choice of direction. And they usually always travel alone, which made it super cool that we saw 2 together! No one knows where or how they mate or even where they give birth to their young. They don’t know whether the mother cares for her young or if she just leaves them to fend for themselves. Only in the last 5 years did scientists discover that they give birth to live young. A female whale shark was unfortunately hunted down in Taiwan, and when they cut her open, she held 300 fetuses at different stages of development. Such a shame!

The whale shark is listed as “vulnerable” to extinction in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. ECOCEAN developed a program through which tourists and tour guides can submit pictures of the whale sharks in order to help keep track of their migration patterns and hopefully learn more about them. Their spots (or “bodyprints”) are as unique as our fingerprints, so they ask that you take a picture on the left side of the whale shark perpendicular to its spotting above its left pectoral fin. They use the same program to map the pattern of spots that NASA uses to record the positioning of stars. After submitting your picture, ECOCEAN will send you an email any time this shark is identified in the future all across the world! I didn’t capture any great images at the correct angle from the left side of the whale sharks, so even though I can’t participate, I still thought this program sounded really cool and worth mentioning. It’s a great way to get everyone involved in learning more about these amazing creatures!

I can’t stop looking at my own pictures!

reef shark swimming with the whale shark

After our experience swimming with the whale sharks, we were given one last snorkeling opportunity along the inner reef. I’ve never been a fan of snorkeling until this trip. I suppose my previous snorkeling experiences have never been comparable to my SCUBA diving experiences, but the Ningaloo Reef was certainly an exception! I saw the stars and stripes pufferfish again, as well as some other interesting sea life. None of those were as exciting as the flounder! I’ve never seen a flounder before, and to be honest I’m fairly surprised I was able to see it this time. As soon as it stopped moving, it was impossible to see. I tried to point it out to a few other people snorkeling, but ended up just having to show them my pictures. So cool!

flounder!

red bell jellyfish

This was truly an amazing day… one I will never forget!!! I wish everyone had the opportunity to experience Ningaloo Reef. Believe the hype!

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One Response to “Whale Sharks in Exmouth”

  1. daniellesmakeupbag 25 February, 2015 at 5:29 AM #

    So happy you got so swim with Whale Sharks it’s an amazing experience, and two at once! Thats pretty lucky.

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