Exmouth is an essential destination for any traveller in Western Australia, as it offers the unique chance to snorkel with whale sharks, the biggest fish in the world
Just back from a quick trip to Australia to meet up with my parents and celebrate my dad’s 60th birthday by finding him a whale shark, the biggest fish in the world, as a present. We met up in a very chilly Perth and flew some 1000 miles up the Western Australian coast to the tiny town of Exmouth, which is renown as probably the best place in the world to see whale sharks as they migrate to Ningaloo Reef each year, which lies directly off Exmouth’s coast.
Exmouth is much as I remember it from my first visit as a backpacker exactly 4 years ago in May 2003, and it was fun to see my parents’ reaction to the place. Despite telling them it was a very small outpost in the outback despite the burgeoning whale shark tourist industry, I could tell the pair of them weren’t quite prepared for the red earthed, desolate beauty that surrounds Exmouth during the half hour drive into Exmouth and the town’s own rough and ready charm. The tiny city centre itself is still exactly as I remember it, a ragtail collection of shops round a supermarket, with a pub and a couple of dive shops nearby.
But outside the town itself, it’s a different story – there is a huge amount of building going on, with a marina and canals being built for what will probably be luxury apartments and other tourist facilities. Leading the way of this new generation of Exmouth development is the Novotel Ningaloo, a recently opened four star hotel that is Exmouth’s first luxury accommodation and where we stayed for a few days. The Novotel is set directly by Exmouth Gulf with stunning views out over the water, while the rooms themselves are airy contemporary steel, stone and glass constructions that keep guests cool but make the most of Exmouth’s brilliant sunshine. (There are already several rave reviews for the Novotel Ningaloo on Tripadvisor). Given the town is located half way up Western Australia’s coast, Exmouth is still pretty hot during the winter season (March to September) and can apparently hit a brain melting 50 degrees during summer – another example of how extreme Exmouth’s geography can be. Indeed, a luxury hotel like the Novotel existing in such a remote location feels a little incongruous. It certainly felt different to the requisitioned miner’s shacks I stayed in the first time I visited Exmouth, grim metal boxes without windows that were pitch black and super hot. While backpackers will weep at the Novotel’s room prices, it could still be worth heading up to the hotel bar for a sundowner, as it has a spectacular view over the bay at dusk.
Going out to see the whale sharks with Exmouth Diving Centre followed pretty much the same routine as I’d experienced before – and given that they have been running the whale shark spotting operation down to a fine art, there’s little reason to have changed it. After heading out early in the morning and enjoying a quick reef dive, the spotter plane was in the air by 10 am, cruising over Exmouth Gulf looking for whale sharks. Once it spots one, the boat heads towards it, along with boats from other operators too. Everyone gears up with mask, snorkel and fins along with a wetsuit and waits at the back of the boat. On the shout of “Go go go!” the first team drops into the water as gently as they can with their guide, and then heads directly towards the whale shark.
Usually the boat positions itself so that when the snorkellers drop in, they are in the path of the oncoming whale shark. It is a truly unforgettable sight to be snorkelling through the water where the visibility is fairly low due to the amount of plankton and then suddenly see all 8 metres of a whale shark appear in front of you, not more than 5 metres away. It’s hard to convey how humbling it is to see something much, much bigger than you effortlessly moving through the water, totally harmless to humans but seemingly not bothered at all by our presence around it, keeping a respectful distance of at least 3 metres away. The grace of these creatures cannot be overstated – for all their size, they are quite majestic in the way they move slowly just under the surface, hoovering up plankton in their huge mouths while the sunlight ripples over their immense blue and white spotted bodies. To be in the water with a whale shark is to suddenly realise your place in the world.
On our day out, we were lucky – there were only 10 people on the boat, so split into two teams it meant only 6 people including the guide were in the water with the whale shark at each time. As a result, we all managed to get a good look at the shark and I shot this few minutes of video footage, which not only shows off the whale shark fairly well but also has a comedy ending as the whale shark started moving directly towards me with its mouth wide open and I was desperately trying to get out of its way. If someone who didn’t know what was going on saw this footage, they might conclude this video is all that’s left after I got eaten.
We made a total of three drops during the day, each time a jaw dropping spectacular of being in the water with the biggest fish in the world. Then we had a fairly long lull as the spotter plane looked for another shark near the surface, during which time we had lunch. Sadly our luck had run out after such a good start, just like the spotter plane’s fuel, who radioed at 2pm that he had to head back home, thus signalling the end of our day’s whale shark spotting. The boat crew offered the consolation of a snorkel on the reef when we got back nearer to shore, but just as we arrived, a tiger shark was spotted directly in front of the boat. The tiger shark is relatively much smaller than the whale shark – around 2 metres – but looks quite similar from above,with a big blunt nose and protruding fins. It’s also known to be pretty aggressive too – which meant that after seeing one on the reef, everyone on the boat returned to the deck and removed their wetsuit as one. No one was going in for a snorkel with a tiger shark on the reef.
Arriving home by around 4.30pm, it was perfect timing to have a quick shower and then watch the spectacular sunset go down over Exmouth gulf. My dad was thrilled that he’d finally seen a whale shark and that it had exceeded his expectations, and my mum was pleased that we’d both come back in one piece.
If you want to see more whale shark videos, have a look at my article on Sogod Bay in the Philippines