‘Stop panicking,’ my sister Liz reassured me as I clung to the deck of a churning boat, my finned legs dangling out into the Indian Ocean. “Whale sharks only eat plankton.”
“A vegetarian shark? Yeah, sure,” I said through teeth chattering nervously, my glasses steamed up. “No creature grows so large eating algae!”
Above us, the observation plane suddenly circled, then descended. A crackling message came over the radio from the pilot to the captain: a 40-foot juvenile male whale shark was in the vicinity. Our little boat veered to the left in a spray of water, sending me reeling to one side. When a big wave rolled under the boat, I grabbed Liz in terror. “But what if I get dizzy and turn green? The whale shark might mistake me for a bit of seaweed!”
“Actually, whale sharks eat zooplankton.” I looked over at a young woman who was smiling a megawatt at our small group of eight divers. There was a lively movement in her ponytail: the coiffed version of a cheeky smile. She looked like the kind of woman who has the Balinese words for “love” and “serenity” tattooed on her inner thigh, except she then introduced herself as our marine biologist on board.
“Zooplankton, you mean, like based on animals?!” I trumpeted through my snorkel. Hailing from Australia, I have a serious shark phobia. Surely, if God had wanted us to swim in the ocean, he would have given us shark-proof cages? There must be a reason why fish never look truly relaxed. Could it be because something much, much bigger is always trying to devour them?
But before I could drag myself at breakneck speed back to the safety of the deck, our perky biologist’s ponytail rose behind her like an antenna. The captain gave the signal and she shouted “Come on! Let’s go! Let’s go!” A gentle nudge of his finned foot and I fell overboard. After splashdown, I gazed into the depths and swallowed hard. Three hundred meters of sapphire blue sea stretched out into the darkness below. My Darth Vader breath caught. accelerated so quickly that I thought my hyperventilated head might explode. But my fears were immediately seared by amazement, because hurtling toward me was one of the largest creatures I have ever seen. With a hiss, the magnificent whale shark glided by. with grace.
The giant’s luminous polka dot pattern, as unique to each specimen as a fingerprint, flickered in the shards of sunlight, making it look like it was headed to a disco. And wherever he went, I wanted to go too.
“To swim!” instructed our cheerful marine biologist. Snorkeling like periscopes, we peer through our goggles for a moment, then naturally we open up on either side of this big, beautiful beast. For the next 40 minutes, we just swam gently alongside, staring in awe at its throbbing, frilly gills, billowing tail, and wide, grinning mouth. In a flight of gleeful wonder, we accompanied this gentle giant as he stalked steadily north along Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef, nonchalantly eating plankton, roe, copepods and krill.
At one point, I swam too far forward and the huge slit of the whale shark’s mouth suddenly opened in my direction. Just call me Ishmael, I swallowed nervously. He Was he about to be sucked into that formidable Moby Dick-sized orifice? I ran out of the way before I became an accidental hors d’oeuvre.
Prior to this encounter, the largest creature he had ever seen in the sea was a bloated Russian oligarch, bobbing across the Mediterranean alongside his superyacht. It’s always so tempting to harpoon one for scientific purposes, or rather porpoises. But nothing had prepared me for the size of a whale shark. The largest fish in the sea, it can grow up to 65 feet long. Its lifespan is believed to be more than 100 years. But aside from those few facts, these enigmatic ancient mariners are basically the Greta Garbos of the sea world; we know very little about where they mate and calve, or their routes.
But diving next to this huge filter feeder, fascinated by its enormous gills, which sift 6,000 liters of water per hour, in, out, in, out, I soon fell into a meditative state. Human beings can be top level predators, but this experience was truly humbling. Dwarfed to insignificance, it was impressive to be transported to his shimmering ocean world.
Mesmerized, Liz and I could have swum with him forever, but the whale shark suddenly dipped its massive head toward the seafloor. His colossal body then dipped downward in a slow, deep dive. We mere minions hovering on the surface, watching this king of the sea disappear into the depths, until all we could see were a few pale moles shrinking into the darkness.
It was only when I poked my head in and lifted my goggles that I realized how far from land we were. So why was he floating in the water in the middle of the pelagic desert? Because psychologists maintain that getting out of the comfort zone and taking risks improves cognitive abilities. At 63 years old, do I need to improve my mental muscles? I don’t know. Let me collect my thought. There are three signs of senility: memory impairment and…wait…what were the other two? In other words, yes. And what could be more exhilarating than swimming with a creature the size of a double-decker bus?
My sister and I swam back to our boat that was bobbing in the salt water, 150 feet away. Over a hearty lunch, we chatted animatedly with our fellow tourists, exchanging impressions. Basically, the fish we had just found was so big we dislocated our jaws describing it. There really is no other way to say it: we all had a whale shark once.
Situated between Perth and Broome, Ningaloo’s 250-mile stretch of pristine sea and pristine reef is considered one of the last great marine havens. The most threatened species here are actually humans with fewer people per mile than almost anywhere else on the planet.
Our base hotel, in the small town of Exmouth, is part of what the locals call “The GAFA – The Great Australia F— All”. But this splendid isolation means there is no pollution or agricultural runoff to mar the beauty of Ningaloo’s luscious underwater garden. This world heritage area also boasts the highest reliability rate of whale shark interactions: between 300 and 500 arrive here each year.
And Mother Nature has even more in store in the local wonder. The next day, kayaking along the Coral Coast, we glide into the sea of silk to snorkel through iridescent atolls, duck and dive with turtles, manta rays, dolphins and dugongs. Fishermen of yesteryear thought these gentle “sea cows” were beautiful mermaids, which just goes to show how long they must have been at sea!
At Five Mile Beach we watched spellbound as baby turtles darted into the moonlit sea. Rubbing their necks in the sand gives the turtles a magnetic imprint. Thirty years later, this internal satellite navigator will guide them back here to lay their eggs.
On Rottnest Island, we hug the happiest marsupial in the world. Ten thousand quokkas live on this small island of turquoise bays and sandy beaches, flashing goofy smiles for tourists’ selfies.
In cosmopolitan Perth, my sister and I cycled down the wide and beautiful river accompanied by fleets of black swans. This was our swan song, literally, as our extraordinary journey was over. But this part of the world, from Rottnest and Fremantle to the Coral Coast to Ningaloo Reef, is so magnificent and magical that, like those little turtles, it’s etched into our psyches, ensuring we’ll be back.
And it is a promise that will not be erased from my mind, now that I have sharpened my cognitive powers. As he gets older, his memory becomes so poor that he sometimes forgets that he has a bad memory. In fact, I only have a vague recollection of starting this article. But swimming with the Ningaloo whale sharks is simply unforgettable.
Audley Travel (01993 838810; audleytravel.com/australia) offers a 17-day trip to Western Australia, including Perth, Rottnest Island, Coral Coast and Ningaloo Reef, from £4,750 per person, based on two people sharing. Price includes domestic and international flights, room-only accommodation, a seaplane flight to Rottnest Island, a rental car from Perth (discounted one-way fare) and excursions including swimming with whale sharks.