The ultimate adventure: swimming among giants

Guest blogger – Adrian James

You know how you have friends come back from a holiday and tell you how everything was amazing? They had the best of weather, they were super lucky at being present for some rare event, they got upgraded for free – or whatever, and it seems that all your holidays surmount to are grey skies and the highlight is you didn’t catch that cold that was ‘going around’? I do. But not this time. No, this time I was one of those annoying smug people who had the perfect, amazing experience when I went to Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia to swim with the majestic behemoths, the whale sharks.

Driving from Perth to Exmouth takes approximately 13 hours, but oh what sights you will see.

Driving from Perth to Exmouth takes approximately 13 hours, but oh what sights you will see.

My initial reaction to this adventure, I must admit, did begin rather pensively. The thought of voluntarily jumping in to waters where the view below is nothing but a gradually darkening abyss populated by unknown aquatic creatures, can give some folk a level of apprehension. Yet my personal goal in this life is focused on experiencing as much as I can, whilst I can, and let the consequences be damned! So when I discovered I was visiting one of the few places on the planet where whale sharks appear regularly in large numbers, I decided to take opportunity to become part of an elite club of less than 1% of all humanity and swim with the biggest fish in the world in their wild habitat.

The big day kicked off with an early pick up by my chosen tour operator, Ningaloo Whalesharks, from the Exmouth Visitor Center, where I joined a bus filled with blurry-eyed tourists from around the world. The leader of our uncaffinated group was a heavily tanned Welsh girl who had the rather difficult task of trying to get a group of strangers excited about what we were about to achieve whilst we drove around the Exmouth Cape to our awaiting vessel. In my experience, strangers being forced to interact early in the morning and without coffee, usually does not yield positive results. Yet she managed to at least get some half-hearted responses and positive-sounding grunts and nods from the group as everyone tried their best to wake up before we got to our vessel.

An Italian instructor, attempting an Aussie accent, in an American boat, surrounded by tourists. Just another day in WA.

An Italian instructor, attempting an Aussie accent, in an American boat, surrounded by tourists. Just another day in WA.

When we were all aboard we got an introduction to the team on the boat, a safety talk as well as a run-through of what you can and cannot do whilst in the water as Australia has strict rules about their conservation. In other words, if you think you can ride a whale shark like that mechanical bull you rode that one time in university, you’ve got the wrong idea. We then motored out to a nearby coral reef for an initial casual snorkel so that we could get used to the water and start enjoying the incredibly multi-coloured coral and marine life. This is where I found out that for a mere $40 upgrade to the VIP photo package, their on-board photographer gets promoted to ‘personal stalker’ and will guarantee that you will have a picture with a whale shark (as long as they find one!). So of course I jumped on this offer. I always wanted my own stalker.


On this tour you’re free to bring your own equipment should you have it and prefer to use it, however they were well stocked with a large variety of sizes of snorkelling masks and flippers for all ages and sizes. I chose not to bring my own gear. In fact, I chose not to bring anything other than my anticipation. Probably not such a great choice, I realised, as the cruel Australian sun slowly crisped my skin. Luckily my over-zealous tour team had everything in hand,  and offered me a sun screen container the size of a small child with a knowing smile.

Once we all had a dip in the water we sailed off again to find some giant fish. After a 20 minute ride from our snorkelling reef our first whale shark was spotted and we got the word from the crew to ready ourselves for jumping into the bottomless water. I had no idea what to expect at this point. I knew that I was going to see the largest fish in the world, that it would be safe, and that I am a capable enough swimmer. But that was where my knowledge ended as I leaped from the safety of the boat and the bubbles rose up past my mask. We had been told at this point that all we needed to do was to follow our team leader and they will show us what is available to see. I had figured out though that the closer I were to our leader, the better my chances were of not missing out on what they had found. So I was practically climbing into our poor leaders wet suit as I prepared myself for seeing a bus with a tail.

Every whale has a unique pattern; its fishy fingerprint.

Every whale has a unique pattern; its fishy fingerprint.

I did not prepare myself well enough. Imagine if you can, a fish so large that it dwarfs any animal you had ever seen in your entire life. It doesn’t care if you are in its way or not because one way or another, you will be the one with the problem, not him! When I took my first glance at this creature effortlessly gliding through the water, I suddenly realised it was heading right towards me. I turned into a deer in headlights underwater and my fight or flight response kicked in. However I managed to reason with myself that there was no way I was going to be able to fight a fish that had its own fish posse using its mass as a slipstream. So I swam to one side, and as it gently glided past I found that it wasn’t too difficult to keep up with as it continued on its way. Our leader said it was a ‘lazy’ shark because it was a mere teenager. I preferred to think of it as my whale bro, just wanting to hang out and stuff.

Why yes, that is indeed 2 whale sharks in 1 photo. Good spot.

Why yes, that is indeed 2 whale sharks in 1 photo. Good spot.

We had no idea if this was going to be the one and only whale shark we would encounter. We had all been told stories beforehand how some guys in the past had spooked a shark by sticking a selfie stick in its face and that was the last whale shark they saw the entire day. Telling us this story might have been a mistake, as a mad panic ensued at the sight of our first whale shark when we all tried desperately to get a picture with it, myself included. Scrambling past the elderly swimmers and kicking past the young ones I ended up at the front of the pack with my personal stalker and I was delighted to see her give me that “Ok” hand sign that meant she snapped that golden picture. I could relax. Now it was all about the experience.

Fortunately it just so happened that this was not the only whale we encountered this day. Oh no. This would not be that perfect holiday experience would it were! I swam with a grand total of twelve different whale sharks throughout the day, the most encounters they had seen in a day in the season so far. However it was hard, exhausting work – a full 3 hour long cycle of jumping in the water, swimming alongside the whale sharks, being picked up, and then doing it all over again. I even had the added bonus of accidentally swallowing several mouthfuls of delicious salt water and having my digestive tract reverse on me mid-swim. But there was no way I was going to scupper this opportunity. As a wise green puppet once said, “Do, or do not. There is no try”, and I’m so glad I did!


Whale shark facts:

  • Each whale shark is covered with a unique spotted pattern and whenever possible is photographed and its picture sent to a central database to try and track by an international team.
  • The whale shark is the only animal in the world that can change its buoyancy levels without moving – yes, this fish can swim straight up whilst being horizontal. Like a helicopter but without the risk of being diced by rotor blades.
  • Humans have never observed a whale shark giving birth, nor do we know where they go to do so.
  • They give birth in “phases”, meaning that the female carries several eggs inside of it, gets a male to give up the good stuff and then holds on to it to fertilise its eggs in intervals whenever it wants… yes indeed, this animal is probably the closest thing to the embodiment of fishy feminism.



ABOUT ADRIAN: Born in the UK, Adrian lived in Africa for 7 years during his childhood, and then lived in Sweden for 3 years before returning to England. He now works in London with a high-end travel company, and continues to explore the world whenever he can -which these days is usually with Jude!

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