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  Among the Giants - Ningaloo Reef's Whale Sharks
    Coral Bay, Western Australia

Ningaloo Reef is the largest barrier reef on the west coast of any continent. The reef is about 250 km long and begins on the northwest coast of Australia at the Tropic of Capricorn. The reefs in this part of the Indian Ocean are remote, and one will spend several days driving to reach the area from either Perth or Broome through mostly desert and semi-desert outback. The drive itself is awe-inspiring as several hundred kilometers frequently pass without signs of fuel or human habitation. Access points to the reef include Coral Bay and Exmouth some 1400 km north of Perth; to skip the drive requires a flight on Skywest which services Learmonth Airport 35 km south of Exmouth.

The highlight of Ningaloo Reef are the Whale Sharks. They frequent the reef between April and June each year and a number of operators are prepared to take you to see them. The Whale Shark, Rhincodon typus, is the largest known fish on earth. It's reputed to reach 18 meters in length and can approach 15 tons. Occurring around the globe in mostly tropical, but occasionally in temperate waters, there are few places where one can see them with such consistency as at Ningaloo Reef. Their appearance here tends to coincide with the annual coral spawn, but their spawning and migration habits are unknown. Ningaloo tends to predominantly see immature males during this period, but even these are hardly small with many in the 6-8 meter range. And although they are massive and intimidating animals, the sharks are planktonic feeders and harmless to humans.

In March of 1999, a short week before our visit, Exmouth was devastated by the category-five cyclone, Vince, which had us wondering whether our trip ought to, or could be, undertaken at all. For several days we wondered what might come of our trip as the phones were down and Exmouth was open only to residents. When the phones came back into operation as far north as Coral Bay, we were assured by the Exmouth Diving Centre's sister operator that the trips were still running. Coral Bay was essentially unscathed and the dive boats had been removed from Exmouth prior to the storm hitting. We tried in vain to locate accommodation in Coral Bay, and the best we could come up with was the Minilya Roadhouse about 150 km to the south. "Good Enough!", we thought and reserved a cabin with bunks and flew out to Perth to begin our drive up.

The Minilya Roadhouse is some 150 km south of Coral bay, which is not as close to the reef as we would have liked, but was an adequate and inexpensive place that had all the amenities of a roadhouse (read truck stop) within a reasonable drive of where we wanted to be. We were prepared to be commuters to Coral Bay, and that was exciting in itself for the midway point on each drive in was the Tropic of Capricorn. Just south of Minilya, there was a markedly different appearance to the landscape. Where for hundreds of miles we had seen stark red semi-desert dotted by small dried-out looking brush, the sides of the road now were lush and green. The change brought by the cyclone was amazing...and so were the mosquitos. Apart from not wanting to contract one of the occasionally reported tropical diseases of Australia's north, the mosquitos made the evening's jaunt to the public bathrooms a bit unpleasant. However, just as one often finds fruits through adversity (or so the hopeful keep reminding us), we found one of them. This night, I accompanied my wife to the bathrooms and decided to wait out by the petrol pumps under the lights. My thoughts were simple at that moment: the light would help me see the suckers and squish the odd one determined to feed off my juicy blood. Well there I was standing around for a bit, swatting at the odd mosquito under this lovely yellow sodium vapour light at a gas pump 1000 miles from nowhere. And here, no doubt just a few paces from the flight path of the last bug that owed his full belly to me, I found my first little helper. A snake, no thicker than a pinky, not leaning or rearing, was jumping into the air capturing bugs. I had never imagined that snakes could jump, but here it was... slither, jump, slither, jump. I had already hunched myself over to watch with amusement when my wife arrived to join in the festivities. "What are you looking at?", she asked. "A jumping snake" I replied with that sentiment invoked by the joy of discovery. So we watched it for a little while and wondered about these creatures, whether they might be poisonous as so many things in Australia tend to be. As we started back to the shed that was home, we realized there were dozens of these snakes all plucking bugs a half meter up. The gravel seemed to have a jumper every few meters; we were puzzled by them but tired and anxious to get some sleep before the following morning's shark experience. We never did find out what they were as we neglected to ask the people at the roadhouse and anyone else we asked looked as puzzled as we undoubtedly sounded.

Dawn came and we were off for Coral Bay powered by fuel that cost $1.10 per liter. We met the others of the group at the dive shop and prepared some equipment while the crew began shuttling supplies and lunch to the bay. Coral Bay is a shallow beautiful little cove sheltered by the reef where numerous boats moor to reach some of the local amenities, and at this time, to have had some protection from the recently departed cyclone. One can generally camp at the several caravan parks and there's even a motel, a few small shops and a mini-mart. In due time we boarded the boat, were broken up into two groups who would take turns out with the Whale Shark(s), and proceeded to make our way through the reef to cruise along its length.

The operation of getting people to see these sharks entails a spotter plane to accompany the boat. The plane flies overhead to try to locate sharks that may be swimming near the surface and maintains radio contact with the boat. Even this doesn't make it easy, however, for Whale Sharks can dive down to 3000 feet fairly quickly and there is nothing to do but wait for one to resurface within a reasonable range of the boat – and this is a day trip. We spent several hours up and down the outside reef before stopping for a swim. Of course, as it happens, our swim was short lived by virtue of ‘the creeps' generated by the presence of six hammerhead sharks in the vicinity, so we unanimously opted for lunch over swimming (with the exception of Fritz who was still out there mumbling something to himself about big fish). During lunch the spotter plane reported there were several solitary sharks a good bit to the north of us so we motored towards their general location.

Once the boat makes visual contact with the shark, one of the crew jumps unabashedly into the water, swims towards the shark and uses hand signals to indicate its trajectory. Then the boat is maneuvered into place and the first group chaotically jumps into the water to try to have a look. These encounters last anywhere from a few seconds to half an hour or more and each group takes turns getting into the water.

Our first shark was an immature male of 6 meters. And before I realized where he was exactly, I was parked just about in front of him. Not 10 feet away was a mouth about 4 feet wide coming towards me, and he was gorgeously spotted in white on a blue-grey backdrop. Suckers and a small school of fish swam under him and here I hovered in awe. Quickly moving out of his path, he eased gracefully up beside me and I began swimming as fast as I could manage to try to keep up. He hardly moved his tail fin and glided past me effortlessly. Seconds later he began his descent and for about the next minute he was visible until he finally disappeared into the blueness.

We had one more encounter with the same whale shark, which we knew since the crew keeps logs of all sightings and records fairly specific information about each animal. The boat was full of excitement; we had all been a few meters away from a 20 foot long creature and we were all humbled and amazed by it. On the way home we shared our perceptions with one another while hoping just a few photos of this day would turn out... and a few did.

©2004 Itchyfeet Online Travel