I am a big fan of superlatives, so it was an absolute treat to swim with the world’s largest shark, the whale shark. It was an amazing experience to swim alongside this huge fish and admire its graceful movement through the water.
Thankfully, while researching Western Australia, I realized I would be traveling the country’s largest state during the whale shark season, which runs from March to September. As soon as I found out that I could swim with the sharks, I knew I had to get on one of those tours!
There are several companies in Exmouth that go out on whale shark swims. They offer pretty much the same experience, and most tours will range from A$380-A$400. I recommend looking at the different options with a quick Google search and picking the one that most appeals to you.
Whale Shark Swim Tour
I swam with Ningaloo Whalesharks and was very pleased with my experience. The crew was professional, lively and clearly wanted us to have an incredible time swimming with the whale sharks.
There were a couple of reasons that Ningaloo Whalesharks won me over for booking the tour. First, they offer one free photo with your swim (though I ended up paying for all of the photos).
Second, and more importantly, they have their own spotter plane. Most of the companies share spotter planes, which means they also have to share whale sharks. This translates into less swimming time for you. Because Ningaloo Whalesharks have their own spotter plane, we got first access to the whale shark and were able to swim with it the longest amount of time possible.
I also appreciated that the company grouped us based on our swimming abilities. This was especially advantageous for the final swim. I was with the strong swimmers, and we got more time in the water with the whale shark, because we had enough stamina.
Another reassuring thing to know is that on the off chance you don’t see a whale shark on your visit, the company offers a voucher for a free return tour within the next three years. This is pretty standard of all of the tour operators in Exmouth. But if you have a tour booked during the peak of the season from April to July, it is highly unlikely you won’t see at least one whale shark.
The Tour Day
Here’s what the tour day looks like:
- Pick up from accommodation
- Drive to Tantabiddi Boat Ramp and transport out to boat
- Pick out snorkeling gear
- Enjoy a quick snorkel to test equipment and gauge swimming abilities
- Eat morning tea
- Sail around until spotter plane spots a whale shark (it took us about 30-40 minutes)
- Swim with whale shark as many times as possible (I got four rounds!)
- Eat buffet lunch
- Enjoy a final snorkel or a scuba dive on the Ningaloo Reef
- Celebrate with a fruit platter and fun surprise beverage
- Cruise back to shore and transport to accommodation
My Tour Experience
We saw one whale shark on our tour. I was able to swim with the whale shark on four different rounds, each lasting about 10 minutes. Though on the third swim, the whale shark dove after 5 minutes or so. I was in awe with each swim.
The whale shark is a dark blue/gray with white spots and stripes. It is well camouflaged. Each time we got in the water, I’d stare in the direction I knew the shark was coming, but could never spot it until it was only a few meters away.
The first time I saw the whale shark I was mesmerized as I watched it swim by. Then I struggled to catch up to it, but enjoyed the side to side sway of its impressive tail. With each progressive swim I got better at staying alongside the whale shark. I would have happily swam with it even more, but alas we had met the swimming quota.
But that wasn’t the end of our sea life adventures. The Ningaloo Reef is an incredible treasure trove for marine life. The whale shark was just one of many sea creatures we spotted on the tour. We also saw dugongs, a tiger shark, humpback whales, dolphins and sea snakes from the ship. And I swam with a turtle, a couple of octopi and lots of fish while snorkeling.
I really enjoyed my whole experience and would happily pay the full cost again. The snorkeling, whale shark swim and food were all high quality. And the Ningaloo Whalesharks team did a great job crafting an excellent tour.
Whale Shark Swim Advice
Firstly, take time to just appreciate the majestic creature in front of you. I highly recommend doing the first swim without any cameras. Don’t focus on getting an amazing photo or captivating footage of the whale shark. Actually see the giant fish with your own eyes! It’s easy to get caught up in the desire to record the experience, but if you don’t first experience it what have you really captured?
When swimming with the whale shark, you wait in front of it. Turn and follow the whale shark once its mouth has passed you. If you sit and stare as it passes, you’ll be chasing bubbles trying to catch up. But if you’ve turned with it as it goes by, you’ll have a much easier time swimming alongside. Also be sure to keep a minimum of 3 meters from the whale shark.
After you’ve taken in the magnitude of the moment, then go for some pictures or video. I paid in advance for the photo package with the tour crew and got the “VIP experience.” Basically, I was given a bright yellow bracelet to wear so the photographer would put in a solid effort to get a photo of me with the whale shark. I think it was worthwhile, because you get all of the photos from the day and are much more likely to get a great shot with the whale shark.
A few bits of advice on taking a photo with the whale shark: stay on the side of the shark that the photographer is on, never stop swimming and keep your arms to your side. The key one there is to never stop swimming! It is tempting to stop and pose, but the whale shark will be out of frame as soon as you stop moving.
Finally, I highly recommend booking your whale shark swim in advance. It is an incredibly popular activity and tours can fill up quickly. Don’t miss out on this incredible experience!
Bonus: most of these tour operators also offer a chance for a humpback whale swim from August to October. Prices for these tours will run you about the same as a whale shark swim.
About the Whale Shark
Whale sharks are fascinating creatures. They are still quite mysterious, as little is actually known about their biological makeup and social interactions. But research suggests that whale sharks can live around 100 years and are up to 12 meters long on average. They can swim up to 2 kilometers deep.
Each whale shark has a unique spot and stripe pattern. Scientists use the individual patterns to identify different sharks and track their movements. The left side of the body near the pectoral fin is used to ID the shark, using a mapping system that was originally created by NASA for mapping stars. Part of the duty of the whale shark swim tour operators is to take an ID photo of each whale shark they swim with to help keep the database up to date.
The tid bit of information I found most fascinating about whale sharks is their pregnancy. The female shark lays an egg inside her own body for the baby to develop. The egg hatches in the womb, so the mother gives birth to a live baby. And the female shark can carry up to 300 eggs at a time all at a different stage in gestation! But it is unknown how long the gestation period is or where whale sharks go to give birth. So intriguing!
What sea creature would you most like to swim with?