Catching the big one

Rare find ... the whale shark, while not endangered, is considered vulnerable.
Rare find ... the whale shark, while not endangered, is considered vulnerable. 

Kerry van der Jagt joins the snappers keen to help save one of the kings of the ocean at Ningaloo Reef.

I'M IN trouble. I've broken the first rule of swimming with whale sharks - that is, don't dawdle. I am late getting into the water and by the time I've adjusted my mask and the wrist strap on my underwater camera, the rest of my group has swum over the crest of a big wave and disappeared from sight.

Flailing around in the seething swell it feels as though I'm in a washing machine. I'd like to say I am facing my fears and seizing the moment; instead I cling to my swim buddy like a howler monkey up a tree. After a bit of coaxing, marine conservationist Brad Norman peels my fingers from around his arm and guides me in the right direction.

But I'm not here for a swimming lesson. I'm here to save a species. We are three kilometres offshore, just outside Ningaloo Reef on Australia's North-West Cape where whale sharks, listed as "vulnerable to extinction", gather every April to July, following the coral spawning in March. By taking photographs I'm hoping to contribute to important research about this elusive creature.

Despite its name, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is not a whale but a true shark - albeit a big one - with a front-end loader for a mouth and 300 rows of teeth. Fortunately, these teeth are the size of a match head and are not used for feeding; instead, the whale shark is a filter-feeder that lives on plankton and krill. They can grow up to 20 metres long (though four to eight metres is the most common size encountered at Ningaloo) and weigh as much as 35 tonnes.

Below the surface the water is calm as we catch up to our guide and the five other snorkellers in our group. At first all I can see is endless blue, then, in the distance a shadow emerges. Shards of sunlight penetrate the water and reveal a thick grey skin ablaze with spots, like stars in the night sky. Led by a platoon of golden trevally, the shark is close to the surface and coming straight towards us.

Actually, a bit too close. If I don't move out of the way, I'll be ploughed into by a royal procession and risk breaking rule No. 2 - swimmers must keep three metres away from the head and four metres from the tail.

Our group moves back and we start swimming alongside the shark, caught up in its slipstream and becoming part of its entourage.

Instantly, I feel at peace in the water, settling into a steady rhythm and taking my cue from its languid action. I manage to keep pace for a few minutes, snapping photographs of the unique section of spots just behind the gills, before the signal comes for us to return to the boat.

Gathered on the back deck we are privileged to listen to Norman speak about his research. Since 1995 Norman has worked to uncover all he can about this gentle giant, whose ancestry goes back 250 million years but is now threatened by illegal fishing and human activities. Norman is the founder of ECOCEAN, a not-for-profit organisation designed to conserve marine environments by encouraging and facilitating research for best practice marine management.

Using technology designed for the Hubble telescope to map stars in distant galaxies, Norman, together with a computer programmer and a NASA astrophysicist, developed a system that uses the pattern of spots unique to each shark as a means of individual identification. Ordinary people can become "citizen scientists" by taking photographs of whale sharks and uploading them to ECOCEAN's photo-identification library (whaleshark.org). The shark's movements can then be tracked and the spotter will receive an email if their shark is re-sighted any time during its potential 13,000-kilometre journey.

Norman spends the entire whale shark season at Ningaloo Reef, swimming with the whale sharks most days and randomly joining any one of the dozen operators in the area. It's just a matter of luck which tour Norman will be on each day. He also gives the occasional lecture at the Novotel Ningaloo Resort, where he is based during the season.

"One of the goals of the program is to understand more about the biology of the species and to understand our impacts on them," Norman says. "This will allow us to put into place best practices for sustainable tourism."

Another goal is to find out more about the breeding and migration habits of the animal.

"Ningaloo is a bit of a boy's club," Norman says. "More than 85 per cent of the whale sharks here are juvenile males." Based on his own observations and contributions by citizen scientists to the photo ID library, Norman has a hunch that the females may be breeding in the deep, cold waters near the Galapagos Islands.

We barely have time to dry off before the spotter plane locates another whale shark and radios the co-ordinates to our skipper. I quickly put on my mask and snorkel and recheck my camera as we power out to even deeper waters. Once the boat is in position, 30 metres ahead of the shark, we make our way to the back marlin deck where we anxiously wait for the command: "Go, go, go!"

I'm first in the water this time.

With the kids

NINGALOO Whaleshark-n-Dive doesn't have any age restrictions on their tours. They say if you can swim, you can swim with a whale shark.

The tour also includes time for snorkelling inside the reef, so some children may be happy with that, as conditions are generally calmer. The 20-metre boat, Seaspray, is a luxury vessel with easy water entry and plenty of shaded areas. Ningaloo Whaleshark-n-Dive, Exmouth, see ningaloowhalesharkndive.com.au.

Kids will enjoy uploading their photographs and then receiving emails telling them of "their" shark's whereabouts. For $50, they can also adopt one.

April to July is the time to see the whale sharks but other times of the year are also good, with humpback whales, sea turtles and manta rays making an appearance.

If the kids just want to swim on the reef but not necessarily see whale sharks, Turquoise Bay is a wonderful family beach where the reef can be accessed straight off the sand.

The writer was a guest of Tourism WA and Novotel Ningaloo Resort.

Trip notes

Getting there

Qantas flies daily from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Perth, prices from $232, one way. qantas.com.au. It is a two-hour flight from Perth to Learmonth (Exmouth) with Skywest. skywest.com.au.

Staying there

Novotel Ningaloo Resort at Exmouth is a luxury four-star resort on Sunrise Beach at Exmouth Marina. It offers a range of hotel rooms and one- and two-bedroom self-contained apartments. (08) 9949 0000, novotelningaloo.com.au.

More Information

Find out more about whale sharks and how you can support ECOCEAN at whaleshark.org.

 

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