Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia: Spotting whale sharks from the air then swimming with them

Bolt upright. That's the way. No leaning to the left or right. No reaching out to grab anything for support. Just sit up straight and hope all Gav said about it being a sturdy aircraft wasn't a pack of lies.

Seeing whale sharks on Western Australia's Ningaloo Reef from above in a spotter plane, then getting on the boat and swimming with them, seemed like a brilliant idea. Failing to register what contraption said flight would take place in? Less brilliant.

Microlights are extraordinary things. They look like three-wheeled go-karts with a hang glider-esque wing on top and a propeller on the back. There's room for just two people, with the passenger squished in very cosily behind the pilot, and no luggage space. But, more importantly, they're open to the elements. And at 1000 metres up, you really notice the lack of protective metal or glass around you.

Below, a landscape virtually unsullied by humans unfolds. The North West Cape Peninsula is a gnarled piece of outback Australia that just happens to be next to the Indian Ocean. Gorges cut through the Cape Range National Park, the creek beds brutally dry. Much of it is ancient coral reef, exposed by lowered sea levels and lifted up by tectonic juddering. 

Today's reef, however, runs alongside. From the air, its full majesty can be seen. The Ningaloo runs startlingly close to the shore – it's as little as 100 metres off in places – and is a blaze of colours. The lagoon it creates is a spilt paint pot of greens and turquoises, all patterned by the prevailing currents. 

Then behind the reef are the blues.The deep, rich darker ocean bulk is streaked with patches of brilliant, lighter blue. But the variety makes it harder to spot what we're after.

From the pilot's seat, Gav explains the mission. We're looking for greyish tadpoles. And it's not long before he spots one opposite Mangrove Bay. This mammoth of the sea, attracted to the Ningaloo to feast on the plankton drawn in by the annual coral spawning, looks weirdly insignificant from above.

There's not just one of them, though. Nearby is another whale shark. They're circling each other. Why? No-one's quite sure – remarkably little is known about whale sharks. Most tagging programs have ended in failure, as the electronic tags can't withstand the pressures of the depths the megafish go down to. 

That they often live in the deepest parts of the ocean makes the reef-skirting visitors to the Ningaloo even more surprising. And it's time to get down there for a closer look.

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Gav's microlight heads for the Yardie Creek airstrip, wobbling like a drunk walking a plank in the crosswinds. It lands, and the Ocean Eco Adventures bus drops by on its way to the cruise departure point at Tantabiddy.

As the boat stops off for a snorkelling session, Gav takes to the air again. He's now on serious spotting duty, and before long the radio call comes in. More have been spotted in the deep blue, a few metres away from the reef.

They look rather different – and a few million times more impressive – up close. After leaping into the water we form a line. The drop-off spot has been quite deliberate, being picked so the whale shark will swim past, as if on parade. 

There's confusion as we try to work out what's happening, and then jaws drop as far as they can with a snorkel stuffed inside them. The scale is one thing – it's a four-metre juvenile male, and it looks like it has eaten everything else in the ocean. But it's the clarity that elevates the experience into the level of the truly staggering. There's no murk, no silt, no impediment – just the biggest fish in the world amid a fierce blue, seemingly computer-generated frame.

It swims past, and we kick the flippers into gear to follow. It's not just a case of being in the water with the whale shark, it's having the privilege of swimming side by side with it. The ever-changing swell moving overhead and the sheer size of the shark give the optical illusion of travelling at great speed. We're swimming at near full pelt, though, and the shark is doing the equivalent of mooching around the bain maries at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Eventually, we let it go off to continue its prodigious lunch. Back on the boat, the skipper has some exciting news. "There are two nearby," he says. "And they're circling each other." Time to see how big those tadpoles are from three metres away, rather than 1000 …

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.australiascoralcoast.com

www.westernaustralia.com

GETTING THERE

Qantas flies to Learmonth Airport, just south of Exmouth, from Perth. Connections from Sydney and Melbourne are plentiful. See www.qantas.com.au.

STAYING THERE

The Novotel Ningaloo Resort in Exmouth has king bedrooms for from $242. See www.novotelningaloo.com.au

SEE + DO

The Flying Fish package – 45-minute microlight flight followed by whale shark swimming cruise - with Ocean Eco Adventures costs $670. See www.oceanecoadventures.com.au

David Whitley was a guest of Tourism Western Australia.

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