Ten Eyewitness News Gets Up Close And Personal With The Largest Fish In The Sea, The Whale Shark

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

  • Lee Steele dived with whale sharks on Ningaloo Reef, off the coast of WA.
  • These spotted creatures of the deep can grow to over 12 metres in length, and is the largest species of fish still roaming the waters.

The small, coastal town of Exmouth in WA’s north west is famous for its hot, sunny weather and clear, sparkling waters.

Except the one day of the year we fly there to film a story about swimming with the whale sharks. On that day it rains for the first time in twelve months. We are dealt a three metre swell, and bad visibility prevents the spotter plane from flying.

However, we are told success rate of seeing this gentle giant is 99 percent.

Without any aerial support, it was up to the skipper and the boat’s tour guides to try and spot the animals, with the added pressure of a television news crew needing a story to take home.

This was something myself and cameramen Karl Carosella had wanted to do for a very long time. A world famous swim with Ningaloo’s Whale Sharks was a first for both of us, and we knew it was going to be such an incredible experience.

However, the weather was against us that day, and just as I thought we may have been in the 1 percent category, the boat’s horn sounded, to signal the first whale shark of the day had been spotted.

This was when the atmosphere completely changed. Everyone on the boat was so excited it was finally happening. The urgency of it all added to the excitement, we were told to get into position as quickly as possible, and be ready to jump in as soon as we were given the green light.

 

One tour guide was already in the water, watching the shark’s movements.

We jumped in with our snorkel gear, and waited for the whale shark to approach.

You are waiting, watching, seeing nothing but water and fellow swimmers.

 

 

This magnificent creature is gliding just under the surface of the water, and it is huge. It was about seven metres long, but is still only a juvenile. After all the chaos and confusion when you first jump in, this moment is still and peaceful.

You are underwater, in awe of such a beautiful animal.

                                     A researcher gets up close to a whale shark. Photo: Wayne Osborn.

He seems completely indifferent to the group of people trying to keep up, or stay within a safe distance. We were told to stay three metres to the side and four metres back from the tail, to avoid spooking the shark.

Then just as suddenly as he appeared, the whale shark is gone. Diving back into the deep water below, you watch the white spots of the shark go deeper and deeper, until you eventually can’t see them anymore.

The entire group is buzzing after such a breathtaking encounter. And within minutes of returning to the boat, the siren sounded again! Another whale shark has been spotted. We jumped back in the water. This time, feeling a lot more confident.

We ended up swimming alongside three whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef within about half an hour. Not bad for a day with pretty average weather!

The strange thing is, you’re not allowed to get too close, but it often felt like they were coming straight towards you. I was swimming as fast as I could to keep a three metre distance.

 

                          You just have to remind yourself, they only eat plankton! Photo: Wayne Osborn

I was also frantically swimming to keep up with the whale sharks. Even though they are just gliding through the water, they are deceptively fast.

It’s not just the whale sharks that draw people to Ningaloo Reef. We also snorkelled over coral, which is home to so many different fish, manta rays and reef sharks. Then from the boat we spotted humpback whales, dugongs and large tiger sharks.

I have probably always taken the giant tourism attraction in Western Australia’s north west for granted. I had been told by so many people that this was one of the best things you would ever do. It really is, there is nothing like it. Nothing compares to swimming just metres away from the world’s biggest fish. It’s hard to imagine that you would feel completely safe alongside a seven or eight metre shark.

But as the shark’s giant mouth is heading towards you, you just have to remind yourself, they only eat plankton!

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