A reader’s story about her trip to Ningaloo Reef and swimming with whale sharks


During a five-month family Big Lap around Australia, AT Reader Chloe Turkilsen, a 15-year-old Year 10 student from Queensland, dropped in on Ningaloo for a dip with the gentle giants of the sea.

“Group two, are you ready?” asked Kate, our guide. We’d travelled more than 8000km from Queensland to do this; swim with the whale sharks on Ningaloo Reef. Sitting nervously on the marlin board on the back of the 18m fibreglass boat, with wetsuits, flippers and snorkels on, we waited in anticipation for the signal to jump.

Our entire travelling group had awoken very early to catch the mini bus to Tantabiddi boat ramp where our vessel for the day was moored. Upon arrival, all 16 of us jumped excitedly off the bus to meet Noss, our Knight in Shining Rubber. Noss was the confident driver of the inflatable rubber dinghy and was waiting at the water’s edge to greet us. As five of us awkwardly steadied ourselves on the three-metre dinghy, we were taken out through the choppy waters to our vessel for the day: Draw Card. As we neared the boat we were introduced to our skipper, Richard, and our whale shark guide, Kate. We were all assigned wetsuits, flippers and snorkels. Once everyone was aboard we were given some safety instructions, then taken to our first stop – a snorkelling spot in the pristine, crystal-clear water of the Indian Ocean, inside the calm safety of Ningaloo Reef, where we witnessed beautiful, untouched coral and colourful fish swimming lazily through the coral jungle as we floated above.

After our snorkel we clambered aboard to a welcome cup of hot tea, cakes and savoury nibbles, which I enjoyed while sitting on the bow of the boat and marvelling at the scenery, both above and below the water. On the way out through the reef we spotted eight eagle rays, three manta rays and about ten dolphins playing in the shallow water. After a few photos we left the reef behind, heading into the deep blue, unprotected Indian Ocean. We were even lucky enough to drive alongside several humpback whales that were frolicking on the surface of the water.

At a quarter after noon we were called onto the deck for a delicious buffet lunch – and that’s the exact same time that the spotter plane called in a whale shark sighting. As it would take 20 minutes to reach the shark, we hungrily devoured the meal and geared up. We were divided into two groups of eight, each with a confident young female tour guide who would ultimately become our whale shark spotter, our best friend and our rescuer.

As we neared the sharks we could see and hear the spotter plane circling in the distance. Richard, our skipper, lined the boat up so the shark would be swimming directly towards the snorkellers, who, in full-length black wetsuits, looked quite seal-like. Lucky the whale sharks only eat plankton!


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With group one in the water, our group was nervously lined up on the back of the marlin board.

As I sat waiting for the signal to jump, all I could think about was what was lurking beneath the deep blue water waiting for me. I pushed those thoughts to the back of my mind and with the signal we jumped.

After about 15 seconds in the water and as the bubbles cleared from our excited entry, we saw the shadow of the gentle giant of the sea slowly swimming towards us. Our group split in half to either side of the shark and swam alongside it. It was so surreal. With an entourage of remora and various other hitchhikers glued under its gaping mouth and its unique spotted markings shimmering in the blue filtered sunlight, I couldn’t believe I was swimming with the largest fish in all the oceans of the world.

Due to my past swimming training and current level of fitness, I was able to keep up with Kate the guide and the whale shark, which meant more time in the water and a longer swim with the shark. After we finished one swim, our Knight in Shining Rubber would collect us in the rubber dinghy and return us to the safety of the boat. As the wind had picked up and the swell was increasing in size and we exhaustedly reached the back of the boat, it was difficult to hold on to the wobbling ladder, remove our flippers, snorkels and for me my camera and launch ourselves onto the marlin board, then stumble aboard to find a seat before we found ourselves sitting on the deck.

It was our lucky day. The whale sharks decided to hang around long enough for both our groups to enjoy several swims.

After my first successful whale shark adventure, my fears had disappeared and from then on I was up the front of the shark with the guide, long after the others were back on board the boat. Elated and exhausted after the fifth swim, I was looking forward to some fresh fruit for afternoon tea before braving the choppy waters in the tiny inflatable dinghy.

Back on shore, I entered my comments in the guest book, thanked our guides for making my swim with the whale sharks one of the best things I’d ever done, and dragged my tired body onto the bus. After such an exciting day on the reef, I was looking forward to a quiet ride home, and a very good night’s sleep.

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