Connecting the Spots

Western Australia’s Coral Coast is a whale shark wonderland

By: By Dawna L. Robertson


Coral Bay Adventures 
Whale Shark Adventure – Includes Buffet Lunch, Beverages, Gear, Instructions And Free Photo Cd ($336)
Additional Seasonal Excursions/rates Include: Manta Ray Adventure ($144); Wildlife Adventure ($166); Humpback Whale Adventure ($96); Snorkeling Tours (From $28).

Qantas Airlines 
V Australia 
Skywest Airlines (Within Australia) 

Broadwater Norcape Lodge Exmouth (Opening 2010) 
Ningaloo Reef Resort 
Novotel Ningaloo Resort Exmouth 
Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef 

Australia’s Coral Coast 
Tourism Western Australia 

Only Online

Scroll down for contact info and a resource guide to operators on the Coral Coast

During a recent visit to Perth, I learned that this Western Australia capital is much more than a friendly, sophisticated city brimming with history and culture. It’s also the springboard to an aquatic paradise known as the Coral Coast — home to the world’s largest fringing reefs accessible simply by stepping offshore.

Eager to pursue ocean activities beyond the norm, I decided to get out of town to see how the remote area sized up to the more celebrated diving sites I’d explored in the past.

Diving with whale sharks in Ningaloo Reef Marine Park // (c) Amber Cook
Diving with whale sharks in
Ningaloo Reef Marine Park

A short flight took me to Learmonth, and from there I headed to Exmouth, the northern post of the Coral Coast region that stretches 790 miles south to Cervantes. It’s here where visitors witness what West Aussies are famous for — enjoying the sun, surf and a relaxed way of life.

The North West Cape is actually one of the few places in Australia that can boast the true range-to-reef experience, with the flourishing Indian Ocean and Ningaloo Reef Marine Park, a staggering contrast to the rugged terrain of Cape Range National Park that sprawls just above.

It was here that I embarked on a whale of an adventure — literally. Teeming with tropical fish, dolphins, manta rays, sea turtles, dugongs and seasonal humpbacks, Ningaloo’s greatest claim to fame is the opportunity to swim with the world’s largest fish — the majestic whale shark.

In fact, Ningaloo is one of the most reliable places in the world to view these gentle giants between April and June. Up to 60 feet in length, the speckled filter-feeders gravitate here to graze in plankton-rich waters. They glide just beneath the surface, making interaction very likely for those on organized treks.

Having long heard the hype about swimming with whale sharks, I opted for an outing with Coral Bay Adventures. Fitted with wet suits and snorkeling gear, our group of 17 took off aboard our 52-foot vessel for a full day of introductory snorkeling and a whale shark swim. The boat was spacious, with a large, shaded deck area and plenty of cushioned seating, which is a necessity since the journey requires time and patience.

Fortunately, our boat’s search wasn’t as much of a needle-in-the-haystack approach as I’d anticipated. While we were snorkeling, a spotter plane was searching for a whale shark so we could head directly toward its location.

Jessamy, our dive leader, had already set the ground rules. We broke into two groups and were to remain ready to enter the water at all times. And we were required to snorkel at least three yards away from the body and four yards from the tail. She reminded us that despite being generally harmless, we still needed to show caution.

"They’re filter-feeders and pose no immediate threat to humans," she explained. "But remember, they’re very large and powerful and should be treated with respect."

Seesawing between anxiousness and eagerness, we finally got the green light. Jessamy led the group to our docile target, where amazement and awe displaced every other emotion. The laid-back leviathan just went about his business, unaware that his mundane routine was nothing short of thrilling to the squad of humans floundering around him.

On our return — after five "drops" into the water — we had ample time to share dive stories over a buffet lunch. But we were frequently interrupted as dolphins and humpbacks put on shows of their own. I even lost count of how many humpbacks we spotted — as if they wanted to remind us that there’s more than one type of "whale" in these waters.