I’m on the verge of a panic attack. Our boat is some two kilometres off the West Australian coast and 10 passengers, half the group, are waiting nervously for the whale shark the chopper has just spotted.
Whale shark wow
This one is small compared to some of the behemoths that can grow up to 18m long, weigh as much as 20 tons and have a mouth more than 1m wide.
The boat ahead has just dropped off a group of swimmers into the water.
Only 10 people are allowed to swim with the whale shark at a time.
How it works is the first boat on the scene is required to maintain a distance of 30m from the whale shark, the second, 250m and the others at least 400m.
My heart drops when our group leader, Dani, tells us to move to the back of the boat and we’re one step closer to jumping into the ocean.
I stare dubiously at the 2m swells.
Pink pool noodle
I had always believed myself to be a competent swimmer, that is, until our practice swim this morning when the boat stopped some distance offshore and a staff member pointed to a patch of coral reef.
I eagerly jumped in and swam strongly (or so I thought) towards the coral but I didn’t get very far against the strong current.
Worn out, with a cramp in my leg, I was dragged back to the boat hanging onto a pink pool noodle. A real confidence booster that was.
After the test swim fiasco, Dani assured me the conditions where the whale sharks were lurking around would be much calmer.
But from the back of a boat, 2m swells look anything but calm.
I’m not scared of whale sharks. We had been repeatedly briefed that they are gentle and non-predatory. And it’s not like the krill-eating creatures will see me as a tasty hors d’oeuvres either.
What has my heart pounding out of control is the fear of being left in the middle of the Indian Ocean. And I’m also slightly worried about what else might be lurking in the water.
Ningaloo Marine Park
Ningaloo Marine Park is teeming with humpback whales, dolphins, turtles, dugongs, colourful tropical fish and manta rays. Tiger sharks and hammer head sharks have been spotted in these waters. But Dani assures us they have never been a problem with humans being eaten before.
I’m not the only one having second thoughts. I’m sure I look as green as the English backpacker shivering next to me. The young guy has had a change of heart and shuffles his flippers awkwardly away from the edge of the boat mumbling something about the weather.
I’m about to do the same when our skipper screams “go! go! go!”, the signal to jump in the water and swim to the side.
My brain says no, no, no. But my body seems to have a mind of its own and I fly off the back of the boat.
I hit the water. I forget to breathe out and feel the tang of salty seawater at the back of my throat.
So now I’m coughing, spluttering and trying to drain the water from my mask with one hand while trying not to lose my underwater camera.
The back of the boat gets smaller and smaller.
Someone is screaming; I realise Dani is frantically yelling at me to swim towards her.
Whale shark wow wow wow
“Look down, look down,” she shouts. I put my face into the water, seeing nothing at first. Then suddenly a broad, flattened head appears out of the blue. Heading straight for me.
Having a whale shark bump into you is a mistake. A big mistake. They get frightened and disappear into the deep. But what’s more scary is the thought of what the 140 swimmers in seven boats who have paid around $360 each to swim with a whale shark would do to you for scaring it off.
I flap both arms and legs frantically to get out of its trajectory. I’m in a group of three doing a whale shark tango; arms, legs and flippers everywhere.
The whale shark continues to veer towards us and I’ve just about given up trying to keep out of its way when it suddenly changes direction.
It swims past.
We start swimming after it, hoping for a closer look at its sleek body with dramatic dots and strips. But it rockets past and I’m only able to catch a glimpse at the tail. They tell you as soon as you see the tail, you may as well stop swimming as you’ll have no hope of catching up.
I tread water and wait for the boat to pick me up.
There are whoops and cheers all round. Whale shark wow!
We do this four more times: jump, splash about frantically, attempt to swim alongside, watch the tail disappear.
I’m envious of Dani’s tales about the 12m whale shark she swam with the week before and the six whale sharks that appeared together in the same area. But it doesn’t really matter, now I have my own whale shark tale to tell.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of Tourism Western Australia
Discover Western Australia
Novotel Ningaloo Resort is located on Sunrise Beach with studio, two- and three-bedroom apartments and one- and two- bedroom villas. Phone (08) 9949 0000 or see
King’s Ningaloo Reef tour includes transfers, morning and afternoon tea, buffet lunch and snorkelling equipment.
Whale sharks are listed as vulnerable to extinction. You can assist with whale shark research by submitting photos which show distinctive patterns and scarring or by making a donation.
The whale shark season at Ningaloo Reef runs from late March until late July each year.
If you love diving in Queensland, the Yongala is a dive for your bucket list.