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Splish splash holy cow

So in the midst of the tumult that has been this year, I knit myself a whale shark.

Knitted whale shark smile

Smile, Whaley!

Dawww! Smiley little sucker.

But there was more than just cuteness driving me. I wanted M to get an idea of whale sharks’ gentle friendliness so that when I announced I wanted to go swimming with them, he wouldn’t be scared. I put in some time explaining that they really are more whale than shark: “throat no bigger than a dime!” I said, holding up an Australian ten-cent coin for demonstration purposes. M, who is nothing if not cheerfully accommodating, agreed that a whirlwind mini holiday to the western side of the country would be in order. “You never hear much out of Perth,” he said. “I want to know what they’re up to over there.”

One of the nice things about living in Australia (and I’ll be honest: there’s a lot) is that there’s a lot of cool wildlife just about everywhere you look. Off the north-west coast of the country is a reef called Ningaloo, from the Wajarri word for ‘deep water’. The reef itself is Australia’s largest fringing reef (distinct from a barrier reef, which we’ve also got one of), and just beyond it the sea shelf drops off sharply. So you have a long coral reef followed by a deep deep drop: it’s perfect for whale sharks. They eat the coral spawn and they like deep water.

We flew to Perth via Melbourne: full marks to the incredible Qantas staff who, when our flight via Sydney was cancelled, simultaneously rerouted us, checked us in, opened the boarding for another flight over the PA, requested wheelchair assistance for another passenger, printed our boarding passes and wished us a lovely flight. My stars, she was impressive. We touched down mid-afternoon: our arrival in the CBD was marked primarily by the absence of sunlight and people, and I had the awful sinking feeling I get when I’m scared I’ve set us off on a terrible adventure. We sat glumly in our hotel room for a while, and then three things happened: we found a restaurant for dinner (always a relief, because the vegetarian and nightshade-free thing can be a big obstacle), our cat-focused webcam confirmed the cat feeder was paying out biscuits on cue, and we had a cup of tea. Suitably restored, we decided to head out for a drink and see what we could see see see.

Well. Perth at around five pm is a very different, very pretty beast. The streets were bustling with the after-work crowd, dynamic and busy and full of people: some riding home, some in their after-work athleisure gear heading to yoga/gym/Pilates, some in their suits enjoying $35 cocktails. (We had wine instead.)

The next morning we had a very hip breakfast at a very hip cafe (as you can imagine, I blended right in), which had all of, oh, 14 calories. Delicious and stimulating, but we were headed to the botanic gardens and that involved a long and then a steep walk. Well worth it, but I immediately dragged M to the nearest cafe for second breakfast.

We spent a happy day walking around Perth and exploring it, agreeing that we liked it. The mining boom has had an obvious impact on the landscape: the city overall is old, relaxed and spread out, but the CBD is a tight knot of shiny, towering buildings blaring mining and banking company logos.

After two nights, we said ‘so long Perth!’ and flew a few hours north to Exmouth, the town on the Ningaloo Reef. As we touched down, the air staff reminded us that the airport was also a RAAF base, so no photos or they blow up your camera (I guess). I leaned against the window as we touched down. “M, I think we’re in the desert!” “Yep!” “I’ve never been in a desert!!”

But I guess you want to hear about the whale sharks, huh?

We got picked up the next morning at about 8:00 by the shuttle bus for Ningaloo Discovery. Shuttle after shuttle came past the accommodation: it’s really worth knowing who your company is! We made friends with the guides: one of them described the whale sharks as ‘the labradors of the sea’. Which was far more calming then my endless reassurances of ‘they can’t swallow you: their throats are tiny’. We gathered up a few more travellers and drove out to the edge of the reef: while we went, the guides told us all about whale sharks and their wily ways.

We piled onto a water taxi and buzzed out to the boat: a big catamaran sailboat (also with a motor, so I guess a motor yacht?). From there, it was all systems go: they handed out wetsuits, flippers and snorkels, explained how to navigate them, did the safety briefing, and in we went! We had a preliminary snork over the reef, so that everyone could get a feel for their kit and see how they were doing. M and I have never really been snorkelling (like, once in a rockpool), so we were given pool noodles and a crash course in not dying. Then back on the boat, a round of toasted croissants (seriously), and we followed the spotter plane’s directions to find our whaleys!

They were pretty amazing. Our biggest one was a nine-metre male (that’s nearly thirty feet, if you think in feet) and they were universally lovely. My favourite moment was on my first swim, where the guide was gesturing and saying ‘over there, over there!’ and I couldn’t see a thing — and then looked immediately behind me a HUGE fish loomed out of the blue. I squeaked loudly.

Me, swimming alongside a whale shark

In which I make a jumbo new friend! (Photo by Ningaloo Discovery)

I could talk a lot about the whole experience: it was pretty incredible, but it was also hard. On the day, it was really hard to get past the physical and psychological stuff. I got a bit seasick: between swims, we’d wait on the back of the boat, and facing away from the way we were travelling seemed to be a sure-fire way of inducing seasickness for me. After my third swim, I decided I couldn’t stand having a snorkel in my mouth, and I was done. M had an awful moment on his second swim: his mask sprung a leak and he couldn’t breathe comfortably through his snorkel. As he emptied his snorkel and mask, the rest of the group swam off after a whale shark, leaving him feeling a bit stranded in the middle of a deep and infinite sea. He called out and they came back for him, but it was pretty scary (I, in self-absorbed delight, had swum off happily after a shark). He steeled himself and went in for a third: he later admitted that he knew if he finished on the bad swim, it would leave a bad memory, and he wanted to end on a good note.

Snorkelling is definitely hard work: it’s physically demanding, and if you’re not used to it, it’s psychologically challenging as you force yourself to trust your equipment and breathe deeply and properly through your pipe. And if your equipment fails you, that’s a big deal. Plus the water is deep and is really infinite in all directions: if you feel uneasy about that, you’ll have some mental work to do to enjoy it. After our three swims, M and I decided we were done: I was in serious peril of losing my croissant to seasickness, so we went to the front of the boat and lay in the sun. The crew brought me a lemon and ginger tea, and M and I listened to the spotter plane radioing in the locations of more whale sharks, and my seasickness evaporated. I think there were six or seven opportunities to swim with the whale sharks, but we were perfectly happy basking in the sun and watching the flying fish flit ahead of the boat’s prow.

After a fantastic lunch prepared by the boat’s crew, we headed back to the reef for a final swim: the current was strong though, so after a little while M and I returned to our prime spot on the front of the boat. We’d found a big waterproof beanbag and had a little shade cast as they unfurled the sail, and oh wow it was nice. Then the staff brought around champagne and that was also pretty damn nice. Huge props to Ningaloo Discovery for a fantastic trip.

When we got home, Mum asked if it was life-changing. I don’t know about that. It was a fun adventure, and I think I would actually do it again — there’s a lot of other wildlife on Ningaloo, like humpbacks, orcas, manatees and turtles — that we didn’t get to see, and I’d like to. But life-changing? Life-changing was quitting my job and being self-employed. Life-changing was learning to exercise and rebuilding my body after surgery and starving myself. I think we can’t necessarily pick our life-changing moments, things like giving birth or having scheduled surgery notwithstanding. The things that turn out to be life-changing are sometimes not even recognisable as that until retrospect pins them as a turning point. Amazing, fun, exciting, and an adventure? Totally. Life-changing? Not sure yet.




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