A whale of a time (raffle winner follow up)
Beatrice Pate travels to Ningaloo Reef to experience her first Earthwatch expedition, as she helps marine biologist Brad Norman and team identify and explore the role of ecotourism in sustaining whale shark populations.
My first whale shark experience
In the months before arriving at Ningaloo Reef, there was so much excitement, anxiety, anticipation, preparation and yes, fear! And yesterday, after all that build up, came my first experience of actually swimming with the whale sharks.
On the boat, anticipation builds up as we cruise south, waiting to see if the spotter plane will find us a shark. Suddenly, the boat takes off, the wake rising behind us – a whale shark had been spotted!
Then the roar of the engine drops and it’s time to get our gear on. Fear and excitement builds as we wait on the marlin board, ready to step from the boat into the deep blackness of the ocean.
“Go, go, go!” our dive master calls, and we are away. I step off the platform, straight down into the ocean, and there, right in front of me, a huge whale shark swimming straight towards me.
Nothing could have prepared me for the awesome moment, or for the beauty and majesty of this huge fish at home in its natural environment. I paddle backwards and then follow this beautiful animal for what seems but a moment, and then we scramble back on to the boat to give others a turn.
The slow swing of a whale shark fin
From then on, this is the pattern of the next hours. Another shark, further south, is sighted so we power across the ocean towards it, and the same build up, gear on, waiting for the call - “go, go, go”.
Next time I miss the whale shark but then my third time in the ocean, the last swim for the day, I am able to cruise alongside the huge whale shark, pause to wonder at its size and grandeur, absorb the slow swing of its tail fin and its calm glide just below the surface of the ocean.
Back on the boat, warm and dry, we motor back as the sun sinks. As the excitement and anticipations of the day slow down, we have time to reflect on this incredibly overwhelming experience, to ponder the beauty, wonder and variety of this planet that we call home, and to recall the urgent need for us all to strive individually, in groups and as nations to preserve it all for future generations.
The start to a perfect day…
The weather was perfect; a cloudless sky, just the softest breeze and the warmth of the sun on our backs. The snorkel on the reef, beautiful as always with the many coloured fish, was given an extra zest when we found ourselves sharing the reef with a dugong! But of course, it was whale sharks we had come to seek, so with everyone back on the boat, we sped out through the channel to the open sea.
Hardly any time passed before the spotter plane found us a whale shark. Along with the captain and crew of the 3Island Cruise, several tourists and the whole Earthwatch volunteer team on this, the last full day of our expedition, we were joined by Earthwatch Principal Investigator Brad Norman and one of the field Team leaders, George Shedrawi.
They were undertaking research with a massive stereoscopic camera that enabled them to tell the size of the whale shark. They manoeuvred this into the water and swam using this camera to photograph the whale shark– a feat requiring considerable strength and agility!
The day unfolded perfectly, with plenty of opportunity for whale shark swimming, today’s shark being a small rotund female whale shark. With the swim and roll-call completed, and a delicious lunch being eaten on the boat, we headed home. What we did not know was that the high point of the day was still to come...
A whale of a time
“Whales ahead!” the captain called from the bridge, and we powered towards the place, several kilometres distant to where he had spotted them.
Suddenly two whales surfaced and dived about thirty metres to the starboard side of the boat, and then, two more on the port side, towards the westerly sun. As they rose and dived the sun shone like stars around them. It was utterly breathtaking.
The captain slowed the boat to a crawl and everyone was watching the beauty of these awesomely majestic creatures as they continued to blow, to surface, to dive, just ten to twenty metres either side of the boat. We were surrounded by humpback whales! On several occasions one of the whales would turn and dive right under the boat, to surface on the other side – it was breathtakingly, achingly, wonderful.
Huge they may be, but the grace and poetry of the movement of these whale is awesome, as sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs, they rose and fell through the blue, blue water, the drops falling from them like stars and a couple of times, as the whales blew on surfacing, a rainbow shone in the water vapour.
For over an hour, the captain continued to slowly edge the boat northward, flanked by the surfacing, diving and blowing of the whales. All the other boats had long since gone home and we had this perfect time to ourselves. Captain, crew and marine biologists, with thousands of hours of experience between them, said they had never been privileged to see the like.
It seemed as if these giant and beautiful creatures had taken us under their care and were leading us home. When we arrived at the channel, the whales disappeared as we motored to our mooring. It was late afternoon, well over an hour later than boats normally tied up for the night. We had been given a once in a lifetime display. So ended an absolutely perfect day, and completed the last full day of the Earthwatch Whale Sharks of Ningaloo Reef expedition.
Earthwatch Australia’s first ever raffle winner