Swimming with Phantoms

Cos i’m oh i’m whaling
Out on the green – i’ll never get used to the sea
But i’m whaling – manning my harpoon

by Dave Dobbyn

At the northern end of Ningaloo Reef is Exmouth. At first glance what seems like a small wilderness town turns out to be a gem. A gem with an unusual history. Exmouth lies what seems only a cricket ball’s throw but is actually 11 kilometres from the northern tip of Western Australia’s North West Cape. It is on the eastern edge of the peninsula in the gulf and 1,250 kms and a lifetime from Perth. On the western edge of the cape Ningaloo Maritime Park and Ningaloo Reef forges north to its finish at the Muiron Islands. Exmouth is populated by park rangers, tourist boat operators, their crew, tourist park workers, retail workers, and naval, airforce and army personnel and their families. It is also populated by two brewers. Who have two breweries. One of which, the Whalebone, serves pizzas. After a long haul up the west coast with the pubs closed to placate Covid19 Exmouth is also known as Heaven. And as luck, sometimes known as good planning, would have it our campground is a brisk 5 minute walk to the Whalebone. But Exmouth is not all beer and skittles (or the Whaler – Italian sausage, pepperoni etc.). It is also a delightful town that happens to be within spitting distance of Ningaloo Reef and migrating humpback whales, nesting green and hawkesbill turtles, shy dugongs and a variety of sharks, manta rays and over 200 types of coral and 500 species of reef fish. But not all at this time of year. June is the time of whalesharks. And we are going to swim with them.

The Cape Range region has a long Aboriginal history dating over 1000’s of years. Things changed of course when the first European arrived in 1618 some 150 years before Captain Cook was sailing into Botany Bay. Dutch Captain Williem Janz was followed in 1818 by Captain Phillip King who named Exmouth Gulf in honour of Viscount Exmouth – I spent many a boyhood hour reading but not realising that the Viscount aka Sir Edward Pellew had the distinction of later emerging as Horatio Hornblower from the imagination of C S Forrester. Pearlers came and went and large sheep stations grew until 1942 when the US and Australian Navy and Airforces established an airfield and submarine base from which Exmouth town emerged. The US left in 1963 but the bases remain with the submarine base becoming a Very Low Frequency communications centre to assist with communications with US nuclear submarines during the Cold War. The base is operating today and the VLF transmitter is the second tallest man made structure in the southern hemisphere standing at 387.5 metres high. There is some offshore oil and gas here with the ocean platforms seen as small forms on the horizon as one Kirsten Mander no doubt knows having worked around here somewhere.

But back to those big fish. Because the reef is so close to the shoreline it makes close encounters with some of the worlds largest creatures quite simple. Humpback and Minke whales pass by from late June. More importantly for us every year from March to August the world’s biggest fish congregate along the reef. We joined the Latitude 21 skippered (and owned) by Jim early on a gorgeous Exmouth morning. L21 is a reformed fishing trawler, now a well appointed whaleshark chasing boat and that day was host to 17 excited snorkelers to be. We had breakfast, chose our gear – wetsuits, masks, snorkels and fins – and formed up for our lesson. The lesson was sort of basic. “Whalesharks are docile and are happy for you to swim alongside. But they are big. Heaps bigger than you. Their tails can swat you out of the water in one lazy flick. For God’s sake bloody well follow your guides instructions and don’t get too close. Everyone good? Great. Lets go”. At this stage Scout was looking a little paler than usual and did I detect a slight tremor in the hand holding her fins?

The Ningaloo Reef is one of only three places in the world (Maldives and Thailand) where whalesharks regularly congregate in large numbers. This congregation coincides with coral spawning and unique current formation which triggers plankton bloom. They come to feed. Then there he was. All five metres although they grow up to twelve. We had slipped into the water and were following instructions to look down and there like a giant blue phantom ghosting into our small part of the ocean he came. Slow sideways tail movements (this is a shark). Gliding some three or four metres below the surface he seemed so nonchalant, unperturbed. The lazy tail sweeps moved him more quickly through the water than it seemed at first look. Some hard swimming though and we were able to keep up and once into rhythm we were able to swim alongside and within several metres. I felt so small. Then a 180 degree turn and a whaleshark coming back towards us I felt so vulnerable. No problem. After about a half hour in the water the whaleshark slipped quietly down, down and away. We had the great fortune to repeat this exercise three more times including once more with our original friend. I am sure there are more profound experiences in life but for this short hour and a half we felt in awe of but an integral part of natures rich world. We had two wonderful snorkels around the reef enjoying time with turtles, a grand variety of fish and the wonderful coral that makes this all possible. These flits with the natural world do give an understanding of how small a part we actually play in it.

4 thoughts on “Swimming with Phantoms

  1. Oui nous nous sommes baignes. Pas de crocodiles mais beaucoup de requins (dociles) et beaucoup de poissons. Et bien sur quartre whalesharks. Tortues vertes, manta rays et recif de corail.


  2. stunning photos especially swimming with the whalesharks how amazing amd a little scary I would imagine!


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