my mother often called me a fish when i was younger because i found instant relief in the bathtub. whether i was grumpy or sick or had a migraine or something else, once my head was submerged underwater, everything was reset. i was washed clean.
water still has that effect on me. a quick jump into the freezing winter waves of lake michigan. a leisurely sink into the pacific. a float down some winding river. it’s all magical. and yet, i’ve never spent much time underwater. deep underwater.
i have snorkeled, or attempted to, a couple times at various tourist destinations in mexico and florida, but the masks are always crap. and therefore, the experience is always crap. i usually end up swallowing a gallon of salt water and choking half to death on seaweed particles. the visibility tends to be similar to when i wouldn’t clean my fish tank for weeks on end. so needless to say, my impression of snorkeling has been very underwhelming.
but after a week in coral bay and exmouth, western australia, i need to retract every nasty thought i have ever had about snorkeling because i have learned what everyone else already knew: snorkeling doesn’t suck (if you do it in awesome areas).
even though scuba diving has always been on my to do list, snorkeling can show you so much as well. in just one day, the ningaloo reef and caravan park town of coral bay absolutely blew my mind.
despite the fact that i try to avoid tours and group tourist activities at all costs, sometimes you have to succumb. you pay the absurd amount of money and cross your fingers that it is worth all the hype.
well let me tell you, swimming with a whale shark is definitely worth the hype.
if you’re like me, you’ve probably never even heard of this marvelous ocean giant. it’s technically a shark, but it eats and looks like a whale. they are in various locations around the world, but hang around in western australia from march to july for the coral spawning. educate yourself more on wikipedia.
we bit the bullet and paid almost $400 to book an all day tour with coral bay ecotours. the day included a bit of snorkeling around the reef and the main attraction, swimming alongside a whale shark. now, no company can guarantee a whale shark siting, but they try their best to spot at least one each day. since it was nearing the end of the season, i was sending all the positive thoughts i could into the sea as we set out on the water. the tour the day before had gone home empty-handed and was joining us on our tour for a second chance at success.
as we arrived at the first drop around 9am, i zipped up my wetsuit, de-fogged my mask, and started to prep my breathing. i jumped in ready for my mouth to fill up with salt water as i tried to catch up to ryan (scuba and snorkeler extraordinaire).
and then something wonderful happened…it didn’t suck.
i swam stroke after stroke with a completely sealed mask and proper breathing through the snorkel. then i saw a black tipped reef shark swim quickly through the coral. a green turtle gracefully glide near my head. thousands of brightly colored fish jetting left and right through our bubbles. i finally understood why people love snorkeling through coral reefs.
i dove down and investigated the amazing living organism spanning the ocean floor. this alternate universe that has gone mostly unknown to me (except through video and photo) for over 27 years. how? how have i gone this long without knowing the magic beneath the waves?
as we boarded back onto the boat, i peeled off my wetsuit and found a spot in the sunshine. and then, the wait began. with a spotter plane in the air and an experienced skipper scanning the waters, the search for a whale shark was on. and on. and on.
we soared through the ocean for hours just waiting for these precious animals to make themselves known. nature was obviously not at our beckon call. and yet, it was…
as we waited for our chance to jump back in the sea and meet a friendly shark four times our size, mother nature gave us some other creatures to enjoy. heaps of humpback whales flipping their fins and splashing up a storm. several dolphins coasting through the waves without a worry in the world. all of them taking me by surprise every time they popped up into my gaze over the water.
as the clock pushed 2pm, more and more people started pulling off their wetsuits and giving up hope that we would locate a whale shark, but i refused to give up. i refused to take off my wetsuit and submit to failure. instead, i laid on the deck and sent my mermaid messages down into the deep blue sea.
“and we’re on. everybody get ready!”
our guides came rushing around the boat. mr. whale shark had heard my prayer and decided to join us today. i was already smiling ear to ear, but i was nowhere near prepared for what happened next.
we slid in off the marley board and into the open ocean. face mask down and eyes open. inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. kick kick kick kick. holy shit!
there in front of my face was a massive head swimming straight for me. i quickly remembered the instructions from our guides and moved to the side to let this beast pass. and then i got lost in his movements. lost in his unique design of white dalmatian dots. here i was, in the indian ocean, swimming alongside a 5.5 meter whale shark (a baby by size standards). watching his tail sweep side to side and feeling the water ripple through my soul.
(there is video footage and more photos, but australian desert internet is not fast enough for my patience level, so you’ll have to wait a week or two until i’m back in the trusty land of unlimited bandwidth for more.)
i was lost lost lost in the moment, until i heard our guide call us back to the boat.
and then i saw something else…
was that what i think it was…
is there a REAL shark behind us? underneath us? swimming at us???
i quickly popped my head out of the water to see if anyone else was having a mild heart attack like me. without taking too long to process the details, i put my ten years of lifeguard training into overdrive and hightailed it back to the boat. when safely out of the water, i inhaled and spewed out:
“did you see that shark?!”
ryan (of course the last one out of the water) confirmed my sighting and immediately consulted with our guide to see what species of monster was taking the time to grace us with his presence. the conversation went something like this:
guide: yeah, that was a bronze whaler. you can tell by the head and color.
ryan: ah yeah. back on the gold coast, we don’t really mess around with those.
guide: nah man, here they are fine. he was just curious. you could tell by his smooth movements. if he was aggressive, they would have been sharp and jagged.
ryan: ah, well awesome then.
me: so what was it?
ryan: bronze whaler. he said he’s fine.
me: so i won’t die?
ryan: nah, just keep your eye on it.
heart attack over. the guides put 18 tourists back in the water. if they were cool with it, so was i. now i got to divide my attention between two sharks. the one swimming tamely alongside me and the one that could potentially, and easily, rip into my soft human flesh trailing my every move.
it was AWESOME.
in just under eight hours, i had been in the water with three sharks. and i am still alive.
people back home always ask me about the scary animals in australia, and well, yeah, there are tons of them, but my oh my can they be beautiful!
moral of the story: if you ever find yourself near the ningaloo reef in western australia around whale shark season, do yourself a favor and hop on the tourist bandwagon.
and if you’re like ryan and scuba certified, you should also do the navy pier dive in exmouth. apparently, it was pretty epic. a grouper bigger than a human made a special appearance amongst a hundred other really amazing wildlife (or so i’m told).
i guess i will need to get crackin’ on accomplishing the “learn to scuba dive” item on my 35 before 35 list because there is another whole world to start exploring below sea level. and it sort of already feels like home.
p.s. catching the sunset from the exmouth lighthouse is also something to be sure to do if you find yourself in town…especially on a full moon night. as one day ends, one night begins…