Interaction with whale sharks is very carefully controlled at Ningaloo.


CLAD IN STANDARD-ISSUE WETSUITS, masks, fins and snorkels, were arranged with military precision on the dive deck. On our divemasters command GO GO GO!, we slide into the water seemingly as one entity, fins flapping, snorkels echoing with our rapid, shallow breaths.
Guided by the raised hand of our spotter, we arrange ourselves into a two-rank formation, kicking hard into the surface current all the while.
I feel suddenly alone, my body rising and falling in the swell accompanied only by my camera, nervously awaiting what I know to be approaching.
I scan the surface for any signs of movement, my heart beating fast, legs working hard in the current.
Suddenly, with a sharp intake of breath, I see a gargantuan shark approaching, its huge mouth open wide, headed straight for me! But this is not a scene from a low-budget Jaws-style flick; this is my first swim with the gentle giant of the seas, the mighty whale shark.
Having travelled halfway round the world to Australia, then undertaken the 930-mile trip from Perth to Ningaloo Reef in a camper-van and put up with the relentless Aussie flies for two weeks, youll understand my excitement at finally getting to this point.
Ningaloo is the only place in the world where you can swim with these amazing animals reliably every year, hence our never-ending-journey-style trip.
But Ningaloo Reef offers far more than just whale sharks. The 150 miles of reef consists of more than 250 species of hard coral and attracts manta rays, humpback and minke whales, spinner, bottlenose and humpback dolphins, dugongs and a huge array of fish life.
There is something for everyone, from the biggest shark to the tiniest nudibranch, some of which are endemic to the area.
This reef, one of the least-spoilt patches of underwater paradise in the world, is what attracts the whale sharks. They feed on the plankton around the reef during the annual coral-spawning.

WE ARRIVE IN THE HUB of all things whale shark in Western Australia. Exmouth was established in 1967 to support a US naval communications base that has since closed. Everyone you meet in this small town seems to work in the dive industry, is doing a divemaster course to that end, or works in conservation, preserving the beautiful surroundings as well as the areas underwater assets.
Our visit coincides with the annual Ningaloo Whale Shark Festival, a three-day event including the Whale Shark Triathlon, Local Arts Prize, Whale Shark Interpretive Centre and, importantly, a bar. The festival may have sounded like a clichéd local fair but it proved highly enjoyable and enlightening, with its fabulous exhibition, hourly lectures and striking 6m inflatable whale shark centrepiece!
Our Exmouth dive plan resembled a tempting three-course meal - a day trip to the surrounding reef for starters, a swim with whale sharks for the main course and an exclusive two-day liveaboard trip for dessert.
Kristin Anderson and Dave Hall run Exmouth Diving Centre, the longest-established centre in town.
Ningaloo Reef is all about the creatures - it has the most amazing variety of species in such huge numbers, all year round, says Kristin. I did 3000 dives on the Ningaloo Reef while living in Coral Bay, and I wasnt bored once.
We promptly book a day-trip to the Murion Islands, a one-hour boat ride north, and the following morning set off aboard Concorde with Dave as skipper, and Megan Anderson as our guide.
This former schoolteacher, realising that were all a bit sluggish from the Whale Shark Festival Bar the previous night, dishes out chocolate-chip cookies and freshly baked bread laced with cheese and bacon.

WE MAKE FOR A SITE NAMED FRAGGLE ROCK and drop onto a gentle slope covered in hard corals. We traverse large pinnacles teeming with life, and watch graceful shoals of glassfish swim in formation over sleepy sea bream as yellowstripe snappers swirl. The sight of two camouflaged wobbegongs results in lengthy photographing of the flat, weird, bearded creatures. These bottom-dwelling flat sharks have a benign appearance but also needle-like teeth.
A grey reef shark snoozing next to the corals hears our bubbles and makes a quick, graceful escape.
We surface to be greeted with crisps, crudités and dips - ideal for my post-dive salt cravings! Underway, we are briefed on the next dive site, Cod Spot. Cod is Aussie for grouper, and you get big ones at Ningaloo.
Cod Spot is awesome. Glassfish cover the reef like a huge magic carpet, swarming in bait-balls as you swim past them, a shimmering curtain that hides all manner of delights. It takes a brave and steady hand to waft them aside for a better view, only to see the sharply pointed grin of a huge potato grouper or the shaggy face of a wobbegong.
Dancing Durban shrimps tango into dark crevices, pastel-coloured soft corals come into view and vivid nudibranchs highlight sponges. Be careful not to lose your spatial awareness among the constantly moving glassfish, as you may misjudge a distance and hit your head on a rock. Obviously I am not speaking from personal experience.
We head back to dry land, munching on fresh fruit and recounting the many wonders of the day. The military-style kit-washing exercise at the dive centre is rewarded with free beer (or soft drinks) as we fill in our log-books.

AND SO TO THE MAIN COURSE. Sadly, in some parts of the world this is taken literally, leading to the hunting of whale sharks for sale as fish tofu, among other things. Whale-shark meat can be sold for up to US $6 per kg, a fin alone being worth up to $15,000. It is rarely eaten, but used in restaurant windows in the Far East to advertise shark-fin soup. Biggest shark, biggest fin - biggest billboard.
The Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation takes threats to the whale shark population seriously. It takes advice from local operators to implement strict rules on whale shark interaction.
At the dive centre we collect kit and chat with our fellow whale sharkers. Most are qualified divers, though the only prerequisite for coming on the trip is a reasonable swimming ability.
Our group includes a woman who is five months pregnant, and a couple with an eight-year-old daughter.
There will be a dive on Ningaloo reef, while snorkellers enjoy the fish life from the surface. The site, the Floats, consists of a series of coral outcrops from the main reef, hosting turtles, manta rays, hundreds of different reef fish and lots of macro life besides.
The highlight for us is a massive school of convict surgeonfish, bright yellow with jet black stripes, undulating over the reef in a hypnotic pattern of floating, feeding, floating, feeding, oblivious to our presence.
Back on the boat by 10am, the excitement is building but everyone is quiet, trying to listen in to the short relaying messages between the skipper and the pilot of the spotter-plane.
Gradually we relax. The plane has not even been up for an hour, and may not see anything until after lunch.
Suddenly the engines start to roar, the boat surges forward, the skipper shouts: Twenty minutes! and the crew descend on us, hurrying us into our wetsuits and reminding us of what to do in the water once the spotter (a qualified guide who swims in front of the shark with a raised arm to guide the swimmers) has made visual contact.
We are told not to get any nearer than 3m from the whale sharks body, and 4m from the tail, as a 12m shark can have quite a swing on it!
Also, on the first drop there is to be no freediving, in case the shark is skittish and dives, not to be seen again.
Of course, no touching is allowed, and flash photography is banned, as it may distract and frighten the animal.
With so little known about the migration and breeding habits of whale sharks, local operators, as well as the DEC, are determined not to disturb their established patterns in any way.
I am slightly apprehensive about how close I will be allowed to approach, and whether I will eventually be able to freedive near the creature.
My fears are groundless. I enjoy five wonderful swims with two different whale sharks (before lunch, I may add), watch mantas frolicking at the surface and spot minke whales and dolphins on the way home. Its a fabulous day.

DESSERT COMES COURTESY of Dive Now, a relatively new centre specialising in individually tailored liveaboard trips for small groups.
Owner Steve Connolly says that only 20% of the accessible diving around Exmouth has been explored, giving divers the unique chance to find their own virgin dive site.
He believes Exmouths remoteness is a blessing: If people make the effort to come here, you know that they really want to dive here. You dont land up here by accident! Estimates suggest that as few as 60 divers are at large on Exmouth dive sites on an average day.
Compare that to the Red Sea, or the alleged 5000 divers dropped onto the Great Barrier Reef daily from Cairns.
The following day we are due to meet Steve at noon, allowing us a lie-in plus a good breakfast. So good, in fact, that the smell of frying sausages elicits a visit from an uninvited emu!
The flightless wonder enjoys some toast and marmalade with us but declines coffee before making its way back into the bush.
Sea Breeze, a twin inboard-engined catamaran, boasts six-berth liveaboard capabilities and a 19mph average speed.
We are met in the fashion to which we have grown accustomed - with food! Fresh fruit and HobNobs tide us through the boat briefing, then we stash our substantial luggage (cameras, not clothes) in our cabin before lunch.
Gullivers lies west of the top of the headland that shelters Exmouth. Its two sand patches, outlined with a shelf of coral, give it the appearance of huge sandy footprints from the surface. Its a gently captivating dive. You can make your way around the coral shelves in a figure of eight, enjoying delights such as the dusky nembrotha nudibranch, black sailfin catfish and the dozy but highly venomous olive sea snake, and look out for grey and whitetip reef sharks.
We eagerly await the next dive at Blizzard Ridge, a long ridge at 20m. It doesnt have much coral, but more than makes up for this in fish life. We are met by schools of threadfin pearl perch, emperors and bannerfish, and I am struck by their friendliness - they seem to see divers not as a threat, but as an interesting oddity! We spot some gorgeous nudibranchs, as well as the now obligatory reef sharks.
We are greeted at the surface by the aroma of sausages. Like the uninvited emu, I make my way to the source of this delicious waft - a sunset barbecue, the boat resting in open water as we watch the magnificent end of the day.

NOT THE END OF OUR DAY, however. Fuelled by sausages and the possibility of huge sting rays and green turtles, we change tanks as darkness falls, and enter the black water by moonlight.
We descend the anchorline to see not one, not two but seven massive brown rays congregated in a feeding or perhaps mating fest at the bottom.
We watch these magnificent creatures as they gently undulate in the sand, trying to camouflage themselves from our freshly charged LED torches.
Exhilarated, we leave the septet of rays to follow the ridge, as we had done earlier. We see garish nudibranchs, shy shrimps and brightly coloured crabs, three green turtles snoozing under the coral and a skittish blue-spotted ray disturbed by our lights.
All too soon its time to turn and head back to the boat, all the time seeing different night-time wonders.
I am at the back of the group when I spot the biggest green turtle I have ever seen. While observing this magnificent animal he is disturbed from his resting place by my bright light, and lands slap on top of a wobbegong shark.
Luckily it doesnt fancy blunting its teeth on turtle-shell, and puts up with the sudden, but brief, intrusion. Im still not sure who is more shocked out of the three of us, but I leave them in peace.
We share beers and experiences of the day on the top deck. Looking up at the sky, I feel as though Im in the middle of nowhere (which I guess I am!) and that Im seeing the stars for the first time, with no towns and streetlights to distract from their nocturnal glowing.
I ask Steve, who has worked all over the world as a dive instructor, teaching recreational as well as technical diving, what he finds so special about Ningaloo.
The low number of divers not only means you get gorgeous corals, but you also seem to get more encounters with wildlife, he says. Rays, sharks, turtles and fish here are less afraid of divers. Theyre more likely to come and check you out, rather than you checking
them out!
He also loves the proximity of the reef to Exmouth: The diving here is on the doorstep. Compared to the Great Barrier Reef, Ningaloo is incredibly close to the shore, and you have a great choice of relatively shallow sites, allowing all divers a good, long chance to observe and appreciate the marine life.

AFTER OUR MICHELIN-STARRED DIVING FEAST, we make our way two hours south to the small town of Coral Bay, highly recommended by Kristin, who lived here for three years.
We decide to take part in a manta-ray trip, as well as a days diving on the reef.
Coral Bay has a beautiful, sheltered beach, from which you can swim or kayak to Ningaloo reef over stunning shallow bommies. The depth inside the reef varies from 1-14m and you can see mantas, reef sharks, dolphins and the occasional dugong, plus a huge variety of reef fish and magnificent corals.
The bay is sheltered by the reef, which makes for good conditions. Coral Bay is also blessed with both manta and shark-cleaning stations.
Our day of diving is aboard Bay Escape from Ningaloo Reef Dive Centre, the only established centre in the bay. Both dives are inside the reef, although NRD runs trips further north to the outside reef, subject to weather.
Our experienced and enthusiastic guide leads us through the Canyon, a shallow underwater gully lined with beautiful corals and swarming with fish, to Ashros Gap and the shark-cleaning station.
We kneel on the sand next to two massive cabbage corals and wait. Within 30 seconds our first whitetip reef shark appears, then another, then two more!
We watch the sharks as they swam in and out of our view, circling the massive corals. We then head to Lotties Lagoon, another shallow site, where we encounter the strange sailfin catfish, massive friendly spotted sweetlips and a variety of different nudibranchs. Its
a nice gentle dive, with lots of interesting life to observe among the corals.
Back at the dive centre before 2pm, we have the rest of the day to relax on the beach, though there are plenty of other activities for more energetic people, such as sunset quad-biking or kayaking.
The next day we set out again on Bay Escape, in search of manta rays.
The day follows a similar pattern to the whale-shark trip. Energy for swimming fast is essential! A spotter-plane guides the boat to a manta, with which you are allowed to swim in groups of no more than 10 people.
The experience sounds contrived (which it is, as divers dont usually have their own plane to guarantee a sighting) but I still found it highly enjoyable.
While diving elsewhere in the world you may glimpse a manta or, if lucky, see a fly-by, but here I enjoy nearly 10 minutes of swimming beside a specimen that measures 3m from wingtip to wingtip, at a depth of only 2m.
Back on the boat, still out of breath from keeping up with the ray, there are smiles all round and much checking of images on digital-camera screens.

AS THE TRIP INCLUDED A REEF DIVE on the way back to Coral Bay, we head to the Floats. This sites topography is stunning, with porite coral heads looming above as you make your way in and out of the pinnacles, under huge table corals and past coral crevices concealing morays and cleaner shrimps.
On the way back to the boat we are treated to the sight of a lovely egg cowrie, its black flesh sprayed with yellow spots, contrasting with the snow white of its shell.
The diversity of life I have described at Ningaloo is reason enough to
warrant a visit, but the hospitality and friendliness of the Exmouth and Coral Bay residents really made our trip hassle-free and fun. This left us to focus on more important things - like diving the fabulous reef on our doorstep.

Divernet
Waiting
Waiting for the action - having spotter planes helps ensure a satisfactory outcome.
Snapper
Snapper sculpture.
A
A potato cod shows off its impressive gape.
A
A whitetip reef shark among the glassfish swarms.
Nurse
Nurse shark.
The
The shaggy-featured wobbegong.
Yellowstripe
Yellowstripe snapper shoal.
A
A venomous olive sea snake
diver
diver spends time with an octopus
a
a pair of long-snouted butterflyfish.
Big
Big shoal of convict surgeonfish at Floats.
You
You can spend quality time with manta rays at Ningaloo.
FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Qantas, British Airways and Singapore Airlines fly to Perth. Exmouth and Coral Bay are in the middle of nowhere. There are daily flights from Perth to Exmouth with Skywest Airways. Integrity and Greyhound both run buses from Perth daily or you can hire a car, van or campervan. Exmouth is a 14-hour drive from Perth and it is best not to drive after nightfall because kangaroos have a habit of jumping unexpectedly into the road. You wont get your deposit back if you return your vehicle with a roo-shaped dent!
DIVING:Exmouth Diving Centre runs whale-shark and manta-ray trips, whale-watching and guided diving at the Murion Islands and Ningaloo Reef, www.exmouthdive.com. Ningaloo Reef Dive is the only centre in Coral Bay running dive trips and manta and whale-shark spotting, www.ningalooreefdive.com. Dive Now - tailor-made dive trips and liveaboards from Exmouth, www.divenow.com.au.
ACCOMMODATION: Exmouth - Potshot Hotel Resort is in the middle of Exmouth, www.potshotresort.com. Ningaloo Caravan and Holiday Resort, five minutes walk from the centre, has excellent amenities, nice holiday chalets and dormitory rooms for those on a tight budget, www.exmouth resort.com. Coral Bay - Ningaloo Club offers hostel-style accommodation, www.ningalooclub.com. Exmouth Cape Holiday Park has dorms, double and twin rooms and camping facilities, www.aspenparks.com.au. See www.ningalooreef.net for more options. Restaurants are few and expensive, and self-catering may be preferable.
PRICES: Return flights from the UK to Perth with an airline such as Emirates costs from around £800. A two-berth campervan costs from around £30 a day, www.campervan hireperth.com.au. A two-dive day with EDC costs £50. Whale shark trips are £130, and if you dont see one the next trip is free! Prices include food and drink on the boat.
FURTHER INFORMATION:0207 240 2881, www.wa.gov.au, diveoz.com.au