Swimming with sharks and rays

17:00, Jul 05 2014
DWARFED BY NATURE: Diving with a whale shark in Ningaloo Marine Park on the Coral Coast.

If you hanker for the deserts and extraordinary wildlife of Australia, there's really no other place to go but west.

Armed with a desire to get up close and personal with the largest fish on the planet, plus walking boots, snorkels, the soundtrack to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and a Britz camper van, we headed for the Coral Coast.

At the Cape Range National Park in Exmouth we bought a month-long pass to all the parks for $44 (NZ$47), a great deal if you plan on visiting a few (a single pass is $12).

THAT'S DINNER SORTED: Capes with the blue bone he speared at Blue Lagoon, Francois Peron National Park, near Denham.

It proved tricky getting a campsite in the park - places were limited as 50 sites had been wiped out by flooding.

It is first-come first-served at 8am or you can book online two days in advance. The latter obviously requires a reliable internet link, which we did not possess. We later met plenty of disappointed campers but fortunately the ranger let us have a site the next day after a bit of persuasion.

Covered in red dust from our travels and unable to restrain ourselves any longer, we drift-snorkelled Turquoise Bay's shallow water before walking back to our starting point to do it all again. In my 15-minute snorkel, I bumped into two reef sharks, scary but usually totally harmless, a shy octopus masquerading as a rock and a friendly turtle.


We then settled in at Yardie Homestead Caravan Park, the last place out of Exmouth before the park, ready for the big day - swimming with whale sharks.

Camp manager Maria banned us from driving into town to get our pre-swim talk from Ben, of tour operator Oceanwise, because there were too many 'roos on the road. So we opted for a night of star-gazing as the massive skies opened up, sustained by great burgers from the camp restaurant.

In the morning, Ben and the 20 others on the adventure turned up in a bus to pick us up and on the dock we learned more about what the future holds for the magnificent whale sharks.

In the past year, a 96km-wide channel has been dredged and now up to 1500 boats use this to service nearby gas and oil fields. Wells here provide 60 per cent of Australia's oil, with most using floating production facilities and refineries. The currents from the rigs flow straight into Ningaloo Marine Park's fringing reef.

As Ben said: "It's pretty much ready for a major disaster if there's ever a cock-up there."

He should know, having worked for the oil and gas companies.

So far 270 whale sharks have been identified in Ningaloo. Each has unique markings near their middles and my job as scientist for the day was to help with that by taking underwater pictures.

The first shark was sighted by a spotter plane and excited swimmers launched themselves off the back of the boat. Being a bit more laid back - and er . . . older - we jumped off last and adjusted our masks ready to head for the frantic waving in the water.

We poked our heads under and bang! We were face to face with a massive (or so it seemed) whale shark mouth about a metre away and started frantically swimming backwards. But the serene whale could not have cared less as he was getting down to the serious business of feeding on plankton and krill.

The day worked out something like this, "Shark!", mass scramble to jump off the boat, fast swim to reach said shark and sometimes a glimpse of his tail, sometimes nothing, depending on how fast you can swim, followed by a swim back and clamber back on board. Catch your breath, then repeat five minutes later.

After getting the hang of it - swim like the devil and do not stop - I saw the whales in all their glory and was so awe-struck by these creatures that I forgot to swim and they disappeared into the distance. Finally, I remembered to swim alongside them. It was stunning, they are such serene gentle giants.

That night we camped at the delightful Kurrajong site in the national park. There is no power but nature and the quiet wins you over. It is manned by volunteers who had travelled across the Nullabor from New South Wales to do the job for three months. And why wouldn't you?

The next day we took a Yardie Boat Cruise, a one-hour tour (11am and 12.30pm, $35) along a creek where osprey have nested since 1864. Our guide pointed out well-disguised black-footed rock wallabies. One with a joey in her pouch bounced about the sheer rock face like a gymnast.

We returned to Turquoise Bay and another beach, Oyster Stacks, for more reef snorkelling before adjourning to the Lighthouse Caravan Park, which was full of boisterous children.

Coral Bay is a few hours' drive from Exmouth and there we stayed at Bay View Caravan Park, which offers big sites away from families. There is also some stunning snorkelling off the beach.

As we cooked up a cheap meal of baked beans and eggs, next to us sheep shearer Leon took pity and shared his fresh crayfish and tarakihi cooked over a camp stove, spoils of a hard day's fishing. We also shared a jar with Sydneysiders John and Adrienne, stranded after their Land Rover blew up after crossing the Nullabor. There are worse places to be stuck.

The next day we did a manta ray tour with Coastal Adventure Tours. There were just six of us, plus skipper Francis, his daughter and mum. First off, we did a leisurely snorkel over a reef-shark cleaning station just outside the reef. Swimming through the breakers, we came across the sharks queuing up to grin broadly for tiny cleaner fish who got to work like dental hygienists.

Back on the boat it was like the whale shark tour but less frenetic and when rays were spotted, we jumped into the water and swam fast.

These majestic creatures glide though the water with immense grace and I hovered over a huge one as it effortlessly barrelled over and over to catch food in his yawning mouth.

But nature in all its glory was to show its ugly side on the way back as we came across a humpback whale.

The day before Francis had seen the young female, one of the first of the season, in distress after being attacked by tiger sharks. Today, 12 usually solitary six-metre tiger sharks were in a feeding frenzy with the dead whale. Francis, who reported the scene to the marine authorities, had only seen this four times in the 20 years he had been working the boats.

We lined up to watch from the safety of the boat with conflicting emotions - sadness for the whale and a fascination with the power and efficiency of the sharks thrashing around in the water ripping chunks out of the carcass.

Next stop Denham and the Francois Peron National Park, where we joined tour guide Capes, of Wula Guda Nyinda Eco Adventures, for a four-wheel-drive overnight camping safari.

We arrived at camp after kayaking across Big Lagoon. Capes, a former AFL player, caught a blue bone fish by jumping off his kayak with a three-pronged spear.

We had the fish, cooked over the campfire, for dinner then a late-night dip in an artesian hot pool. The next morning we drove through the 52,000-hectare park spotting animal tracks, before farewelling Capes and heading to Monkey Mia for the first dolphin feed of the day. They have been feeding them for years here, but things have tightened up as some females were not teaching their calves to catch food. Now you can look but you better not touch.

Half of all young dolphins here are lost to shark attacks but we continue to have a love affair with these animals - 109 people turned up for the first feed at 8.30am.

The writer travelled courtesy of Air New Zealand and Western Australia Tourism.


Getting there

Flights to Perth with Air New Zealand in June are about $1100 return non-stop from Auckland. Air New Zealand offers daily non-stop flights between Auckland and Perth. From October 15 the new 787-9 Dreamliner will operate on this route. Seasonal non-stop flights are also available between Christchurch and Perth from 13 December 13 to April 25, 2015, with connections available around New Zealand. See airnewzealand.co.nz.

Being there

For Britz campervan deals see driveforyoursenses.co.nz Western Australia Tourism has itineraries for adventurous and less adventurous travellers at westernaustralia.com The Holiday Parks Pass, $44 (no concessions), gives unlimited access to all WA National Parks for one month. Single entry fees where applicable are about $12/$6 per vehicle and $6 for motorcycles. Camping fees where applicable are $12/$10/$7.50 per adult per night.

Sunday Star Times