Swimming with Whale Sharks: A Day to Remember!

By Lauren Burmaster

“Young whale shark 800 meters northwest of your location” crackles the radio as the news comes from the spotter plane overhead.

With this news Dee and Steve our respective guide and deckhand jump into motion. Commands are quickly shouted and I penguin walk in my flippers, wetsuit, and snorkel gear to the back of the boat. I am moved into position by the ladder to slide into the dark water as soon as the order is given.


I do not even have time let fear grab hold of me or think about my heart, which is beating out of control, as Steve yells, “ALL IN,” and I slide into the water. Following our guide Dee, I scan the top meter of water in all directions. “I see him,” comes out as a muffled scream from my mouthpiece as I gesture wildly with my hands.

Out of nowhere a young whale shark appears 10 meters in front of us! Curious and swimming towards our small group of eight, the young whale shark glides effortlessly towards our direction. The DEC (Department of the Environment and Conservation) has strict rules when it comes to swimming with whale sharks, one of these includes giving the shark a clear path, swimming to the side or behind with 4 meters clearance. With this in mind, I had the split second decision to make – left or right and left it was, getting out of the way just in the nick of time to avoid an aquatic collision. This encounter was the first of five swims for the day, two shorter swims with the younger male and three substantial swims with an adult whale shark.

There is no way to describe my time in the water with these sharks other than as transfixed. My gaze did not leave these creatures and I disregarded my bearings and fears of the dark ocean depths beneath as I cruised along, swimming beside these massive animals. The swims flew by and soon my time with the sharks was over but the day was nowhere near from done!

With a hearty lunch in my stomach and a new found confidence in my deep ocean swimming abilities our group headed to the reef break and drop off (where Nemo was taken) for the last snorkel of the day and boy were we rewarded!

As soon as I slid into the water and made my way to the edge of the reef a massive manta ray glided by. I took a deep breath dove down, equalized and tried to keep up behind this gigantic ray until I thought my lungs were going to burst. As I made my way to the surface the tell tale sign of a white tip reef shark caught my attention. [Sidebar: Anyone that knows me, knows I am deathly afraid of any shark, well the ones with teeth!]

If this had been any other day I would have set a new record for fastest swim back to the boat, but for some reason, while still timid, I was curious – not deathly afraid. Our deckhand, Steve, seeing the look in my eyes, grabbed my fin, spun me around right and we went off in the direction of this shark that was headed along the reef towards our group.

Every shark movie I have watched, Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, all the YouTube videos I have viewed up to this point in my life still have not prepared me to see a SHARK, in the wild, without a cage! I changed positions from floating on top of the water to a vertical position in the water, as to appear larger, but it didn’t even matter. The small reef shark took no interest in us or our photographer, who had dove down to get a better look.

This “terrifying” creature just cruised the bottom of the reef, not a care in the world. With this highlight in the back of my mind we finished up our last snorkel of the day and headed back onto the boat and made our way back to Coral Bay. I can say with full confidence that I will never, ever, ever forget this day and everything I saw.

Special thanks to Hayley Versace from Migration Media for all the professional photos taken on our trip! You can check our more of Migration Media’s work on their Facebook page!

Swimming with whale sharks is a once in a lifetime experience so if you are planning a trip to Coral Bay between April trough July it is a must do! There are a number of tour operators in Coral Bay that offer one day tours out to Ningaloo Reef, all utilizing spotter planes to guarantee a swim with a whale shark! It’s best to book ahead to secure your spot and tours average about $375-$400 for a full day out on the water which also includes morning tea, lunch, and afternoon tea.

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  1. says

    I know what it feels like to swim in the ocean, with nothing to see in any direction except the blue depth – and you can’t tell how far you can see until a creature looms into view. I’ve swam with humpback whales before but never a whale shark. I’d really like to!

  2. says

    This is amazing. This is number one on my bucket list. I was hoping to see them when I was in Indonesia last year but it didn’t happen. One day, one day. How lucky you are!

    • says

      You should definitely come to Australia because they send out spotter planes, which pretty much guarantees you that you will get to swim with a whale shark

  3. says

    Wow! What a wonderful experience, We went whale watching the other day and now I’m definitely keen to see any other creature with the word whale in it! they are so spectacular!

  4. says

    I would love to swim with whale sharks in the wild. We got to swim with 3 of them at the Georgia Aquarium, but being in the ocean has to be a completely different experience. I’ve encountered sharks both in the Galapagos & off the coast of Panama and both times I never was afraid. I think seeing them in their natural environment helps to remove the movie drama.

    • says

      The great thing about Whale Sharks is that they are totally harmless. I was so captivated during my swim with them. I don’t think I would be afraid of reef sharks though. They usually leave people alone since we are much bigger than them.

  5. says

    Great article, love the intro and pics of the giant mantas very cool – I’ve never seen any that are that color; gorgeous!

    So want to do this some day!


  1. […] and heading to Western Australia. We cruised a river in Kununurra, rode camels in Broome, swam with whale sharks in Coral Bay, recklessly drove ATV’s, spent some time on the moon, and finished off Western […]

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