NINGALOO SHARKS

When you think of diving in Australia, most people immediately think of the Great Barrier Reef. But Exmouth and the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia is also a very special dive destination. The waters are warm and tropical, the sun shines all the time, the fish life is phenomenal and best of all, the whale sharks are almost guaranteed in March and April.

But Exmouth is not for the faint of heart. It's expensive ($300 a dive) and requires travel to the middle of nowhere. The temperature here is 40 to 42°C - HOT! Very hot! Especially for someone who has just left the Canadian winter behind. The heat, however, is not as bad as the flies, which are everywhere in abundance. Walking through downtown Exmouth, I figured that the people in town were very friendly: they were all waving at me. I found out on closer examination that they were chasing the flies away from their eyes!

But the abundance of marine life in the area is amazing. On my first dive I discovered a 10-ft tiger shark that was in the shallows looking for turtle to feed on. Later I saw a pod of 12 dolphins. On the second dive I was eyeball to eyeball with whale shark - not one, but two - the largest of which was about 40'. The micro marine life was as interesting as the large pelagic. In ten years of diving I have not seen such profuse fish population in one place. I had to wave away blankets of fish to enter the underwater caverns.

The main attraction, the whale shark, arrives in March. This coincides with the coral spawning (or red tides as it is known to the locals). The tiger sharks, on the other hand, come to feed on the large turtle population here. The tiger shark is quite rare in most part of the world's oceans, but not in Exmouth. In fact, the talk of the diving community is the tale of the Japanese photographer Ito. He visited Exmouth in April 1994 to photograph the whale sharks. While on the dive boat, the spotter plane radioed through the location of a small 16' baby whale shark it had sighted. Ito was dropped at the location with his camera and dive gear. Mel, the divemaster, saw him swim over to the fish, stop and rapidly swim back as fast as he could. It appeared that the pilot of the spotter plane had been mistaken: instead of a whale shark, he'd found a large tiger shark! Although there are a large number of tiger sharks in the area, no attacks have been reported on swimmers. The reason is quite apparent: there is plenty of marine life to ensure they are well fed.

I was so taking in by the sighting of the tiger shark that I had forgotten the purpose of the trip: to swim with the whale sharks. It is a gentle giant, despite being the largest fish in the ocean, and swims along at one knot fairly close to the surface, so I could swim along with it.

The University of Western Australia is currently doing a study on the impact of divers on the return of whale sharks to the area. The whale sharks of Exmouth were reported to the world by Dr. Ken Taylor, a medical doctor in the Exmouth area, who is an avid amateur diver. Taylor noticed the whales returned in March of each year and stayed in the area until June, when they disappeared again. Like most scientists, he was quick to postulate his own theory. It's his belief that the whale sharks return at this time of year,to feed on the spawning coral polyps during the full moon in March and April. The local divemasters have their own opinion. They believe that since Exmouth is near the deep ocean, the whale sharks come into the narrow shelf to mate and feed. Whatever the reason, the whale shark is a definite sighting in the Exmouth area in March and April around the Ningaloo Reef.

BY CHRISTOPHER FERNANDEZ

Copyright 1998 - 2000


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