8 March 2022
Swimming with the Ningaloo Reef whale sharks is a bucket list experience of a lifetime. As the world’s largest fringing reef, the Ningaloo Reef is home to an abundance of marine life. When visiting, make sure to experience at least one of the “Big 3” bucket list swims - swim with whale sharks, manta rays and humpback whales.
Whale sharks are the world’s biggest fish, growing up to 18m long. Whale sharks in Ningaloo are generally between 2 and 12 metres long. These gentle giants cruise the oceans, filter feeding on plankton. The Ningaloo Reef is the only place in Australia where you can swim alongside these magnificent creatures. Further, Ningaloo is one of the best places in the world to swim with whale sharks, due to high numbers and chance of interaction. Ningaloo whale shark tour operators offer a ‘no sighting’ policy, giving you the opportunity for another tour at either a reduced rate or free of charge if whale sharks aren’t sighted on your tour day.
Tip: Book your whale shark swim in advance, and schedule it for the first day of your visit. This gives you a chance to do another tour under the no sighting policy later in your trip in case you don’t see the whale sharks (subject to availability and other T&Cs, check with your tour operator).
The Ningaloo whale shark season usually begins around March, continuing through to July. When booking a tour with one of the many tour operators in Exmouth and Coral Bay, you will receive a full day experience. The day usually begins from around 7am, with pick-up from your accommodation, with drop-off in the afternoon around 4 or 5pm.
Tip: If you are prone to sea sickness, make sure you take appropriate medicine with you as there won’t be any on board. Take sea sickness tablets before getting on the boat.
Safety is paramount on these tours, for both yourself and the whale sharks. The tour begins with a safety briefing, going through all you need to know on how to safely interact with the whale sharks. The key rules include always remaining at least three metres from the body and four metres from the tail of the whale shark. The maximum allowed number of swimmers at any one time (excluding your guide) is 10. On tours, this means you may take turns in the water with the whale shark as most tours take 20 people.
Snorkelling gear including fins, mask and wetsuit is supplied. You will have an opportunity for a practice snorkel in the inner reef to make sure your gear is comfortable. From here, your tour operator takes you further out on the reef for the whale shark swim. Spotter planes operate in the sky above to direct them where to go. Once in position, you will jump into the water with your tour guide, just ahead of the whale shark. You will line up in the water, and then told when to put your head in the water just in time to see the whale shark glide past you. Now, the real fun begins – it’s time to start swimming after it!
Swimming behind or parallel to the whale shark is a mesmerising experience. Make sure to take in different angles of the whale shark. Watching the tail swing slowly back and forth from behind is particularly hypnotic.
Tip: Most tours have a photographer on board to capture the special memory of swimming alongside the whale sharks. You are welcome to bring your own underwater camera, but it can make the swim more challenging.
The whale shark swims take place in the morning, with morning tea and lunch provided on board the boat. The afternoon may include an additional coral reef snorkel or wildlife spotting cruise (depending on weather conditions).
Whale shark shoulder season is August and September. While there is less chance of seeing whale sharks, you may see some of the other unique marine creatures of the Ningaloo Reef.
Another unique marine interaction on the Ningaloo Reef is swimming with humpback whales. Humpback whale tours generally run from July to October. Humpback whales grow up to 19 metres in length, weighing up to 40 tonnes. Group sizes are limited to 7 people for the in-water interactions, or you can watch from the boat. Like the whale shark tours, humpback whale swim tours are a full day experience. Several tour operators also offer two-hour sunset whale watching cruises.
Manta rays can be seen on the Ningaloo Reef all year long. Manta rays are filter feeders and do not have a sharp barb, making them safe to swim with. Tour operators in Coral Bay offer dedicated manta ray tours throughout the year. There may also be a chance to swim with manta rays on your whale shark or humpback whale tour in Exmouth.
Ningaloo Reef is an underwater paradise for marine life. Interacting with these unique creatures on an eco-tour is truly an awe-inspiring experience that shouldn’t be missed. Discover more Ningaloo Reef experiences for your next visit.