21 March 2023
It's official: whale shark season is in full swing on Australia's Coral Coast.
Each year, whale sharks congregate en masse in the warm waters off Coral Bay and Exmouth. They’re drawn to the area to feed on the plankton population boom after the synchronised coral spawning on the Ningaloo Reef. It happens like clockwork — five to ten days after the full moon in March — spurring a flurry of activity in the marine park.
Technically, whale sharks can be spotted swimming along the reef as early as February; however, it’s hit-and-miss whether or not you will actually see one. By early March in Coral Bay and mid-March in Exmouth, the population has swelled enough that multiple daily sightings occur.
This season has gotten off to a bumper start, with marine scientists and tour guides spotting four to five whale sharks daily, even in February. The promising activity on the reef means guided whale shark swims kicked off early, the first boatload of passengers heading out to paddle alongside the gentle giants on February 27th.
Whale sharks remain in Coral Bay until June and Exmouth until early August, so there’s still plenty of time to book your once-in-a-lifetime swim before the season is out.
The gateway to the Ningaloo Reef, some 1,250km north of Perth, Exmouth is the ideal hub for any and all oceanic activity.
On the gulf side of the peninsula, a short drive from the Learmonth Airport, you can kayak your way through the Bundegi Sanctuary Zone, drop a line in for a fish, or book a dive tour of the Exmouth Navy Pier. The pier is still a functioning port and named as one of the top ten diving spots in Australia. Snorkelling, SUP-ing, and swimming with whale sharks and humpback whales happens on the peninsula’s western side. It’s where the reef fringes Cape Range National Park and all the most famed Exmouth beaches are — think Turquoise Bay and Oyster Stacks.
Coral Bay is a tiny coastal hamlet 150km south of Exmouth, loved by holidaymakers for its barefoot culture, wide, calm bay, and easy access to the Ningaloo Reef. Just a few steps from your door or tent flap, and you’ll be at the beach. Another few, and you’ll be in a prime position for snorkelling the coral bommies. Turtles, sand rays, and hundreds of species of fish inhabit this section of the reef, but it’s on the outer portion of the reef where the whale sharks frolic.
Follow the Coral Coast Highway from Perth to Exmouth, making stops in Geraldton, Denham, and Carnarvon along the way. Or, fly into Exmouth’s Learmonth Airport and drive back down. Qantas flies daily from Perth and, as of April 30th, will be adding a direct Melbourne to Exmouth route too.
TIP: Fly + Drive holidays to Exmouth and Coral Bay are made even easier with Avis’s reduced relocation fees on one-way car rentals. Book your flight into Exmouth and road trip your way back down to Perth, where connecting flights are a breeze.
You'll need to book a dedicated tour to swim with the whale sharks safely and respectfully. Luckily, you’re spoilt for choice.
During the season, tours depart from Coral Bay and Exmouth daily, and it’s a bright and early 7:00am start to get you out to the whale shark zone. As you make your way past the reef, you’ll get your allotted wetsuit, snorkel, and set of fins and run through the safety brief. Meanwhile, your skipper will constantly communicate with the spotter planes flying overhead to guide the boat alongside any surface-swimming whale sharks they see. As you draw closer, it’s time to put the swim procedure into action.
Though there can be up to 20 people on some of the tours, only ten swimmers are allowed into the water at one time. If you’re not the most confident swimmer, tour guides will happily hand out pool noodles and life jackets to assist. You’ll have just enough time to slide in off the back of the boat and form a chain in the water before the whale shark comes swimming by. Listening to the cues of the tour guide in the water with you, you can take off paddling alongside. It’s imperative that you keep the recommended three metre distance from the whale shark, so they can go about their feeding uninterrupted.
Once you tire of paddling and the whale shark has swum on, the boat will swing back around to pick you up, manoeuvring itself ahead of the whale shark again to let the next group jump in.
It’s rare to head out and not swim with one of the gentle giants. So rare, in fact, that there was an interaction rate of 97.14% for the 2022 swim season. Most tour groups even get the chance to get in the water more than once, sometimes with different whale sharks and manta rays if they’re spotted too.
Post-swim, there’s time to snorkel a section of the Ningaloo Reef before heading back to port for a 5.00pm disembarkment.
In peak season, tours book out fast. Get in early and secure your spot on the swim of a lifetime with one of our trusted operators.