Out of the blue-green gloom

Un­for­get­table en­coun­ters with whale sharks at Nin­ga­loo Reef KEN­DALL HILL

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence -

PRE­PAR­ING to swim with whale sharks off the West Aus­tralian coast is a lot like wait­ing for a bus. The di­ve­mas­ter’s right arm points sky­wards, as if hail­ing some­thing, while we snorkellers queue to her left as neatly as pos­si­ble in the rolling deep of the In­dian Ocean.

With masks on and heads sub­merged, a huge, spot­ted chara­banc soon looms from the blue-green gloom. At first there’s just a mail­box mouth in a broad head drift­ing ever closer un­til a 6m mass fills our field of vi­sion. Some pas­sen­gers — baby trevally, re­moras and slen­der suck­er­fish — are al­ready on board; we kick flip­pers and try to swim along­side the slow-mov­ing mass.

The first few times we en­ter the ocean on whale shark watch, I well and truly miss the bus and spend my time pur­su­ing a dis­ap­pear­ing tail. But on the last dive I luck out with a prime view­ing spot mid­way along the polka-dot flank of a young male and man­age to stay there, glid­ing be­side my mas­sive mate, for a minute or two. It’s long enough to ap­pre­ci­ate the de­signer dots and stripes that dec­o­rate the whale shark’s skin and to mar­vel that the world’s largest fish is so ac­ces­si­ble to cu­ri­ous hu­mans.

The calm­ness of the en­counter is what stays with me. This is a shark, it is the size of a small whale, and yet it is not ter­ri­fy­ing in the slight­est. It is grace­ful and a won­der to watch. Nin­ga­loo is re­mark­able. The 260km fring­ing reef is the sea­sonal home of manta rays, hump­back whales and the world’s big­gest fish and its big­gest an­i­mal, the blue whale. Per­ma­nent res­i­dents in­clude hun­dreds of trop­i­cal fish species and corals, and three types of tur­tles. When not busy stalk­ing whale sharks, I see my first du­gong in the wild and en­joy a mag­i­cal four-minute swim with a friendly green tur­tle off Turquoise Beach.

The Nin­ga­loo Coast World Her­itage Area has been the in­spi­ra­tion for a pro­ject to track, ob­serve and con­serve whale sharks. Founded in 1999 by Perth-born marine bi­ol­o­gist Brad Nor­man, the Eco­cean pro­gram uses pho­tog­ra­phy as a con­ser­va­tion tool, en­cour­ag­ing thou­sands of vis­i­tors who come to Nin­ga­loo each year, and many more at whale shark hotspots around the world, to upload field pho­tos to a cen­tral ar­chive at whale­shark.org.

More than 47,000 pho­to­graphs have been logged by ‘‘cit­i­zen sci­en­tists’’, as Nor­man calls them, in this dy­namic global col­lab­o­ra­tion. The Eco­cean ar­chive now has data from 54 coun­tries as am­a­teur re­searchers sub­mit whale shark shots from as far afield as Mex­ico and Mozam­bique.

Nor­man’s re­search since 1994 has es­tab­lished that each crea­ture’s dis­tinc­tive spots and stripes are unique and can be used as a sort of selachian fin­ger­print for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Anal­y­sis of the mark­ings on sub­mit­ted pho­tos us­ing mod­i­fied NASA astron­omy soft­ware has de­ter­mined, for ex­am­ple, that there are at least 180 dis­tinct an­i­mals at Nin­ga­loo Reef. Yet very lit­tle is known about the breed­ing and mi­gra­tory habits of this crea­ture, which was first doc­u­mented in 1828.

Nor­man and his team of vol­un­teers did a tag­ging test on the fish last year that yielded ‘‘ex­cel­lent data’’. This year he is busy rais­ing funds for 10 satel­lite tags to ex­pand the re­mote track­ing ex­per­i­ment and, hope­fully, dis­cover more about their mi­gra­tion habits.

‘‘To swim with the big­gest fish in the ocean is unique,’’ Nor­man says. ‘‘It’s [also] a chance to show that whale shark eco­tourism can equal whale shark con­ser­va­tion. If you can spark peo­ple’s in­ter­est in whale sharks, hope­fully you can en­cour­age them to get in­ter­ested in the habi­tat they live in.’’ Ken­dall Hill was a guest of travel.com.au.

A diver swims with a whale shark in the Nin­ga­loo Coast World Her­itage Area

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