The wild blue yonder
Into the deep with whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef
From a spotter plane directing tourists to the vista below, Western Australia’s Cape Range National Park and Ningaloo Reef present like ribbons of extremes. The deep blue of the open ocean gives way to a stripe of coral that melts through oxygenated turquoise waters into white sands, then to a scrubby hinterland rising to a ragged limestone range teeming with kangaroos, wallabies and emus.
But the real action is in the water, where a combination of natural forces creates one of the world’s most dynamic aquatic domains. Ningaloo Reef, Australia’s largest fringing coral reef, is a kaleidoscopic garden home to more than 300 species of fish. Pods of killer whales, or orcas, stalk migrating families of humpback whales, ever ready to pick off the weak. Whale sharks, the world’s largest fish, return to the area to gorge on the annual coral spawn and the explosion of life that results from the mixing of two currents in March or April each year.
The 50km wide and 200m deep Leeuwin Current carries warm water south from Indonesia to mix with the Ningaloo Current bringing cold water north from the Southern Ocean. The whale sharks gather in what is known as the percussion zone on the edge of the reef. Here there is more oxygenated water than further out to sea and plankton is forced to the surface. It’s this concentration of microscopic marine life that draws in the whale sharks to feed.
In the water, the whale sharks are unfazed by swimmers, who travel the globe to share the leviathans’ world. Ecotourism operators communicate with spotters circ-