Ningaloo Reef is 162 miles long and is part of Cape Range National Park in Western Australia. The Ningaloo Reef and its animals are protected as part of this wildlife sanctuary with strict laws in place to protect the creatures in this fragile habitat. This means is no tour can guarantee an encounter a whaleshark or humpback, but they will do their best to allow a opportunity to view these creatures in their natural state.
As of 2018, there were 9 operating tour companies to choose from, all offering some kind of a whaleshark experience. It is the only1st world country offering encounters with whalesharks in their natural environment, providing regulations on how companies can approach and view the wildlife. Other whaleshark encounters around the world generally bate the fish in order to ensure encounters.
Many of the tours we found cost around $500 for a day tour. In our search for a tour, we stumbled across a week long opportunity to volunteer on a boat in exchange for the chance to swim with whalesharks and humpbacks as space allowed. We loved helping to serve guests of Ningaloo Whaleshark Swim, one of the larger adventure groups in Exmouth.
Arriving for the last week of the season, which runs from mid-March to mid-September, meant that the odds of seeing a whaleshark were less, but our odds of seeing a humpback were high. The company was very clear that we were not guaranteed to see the animals, but they would do the best they could.
At 6:30am each morning, we arrived at the office in Exmouth to pack the food for the day before driving the 30 minutes with the crew to Timbiddi boat entry. Meanwhile, other crew members waited to transport that days guests. After taking a small boat (the tender) to the tour boat, we put away the food and prepared the deck for the day. Specifically, we wiped down benches and storage boxes, organized full body stinger suits, and prepared wet suits. As guests arrived at 8am, we helped to greet, deliver coffee or tea, and make sure they were comfortable.
Throughout the day, we prepared snacks, served drinks, washed dishes and helped guests out of the water. At lunch, we plated the catered food, set up the buffet table and, of course, washed more dishes. Overall, we made sure the guests had everything they needed, answered any questions we could, or directed them to the crew while enjoying our time on the boat.
Once passengers left for the day, we vacuumed the boat, sanitized masks, cleaned equipment, emptied trash, closed the kitchen, and hung equipment to dry. While the return time varied based on animal sightings, we typically arrived back at the store around 4:30pm. While these were long days, they were absolutely worth it. The boat offered a reef snorkel at the beginning and end of each day which we were welcome to join, regardless of the number of guests. Even with the restrictions on snorkelers in the water, there was an opportunity for one of us to jump in with a group to see a whaleshark or a humpback nearly every day. Many of the days offered opportunities for both of us to join the days tour.
All of the local companies use a spotter plane to identify the most promising whalesharks, humpbacks or manta rays based on their position on the reef, direction of travel and behavior. Once identified, the pilots contact the boat operators to drop guests in the water along the presumed path of the giant. From there, they will direct guides in the water to swim into the new path if the animal changes course. As for mantra ray sightings, they are not the priority for these businesses. If mantas are what you really want to see, you should go to Coral Bay and the nursery in the area.
With humpback whales, significant swimming is often necessary as they are much more aware and sensitive to people in the water. It was not uncommon to be in the water and miss the sighting completely. Whalesharks are much slower and much more predictable predictable as long as they stay near the surface and don't dive down.
We came to see whalesharks, but left much more impressed with our experience with humpbacks. While very large and beautiful creatures, whalesharks are much less intelligent and not very dynamic in the water. Humpbacks are significantly larger, are often traveling with their young, and will circle you in curiosity if you're lucky. It's like comparing a cow to an elephant. One is bigger, smarter and more interactive while the other stands around chewing it's food.
Additionally, we were offered the opportunity to fly in the spotter plane at the end of our week. The plane is incredibly small, with room for only one passenger. The views were magnificent, but in no way luxurious or even comfortable. This is not for people who are prone to motion sickness or have small blasters.
Whaleshark season is during the the winter months in Exmouth and you can expect the weather to be chilly and dry. Be sure to bring layers and a change of dry clothes. We were there at the end of the season(last week of September), when the temperatures were warming up and it was still quite brisk.
Overall, we had an unbelievable experience and would highly recommend taking a tour or volunteering. The work we put in was greatly outweighed by the experiences we had in the water. Your mind will be blown!