Gary Swims With The Fishes (Big Fishes)

I saw some pretty cool things the last two days: sea snakes, sand sharks, humpback whales, and the grand whale shark.

On Tuesday I did a dive on the navy pier. The pier is supposed to be one of the “Top 10 dives in the world”, a title which probably 100 different places on Earth can claim. The pier is where fuel ships dock at the local navy base. The navy base was originally built by the Americans back in the 1960’s as a ELF submarine communication station. It is now operated by the Australian Navy, it is the reason the town of Exmouth was built in the 1960’s.

The pier is normally off limits, but the company I dove with has exclusive rights to dive off of it. It was different from any of the other dives I’ve done if for no other reason than there was no coral. The pier blocks out the sun in the water below it.

I can say with authority that it is not one of the top 10 dives in the world, as it is not one of the top 10 dives on my trip. It was interesting in its own way, and I don’t regret doing it, but I can’t see it being one of the top dives in the world.

The water there was much colder than I had experienced before. I had to wear a 5 mil wet suit. We also had to jump into the water from a platform about 6ft (2m) above the water. There was a surprisingly large number of fish below the pier. I saw several sharks, large cods, large schools, and a sea snake, which surprised the hell out of me. It was very long and very light colored.

Today I went to swim with the whale sharks.

You don’t “dive” with the whale sharks. You technically can’t use SCUBA gear around them. You have to snorkel. They spent a lot of time near the surface feeding on plankton, so that isn’t a problem. The biggest problem is finding the fish. There are several boats which go out to see the whale sharks. They way they find them is from spotter aircraft which look for them near the surface. The company I went with (and I didn’t know this at the time) has their own aircraft, where all the other companies share the same aircraft.
You spend a lot of time on the boat waiting for the plane to spot a whale shark. While we were waiting we saw several humpback whales which were some of the first humpbacks in the area for the season. They were the first whales I’ve seen on my trip. I got some photos of them diving, spouting and a few of them with their tails up on the air.

Snorkeling is normally a pretty relaxed activity. It is more floating than swimming. Snorkeling to see the whale sharks is closer to sprinting than anything else.

When a whale shark is spotted by the plane, the boat moves as fast as possible to the location. One of the staff jumps in the water to spot the shark and everyone else is waiting on board with fins and gear ready to jump in.

The whole exercise is like a fire drill. Once you are in the water, you are have to swim, usually pretty fast, to keep up with the shark. They don’t sit still as they are filter feeders. The first time I jumped it, the shark was heading right towards me so I got to see it head on. If I had to rank the times on my trip where I wish I had a camera but didn’t have one, I think that would have be #1 on the list.

These are BIG fish. The ones we saw were 6-7m in length (19.5-23ft). They have other fish that swim around it as if the fish were a moving reef. I assume they cleaner fish which pick parasites and barnacles off the shark.

When you get to a shark, it is all sort of chaos. Everyone is getting the water, people bump into each other, you often only see bubbles from the fins of the person in front of you, you are trying to follow the guide on the surface while looking under the water for the shark. Sometimes the shark is so deep is it just a shadow. The boat is moving the entire time. Sometimes I figured I was 200 yards from the boat.

You are also in open ocean, in water about 100m deep. As you aren’t diving, you are subject to the waves ands swells on the surface.

We saw two sharks during the whole day. They claimed we were near sharks for 60 minutes, but that seems wildly optimistic. At best, you can see them only for a few minutes at a time, if for no reason that it is hard to keep up swimming at that pace for a long period of time.

It is a unique experience, but your day seeing whale sharks can be hit or miss. I heard stories of when they saw five together at the same time. Other days, you might not see a single one. They also aren’t like whales. You wont see them breaching the water and showing their tails. You are going to have to work to see what amounts for only a handful of minutes near the shark.

Tomorrow I’m off to Shark Bay. I’m about 2/3 of the way to Perth and still have 9 days left on my camper. I shouldn’t have any more death drives ahead of me. In theory, I’m 11 hours from Perth.

Shark Bay has something that I’ve been waiting to see during my entire time in Australia: Stromatolites! Probably the complete opposite experience of going to see whales and sharks.

*Image by Zac Wolf via WikiCommons