Scientists say this is the world’s most sustainable whale shark swim. We gave it a go.

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New research shows Western Australia sets the “gold standard” for whale shark tourism. Sarah Reid dives into Ningaloo Reef—and the science—to find out how it stacks up.  

“Go, go, go!”

Slipping off the back of the boat into the cool, blue water on our snorkel guide Freya Scrowston’s signal, I find myself facing a five-meter (16-foot) whale shark, its elongated mouth agape to scoop up the planktonic goodness invisible to my human eyes. A distinctive checkerboard pattern of bright white spots adorns its sleek grey body, like a living Aboriginal artwork, and a posse of cleaner wrasse jostle for position on its vast white underbelly.

This otherworldly scene is unfolding at Australia’s World Heritage–listed Nyinggulu (Ningaloo) Reef, where the gin-clear waters of the Indian Ocean meet the arid Western Australian outback.

Between March and July each year, the abundance of naturally occurring food coinciding with the annual coral spawning attracts hundreds of whale sharks, mostly juvenile males, to the traditional Sea Country of the Baiyungu, Thalanyji and Yinigurdira peoples. Also gathering in Ningaloo each whale shark season is a steady stream of tourists keen to get a glimpse of this majestic megafauna in its natural habitat. 

Healthy whale sharks are key to healthy marine ecosystems, Meakin tells me, adding that the species is thought to play an important role in the ocean’s biologically driven sequestration of carbon. “We think that they’re likely to be very important in supplying nutrients and retaining nutrients in these tropical surface waters, which planktonic systems can then rely on to kick-off.”

He firmly believes tourism is crucial to conserving these mesmerizing creatures: “We have this hardwired fascination for this megafauna, and whale shark tourism is about stoking that fascination. That’s the thing that may mean that these animals actually survive through the 21st century.”

Swimming alongside the biggest fish in the sea at Ningaloo, it’s impossible not to feel a deeper sense of responsibility to protect these beautiful beasts. But it’s even sweeter knowing for sure that my presence isn’t negatively impacting their natural rhythm.

*The writer visited Ningaloo as a guest of Tourism Western Australia (TWA). TWA did not review or approve this article.


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