When I imagined the response I would give when asked how swimming with whale sharks felt, I was expecting that response to live up to the experience. I would choke up, maybe gasp. Through teary eyes I would say the most wonderful things that would so aptly describe the moment.
Minutes after climbing back on the boat, the question came. And to my surprise, mustering up emotion of any kind was very difficult. Where was the one perfect word? It should have just bubbled out of me as effortlessly as the water that flowed in and out of the mouth of the shark. The word that would describe how it felt to turn my head to the left and realize I was staring down the largest fish in the world.
But the truth is, the tears weren’t there, and that word never came. It was more surreal than anything else; I heard myself rambling on about how ‘insane’ that was and how ‘amazing’ it is, but those words felt about as small and insignificant as the fish swimming under the shark’s belly.
The emotions did show up, though days later. It’s 6am as I’m writing this in Sydney. The first chance for reflection on what I saw in the Windex-blue waters off the coast of Exmouth. I don’t think these kinds of encounters download easily from the brain and into the heart. My processor is slower than most; it needs to absorb and digest and contract and expand. To spit out the extraneous chatter that dilutes the authenticity of it all.
I came within 20 minutes of not seeing a whale shark at all. We had several false starts, and by hour five our hopes were as endless as the sky that blanketed the Cape Range surrounding us. But as the minutes dragged on, the chances of me being able to live out one of Western Australia’s most iconic experiences got slimmer and slimmer. I even took a little nap — the anti-motion sickness meds had made me so drowsy.
But as soon as I heard the engine crank back up and propel the boat towards a new area, I shot up and had a gut feeling this would be it.
I was right; the aerial spotter plane had found a feeding shark.
We ended up swimming with only three sharks that day, but I doubt I would have been content if that number had been 100.
Western Australia is only one of a few places in the world that regularly get whale sharks each and every season. A healthy and stable shark population is usually a good indication of a healthy marine environment. And since whale sharks are only protected in 10% of the 100 countries they have been known to visit, making the choice to go to a protected site like the Ningaloo Reef means you’re not only supporting their welfare as a threatened species, but supporting the local tour operators who are passionate about conservation.
Upon more reflection, I think the reason I had such a hard time nailing down a word is because I wanted that word to be able to sum it up. I wanted to give you the goosebumps I felt and the breathlessness I had as I floated a mere meter away from something that had more presence and moved with more grace than anything I’d ever encountered in my life.
But here’s the root of it: There’s no way I can give you the word. It has to be yours to discover.
- * Rebecca was invited by Tourism Western Australia to swim with the whale sharks as part of an effort to raise awareness of the research and conservation efforts happening to help the threatened species. She spent the day with Ocean Eco Adventures, an Exmouth-based team of passionate and friendly guides who aim to educate, inspire, and give visitors an experience of a lifetime.