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Hello Egy
Australia's wild wild West: Whale sharks and wow factor on a land and sea adventure


 By Helen Nicholson

As I drop into the water, panic takes hold. I kick my legs frantically, taking short, sharp gulps of air.

After treading water for a couple of minutes to get my breath back, I feebly propel myself forward as the waves deliver a series of stinging salty slaps.

My guide shouts: ‘Put your head in the water!’
Reluctantly, I dip my snorkel mask below the surface. As the water swells around me I'm transported to a calm, eerie underwater world. And there, out of the gloom, a large dark object is heading straight towards me.

I stare transfixed at this oncoming behemoth before my guide grabs my hand and pulls me out of its path, motioning for me to follow her as she swims alongside it.

After a couple of minutes, our formidable companion begins to dive, its pattern of white spots and stripes slowly dissolving into the murky abyss – and our pursuit is over as quickly as it began.

I have just, rather unsuccessfully, tried to keep pace with a whale shark – the world’s largest fish.

The location for my close encounter is the Ningaloo Reef, near the coast of Western Australia.

This is one of the few places in the world where you can swim with these gentle giants. They are attracted to the area between March and August by the warm tropical waters and an abundance of the rich planktonic ‘soup’ on which they feed.

Humans, thankfully, are not part of their diet, so it is safe to swim with these docile creatures. Companies like Three Islands Whale Shark Dive operate daily boat tours during whale shark season, using a small plane to locate them.

Of course, there are strict rules. There can be no more than 10 people in the water. Swimmers must stay three metres away from the body of the whale shark, and four metres away from the tail.

And at no point should you ever to try to touch them (not surprisingly, it is easy for awe-struck tourists to become distracted, and find themselves a little too close for comfort).

Whale sharks are a protected species in Australia, but very little is known about their migratory patterns or life cycle – so the images that our Three Islands tour guide takes, using a hi-tech underwater camera, will be used for research purposes.

It is not long before it is my group’s turn to climb back into the water. We slide off the back of the boat in pairs, dropping just metres in front of the next whale shark’s cavernous mouth.

This time, we swim alongside the eight-metre-long fish for more than 10 minutes, as it glides through the water, not far below the surface. Shafts of sunlight dance across its patterned skin, and its giant letterbox mouth gobbles up plankton as a shoal of fish darts about in the slip-stream, hoping for a free lunch.

It is an ethereal, formidable and utterly mesmerising sight.

With this in mind, this patch of the Western Australia shoreline is a major draw for tourists keen to sign up for this most unforgettable experience.

Ningaloo Reef is located in the Ningaloo Marine Park, which stretches out for 260km, from Amherst Point near Coral Bay, up to Bundegi Reef near Exmouth – in the far north west of the country. It is the largest, most accessible reef in Australia, and it became a Unesco World Heritage site in 2011.

Along with whale sharks, visitors can also spot humpback whales between June and November.

Close by is the Unesco-listed Cape Range National Park, with its dramatic limestone ranges, yawning canyons and 50 kilometres of unspoiled beaches.

The park is a daunting expanse, difficult to tackle single-handedly. So I sign-up for a Ningaloo Safari Tour, led by local guide Dave Mongan.

We drive past the sun-scorched landscape of Shothole Canyon and Charles Knife Gorge, before stopping at Vlamingh Head Lighthouse – where Dave boils up tea in a billycan and serves it with a slice of his wife’s fruit cake.

Then it is on to an old naval base – where a solitary kangaroo is the only sign of life among the abandoned Sixties military buildings – before we take another pit-stop at Osprey Bay, a glorious little cove where I dig my toes into the white sand and watch the sea creep up the shore, as Dave prepares a lunch of sandwiches and freshly-caught prawns.

A couple of miles further up the coast is Sal Salis, a luxury eco camp where – for an eye-watering $685 (£436) per person per night for a twin share (or £654 for single occupancy) – you can sleep in one of their posh tents on the beach.

The camp has been designed to be as eco-friendly as possible so is run on solar power. There are no TVs, telephones or minibars.

You do, however, have a proper bed, an en-suite bathroom with a shower and three meals a day, cooked fresh and served in the camp’s laid-back open-air restaurant.

Those who baulk at the price tag but prefer to retain some home comforts can head to the four-star Novotel Ningaloo Resort, in Exmouth’s new marina development.

Its sleek, modern apartments and bungalows offer king-size beds, spa baths, power showers and private balconies from £170 per night.

Flights to Exmouth run daily from Perth, Australia’s fourth largest city (and, with over 300 days of sunshine a year, its weather capital).

Here, as in Ningaloo, the focus is on the great outdoors. Kings Park, with its botanical gardens, is Perth’s number one tourist attraction. At over 400 hectares, it is also one of the world’s biggest city parks, offering unrivalled views over the Swan River.

As the city is right on the coast, Perth boasts beautiful beaches, including the famous Cottesloe Beach, which was the actor Heath Ledger’s favourite spot for surfing. A pristine strip of sand, it is one of the highlights of my outing with Canadian Ryan Mossny, who set up his walking tour business – Two Feet & A Heartbeat – in 2007, after noticing a gap in the market.

I also visit the port city of Fremantle, just outside of Perth – an architectural time capsule where the 19th century gold-rush era colonial buildings stand firm in the salty sea air.

Just offshore is Rottnest Island, which used to be an Aboriginal penal colony, but is now a tourist’s paradise. No cars are allowed on the island, so the most popular way to get around is by bike.

Visitors can try their hand at snorkelling, scuba diving or kayaking. There is also the chance to view the annual migration of humpback whales. And it is the only place in the world where you can find the ‘quokka’ – an adorably cute 12-inch tall marsupial.

The main draw, though, is the island’s unspoiled beaches. With over 60 to choose from, there is a high possibility of finding a secluded spot all to yourself.

But be warned. If you see a large dark object coming towards you, fin aloft – swim the other way. It is unlikely to be as friendly as the gentle giants of Ningaloo Reef.

dailymail

By: manager Date Added: 2013-02-15 Comment: 0 Views :2986

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