His fins curved effortlessly as his torso barrel rolled just a few meters below me. His mouth agape to collect krill, he looked as if he could swallow me whole if I got too close. However, the manta ray seemed to not even notice my presence as he continued with roll after roll. This is just a glimpse of what it’s like snorkeling with mega fauna in Western Australia.
In the Ningaloo Reef, just off the coastal towns of Exmouth and Coral Bay, visitors have an opportunity to encounter wildlife in ethical ways not available elsewhere in the world.
During our road trip from Perth to Darwin, Tim and I decided to join two separate snorkeling excursions – one to see manta rays, and the second to see whale sharks. Each falls into the category of “mega fauna” because they are literally big animals.
Manta Rays Fast Facts
- Mantas can reach 7 meters in width
- They can live for up to 50 years
- They eat 60 pounds of plankton and fish per day
- “Manta” is Spanish for “cloak”
Whale Sharks Fast Facts
- Whale sharks are the largest fish in the sea and can reach 14 meters in length
- They are not related to whales at all – they are sharks
- These sharks have 3000 teeth that they do not use to eat, because they are filter eaters
- They can weigh up to 12 tons
What to Expect
Whether you’re on a manta trip or shark trip, these excursions run very similarly. Your day will start early in the morning and you will most likely travel by bus with your tour company to the location where you will board your boat.
The guides will give you information about the animals you will see and how to interact ethically with them (basically, don’t interact, just observe). They’ll also go over the usual safety briefing, and, depending on the number of people on your boat, divide the guests into groups to limit the number of people in the water with the animal at one time.
You’ll get fitted for fins and a snorkel mask if you didn’t bring your own, and there is generally a casual morning snorkel for you to get used to your gear or to snorkeling itself if it’s new to you.
Mid-morning, a spotter plane will head out to scout for manta rays or whale sharks. They could find one quickly, or it could be hours. Go with the flow and remember that wild animals have no obligation to show up for you, no matter how much you paid!
Once the plane spots a manta or shark, they’ll tell the captain of your boat and he’ll head to the location. From here, this move FAST.
People in the first group will start getting ready with their fins and masks, and line up on the back of the boat. When given instruction to do so, they’ll jump in. A guide will already be in the water trailing the animal and waving his or her arm to indicate the location. The group has a few minutes, and meanwhile the next group is getting ready. When the first group is about to get back on board, the second group jumps. This cycle repeats several times in quick succession, and generally everyone gets to swim twice with the same animal.
It’s definitely exhausting, especially since the whale sharks in particular can be found in rougher waters and swim fast. It’s hard to keep up. If you aren’t a strong swimmer, they do have pool noodles you can hold on to for buoyancy, but regardless you’ll be swimming a lot.
After the manta or shark encounter, there is usually an afternoon snorkel as well. During these other snorkels, you might see turtles and sharks in addition to a wide array of colorful fish.
Lastly, if you’re lucky, you might be able to spot some dolphins from the boat while cruising around!
Responsible Mega Fauna Encounters
In order to ethically observe these animals in the wild, several rules are in place. As mentioned above, the tour operators limit the number of people around the animal at any given time. They also limit the duration of time spent near the animal. Moreover, when observing the animal, it’s important to keep your distance and not get in front of the animal, as this would obstruct their route and their feeding.
One of the best things about opting to snorkel with whale sharks in Western Australia is that tour operators don’t lure the animals to a designated spot by feeding them. Sadly, this is the practice in other touristy locations where you can swim with whale sharks, such as Cebu, Philippines.
Companies and Costs
Ningaloo Discovery offers whale shark tours starting at $249 AUD. They also offer opportunities to swim with humpback whales seasonally!
Coral Bay Eco Tours offers manta ray tours starting at $175 AUD, and also offers whale shark and humpback whale swimming tours.
For information on a deeper dive (literally!) into the Ningaloo Reef, take a look at Out Chasing Stars’ Amy’s blog post about doing a live aboard dive trip!
Read More: Our Perth to Broome Road Trip