Become One with the Whale Sharks in Western Australia


We go in search of silence, solitude and whale sharks in a remote corner of Western Australia.

First appeared as “Reef Encounters” in the December 2017 issue of Air Canada enRoute.

“How did you end up here?” I ask Tiffany, between overambitious forkfuls of king prawn salad. We’re in the main lodge of Western Australia’s Sal Salis safari camp, where the 24–year–old Hamiltonian is working her first season. Her skin is more sun–kissed than any Canadian’s should rightfully be at this time of year. “I Googled ‘remote,’” she says. “I found this place.”

Yep, that’d do it. Perth, as most Perthlings will be quick to tell you, is the world’s most remote city. (And by some measures, that’s true.) Well, Tiffany and I are 1,200 kilometres north of Perth, and over 17,000 kilometres from our hometowns in Eastern Canada. Remote doesn’t come easy – but then that’s kind of the point. And while there’s no shortage of remote back home, a travel itinerary that involves five connecting flights, 40 hours of transit and an arrival under a totally different sky has a way of turbocharging your disconnect. I see three wallaroos my first day, and hear far too much casual conversation about snakes. Tiffany, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Canada anymore.

April 22, 2020
Sunset at Cape Range National Park in Australia
Sal Salis guide Damo Thomas with a coffee mug
Making bushtracks in the dunes of Cape Range National Park.
Rise and shine: Sal Salis guide Damo Thomas enjoys an early–morning coffee.

In fact, we’re a few kilometres from the western edge of the Australian continental shelf. Cape Range National Park, 50,000 hectares of rugged, caked limestone fractured by deep canyons, gives way to a narrow strip of pristine white sand and beyond that, the Indian Ocean. My tent is one of 15 off–the–grid, safari–style canvas shelters slung low among the dunes of the North West Cape – next stop, Madagascar. There’s no Wi–Fi or cell service in this neck of the bush, a fact I gleefully reported to my colleagues a few days before I left – no e–mail! But also: no Insta–baity snaps of turquoise waters, rust–coloured ranges or kangaroo selfies. No Skype check–ins at the end of the day. No way to share the solitude.

Let’s be real: This isn’t some Thoreauvian story of self–sustenance in the outback. Sal Salis is a luxury glamping destination, with around 15 staff and as many guests at any given time, most of whom are drawn here due to its proximity to the Ningaloo Reef, the world’s largest fringing reef. (Or as the Canadian in me likes to say: “The world’s largest friggin’ reef, eh?”) Part of the Ningaloo Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the reef skirts the coast of Western Australia for 260 kilometres. And from the beach at Sal Salis, you can swim right up to it.

Canvas tent at Sal Salis in Australia
Aerial view of the limestone canyons of Cape Range National Park
Glamping under canvas at Sal Salis.
Range roving: an aerial view of the limestone canyons of Cape Range National Park.

So instead of an axe, I borrow some flippers. As I’m wading out, another impossibly bronzed staff member warns me not to expect the kaleidoscopic coral of the Great Barrier Reef – the colours here are muted, but “at least it’s all alive,” which is a bit of cross–country reef shaming I was not expecting. A few minutes later, I’ve got the ocean to myself, or at least that’s how it seems compared to my last snorkel outing, an elbow–to–elbow affair along the Mesoamerican Reef. Sprawled face down in the water, I wonder how I look to the elegant, iridescent fish flitting about below me – like a great, bloated bully of a starfish, obliterating the sun, I suppose. But my neurosis can’t compete with the uninterrupted buzz of underwater life for long. A neon–inflected surf parrotfish darts past, followed by a school of Moorish idols with a few angelfish interlopers, the clamour of colours made all the more vibrant for the subdued carpet of beige, dusty rose and lavender beneath. I lie on my back and drift for 100 metres or so, the view now monochromatic: nothing but blue above, nothing but blue below.

A wallaroo stands on the side of the road on the grounds of Sal Salis in Australia
Wallaroo trail: wildlife abounds throughout the grounds of Sal Salis.

I come from water people. My mother considers anyone who does not absolutely relish being in the ocean to have a serious moral failing. My mother would like the people aboard the Wave Rider, our vessel for the day. There are eight of us out with tour operator, Live Ningaloo, including a woman named Kim and her husband Peter, also staying at Sal Salis. In a well–worn rash guard, with sun–bleached hair and a strong face, Kim looks like she is of the ocean. We’re squeezing ourselves into wetsuits in anticipation of snorkelling with the reef’s most famous part–time inhabitants (and the largest known fish species alive today), whale sharks. The docile filter feeders come to Ningaloo in March, when the full moon turns the reef into a swirling buffet: Coral spawn and masses of krill gather, attracting planktonic species; then the whale sharks come, feeding on the fattened plankton; then the water people arrive.

An American guest at Sal Salis in Australia
An American guest embraces the outback lifestyle.

A spotter plane 1,500 feet above radios down – there’s an eight–metre whale shark about a kilometre away. The boat speeds up and so does my heart rate, the group’s excitement palpable, even through all the neoprene. At the drop point, we waddle to the back of the boat and hop in the water, following our guide. Nat, a marine biologist, and her crewmates are professional water people, and the health of the reef and the whale sharks is their primary concern, which is why she reminds us to keep a distance of three metres from the fish. (To further limit their impact, Live Ningaloo brings out a max of 10 swimmers at a time, though their license would allow double that.) In my eagerness, I’m closest to the approaching whale shark. “Masks down!”

A woman floating in the ocean in Western Australia
A woman outfitted in snorkelling gear
Catching the drift at the beach at Sal Salis.
A swimmer prepares to have a whale shark of a time.

A great murky outline of a living thing comes into focus, and its massive mouth, more than a metre across, is wide open for a plankton feast, making it seem like the fish is as surprised to see us as we are her. (I learn later it’s a her.) When her pectoral fins pass me, I start to swim alongside the speckled fish, which is the length of a London bus. Totally entranced by the mechanics of her massive tail, sweeping left and right, I fall into her rhythm, my flutter kick morphing into a dolphin kick. We swim like this for 15 minutes, and though I can feel my muscles burning, she makes it feel easy to follow her example (or maybe I’m just in her slipstream). Eventually, she starts to dive, the grey of her skin blending with the darkening ocean below. Soon, the white spots on her back start to fade, and I’m not sure if I can still see her. If it weren’t for the wonderstruck faces I see when I surface, I wouldn’t be certain she was ever actually there.

A red jellyfish in the waters surrounding Australia
A whale shark swims to the surface of the ocean in Australia
Are you ready for this jelly?
Big fish: Measuring 8 to 12 metres in length, whale sharks are the largest fish in the sea.

The hours at Sal Salis are very early–to–bed, early–to–rise, which is easy to do when time is experienced as just another of nature’s rhythms, rather than a deadline. I wake at 4 a.m., and scuttle out of bed. Wrapped up like a burrito in a blanket, I manoeuvre myself into my porch hammock. The tangerine moon is large and low in the night sky, and then it sets. Unfamiliar stars, the stars of the southern hemisphere, appear high above, and my brain is pushing me to recall celestial factoids – to make conversation with whom, I’m not sure. The early morning breeze sweeps over me like a flutter of butterflies, and I’m lulled into a meditative state (okay, maybe just half–sleep) by the sway of the hammock and crashing of the waves. All I can see is the vastness above me, and I feel quite small and alone in this space.

But, had one of Sal Salis’ resident cockatoos flown over at that moment, that’s not what it would have seen. It would have seen me, yes, but also a couple a few tents over, who have gotten up early and moved their pillows and blankets onto the boardwalk, stargazing, too. It would have seen Peter and Kim, on the other side, doing the same. And one more soul, preparing his fly rods for a day on the water, glancing upward. It would have seen all of us, sharing in the solitude.