Gentle Creatures on the Far Side - WA

By Paul Rush
Whale Shark images courtesy of Ningaloo Blue Dive Charters
Dolphin images courtesy of the Department of Conservation, Western Australia

Magical encounters await the aquatic adventurer on Western Australia’s Coral Coast. I am irresistibly drawn to the bustling coastal resort of Exmouth because I like surprises.

Western Australia, the ‘State of Surprise’, offers many natural highs for the aquatic adventurer who feels the call of the wild and the tug of an increscent moon. The advent of the full moon is a particularly propitious time to visit Ningaloo Reef – the largest coastal fringing reef in the world. Not because there is a favourable astrological conjunction of planets at that time. No, it’s just a simple matter of sexual expression. Not the x-rated, intimate kind, but a very public, lunar-induced affair.

As the golden orb lights up Ningaloo Reef, some 250 different species of coral polyp respond to a timeless reproductive urge and release egg and sperm clusters that explode into a planktonic cloud of pink soup.

On a glorious, sun-filled day that residents of the golden state take for granted, I slip into the salubrious embrace of the Indian Ocean in a pleasantly relaxed state of mind. Suddenly out of the dark veil of the depths a huge grey shape emerges. It has a chillingly familiar shark-shaped profile, preceded by a gaping, cavernous mouth with 300 teeth.

My silent scream is lost in the deep. ‘If I don’t move quickly that great mouth will swallow me whole,’ is the only rational thought I can muster. A frantic finning response takes me clear, but a long, drooping pectoral fin brushes against my chest as the six metre long Whale Shark glides past. The vast flank of the gentle giant reminds me of a granite mountain slope. It rises to a curved prominence, which must be the dorsal fin, but it has the appearance of a submarine conning tower. The largest fish in the ocean has never been known to attack humans but still I give the mighty tail fluke a wide berth as he swims away into the dark void. He leaves behind a few pink blobs of coral spawn dancing in the shafts of sunlight in this enchantingly beautiful underwater world.

The highlight of this close encounter is seeing the checkerboard pattern of white star-bursts over the shark’s body, shimmering like a miniature Milky Way galaxy. NASA scientists used photos of star clusters to guide the Hubble space craft. The same technology is now used to identify the Whale Sharks as their star patterns are as individual as fingerprints.

Still glowing with the exhilaration of my magical meeting on Ningaloo Reef, I fly 300km south to Monkey Mia. This delightful resort graces the shores of Shark Bay, Australia’s largest bay and home to the prolific and menacing Tiger Shark, who does not share the congenial disposition of his star-crossed cousin. Fortunately the shallow sea grass plains of this vast bay provide a refuge for more angelic aquatic creatures.

Dawn breaks quickly over Monkey Mia. The rising sun creates a pathway of gold from the silky-smooth Indian Ocean across the beach to my breakfast table. I feel strangely moved this morning as I have a rendezvous with eight friendly dolphins. At precisely 7.30am I make my way down to the shore. Gentle waves slide up the white sand with a soothing whisper. Then in the blink of an eye I see dorsal fins skimming inshore in a magical fluid motion. The magnificent wild dolphins of Monkey Mia are coming home from the sea.

With military precision a small group of humans line up in a silent vigil, wide-eyed and eager to welcome home our mammalian next of fin. The Wildlife Rangers stand with their buckets of baitfish, poised and ready for the welcoming ceremony. Suddenly dolphins are everywhere, rolling on their backs, nodding their beaks (known as rostrums) and eyeballing the phalanx of human devotees as if to say, ‘OK cobber, don’t muck around, where’s the tucker!’

The high point of my personal Cetacean bonding comes as I step eagerly forward to take two silver pilchards and offer them to a sleek female named Nicky. She is so well bred and schooled in social etiquette and good table manners, that I barely notice the pull of her glistening beak as she takes my offering. Nicky is cajoling and pleading for more tasty morsels, nuzzling against my leg and releasing a staccato burst of whistles and squeaks. The rangers apply some gentle counselling in the form of an upended bucket of water, the signal that breakfast is over. Nicky and her calf, Yule, leap out of the water in perfect formation, hovering for an instant then splashing back – an instinctive expression of the joy of living in Shark Bay.

The human actors in this cross-species drama drift away with broad smiles on their faces. I marvel at the intelligence of these lovable dolphins. They have succeeded in training the planet’s most notorious predator to line up at the water’s edge and provide a free gourmet breakfast. The dolphins must be laughing all the way to the sand bank.

There are many more mysteries of the shallows to discover in Shark Bay. Circling the bay, in a sleek catamaran I meet a female dolphin performing an amazing feat. She has picked up a soft, cone-shaped sponge and is carrying it on her beak as a protection against cuts and abrasions as she forages for food on the seabed. This is the only known example of a marine mammal using a tool.

Later I take an ‘Aqua Rush’ excursion to find a mermaid. The dugongs (nature’s only vegetarian mammals) were the mythical mermaids that lured ancient mariners to their doom. Our two dugongs raise their seal-like, bewhiskered, stubby snouts and view us with curiosity and disdain. These rotund road-humps of the ocean munch contentedly all day long, enjoying the consummate luxury of being placid, defenceless and not engagingly feminine. Maybe the ancient mariners exceeded their rum ration! A large Loggerhead turtle pops its head out of the sea to say hello, which is right neighbourly but unwise. This species is the most endangered turtle that nests in Australia. The females lay up to 150 eggs on the beach at regular intervals, but hatchlings run the gauntlet on their journey to the sea. These little Aussie battlers might outsmart the crafty fox at times, but winged marauders like the silver gulls, sea eagles and ospreys take no prisoners.

Cruising slowly back from Steep Point, Australia’s westernmost promontory, we meet two of the big black ‘Stealth Bombers’ that patrol the bay The two-metre wide manta rays are quite menacing as they glide purposefully alongside the boat, sending an explicit message, ‘Don’t mess with me!’ In reality they lack the necessary hardware to threaten, having no tail sting. Apparently they have the temperament of a cute puppy dog but I resist the urge to stroke them.

It has been a rewarding experience to have these close encounters with gentle giants, hypnotically graceful swimmers and slow, lumbering herbivores. In all the vastness of Western Australia I couldn’t have found more fascinating places than Ningaloo Reef and Shark Bay. Making contact with another world on the far side is a unique privilege. It is also a timely reminder that our lonely planet still has the capacity to surprise and humble us.

Paul Rush travelled to Western Australia courtesy of Tourism Australia and Qantas.