Our planes

Did you know?

In 2014 the biggest whaleshark slaughterhouse factory in China was exposed. With around 600 whalesharks a year being killed and their meat, fins, skin and oil sold on a global scale

Our planes

Ningaloo Whaleshark Swim is the only whale shark tour company in Exmouth to own and operate our own spotter plane.

Unlike almost every other operator, we don’t usually share spotter planes between boats. Instead our spotter plane finds our whale shark tour customers their very own whale shark to snorkel with. This means you can maximise the time you spend in the water actually snorkelling with a whale shark.

Our pilot is up in the air much of your whale shark tour, looking for whale sharks and any of the other amazing marine life of the Ningaloo Reef for you to interact with during your tour.

Once they spot a whale shark, whale, manta ray or dolphins, or anything else of interest, they are onto the radio to your whale shark tour boat skipper, giving them directions and then calling them into interacting with the shark. Once the skipper sites the shark, they take over and through a combination of experience and expertise, drop our passengers in the water ready to dive in and snorkel with their whale shark.

What its like to be a whaleshark spotting pilot?

The following excerpt is from the Australia Geographic (Oct-Dec 2006):

Eye in the sky

Rob Connaughton, a lanky young pilot with a mop of black curly hair, is based at one of the most low-key airport terminals in the country. When he’s not flying, he spends his days waiting for tourists in an ancient white caravan that sits in the middle of a gravel-and-spinifex field 1km from Yardie Homestead on the northern tip of North West Cape. Part of Rob’s job is to help skip­pers and scientists locate whale sharks. While the world’s biggest fish can reach lengths of 12m, they glide a few metres below the surface and rarely breech, making them almost impossible to see until a boat is virtually on top of them.

Offshore, out of sight on the seaward side of Ningaloo Reef, a cruiser loaded with tourists – more than half of them aged 21–35 years and heralding from Australia, Europe, Japan and the UK – is waiting for Rob to take off and pinpoint the sharks and manta rays.

Leaving behind a plume of dust, we’re soon flying over the sand dunes fronting Ningaloo lagoon and then heading out to sea. It’s a magnificent day – light winds, unbroken blue skies and an ocean so clear the shadow of a boat is cast sharply on the seabed.

At first glance it's hard to believe there’s any life at Ningaloo. There are no trees on the shoreline, no fresh water, only the great Indian Ocean meeting the extreme edge of a baked continent. To the south, the reef stretches away to the horizon.

It’s the Leeuwin Current that’s the giver of life in these waters, maintaining a rich flow of warm water and a conveyor belt of nutrients along the WA coast.

While whale sharks may be the first things someone thinks of when they hear mention of Ningaloo, the entire ocean is teeming with life. Every few seconds the sea below our aeroplane boils over in football field-sized patches as schools of fish break the surface and flocks of seabirds sweep down to join the feast.

As we approach the boat, the skipper’s voice crackles over the radio. He sounds euphoric. “Rob, it’s fantastic down here! The reef went off this morning. We had a good dive with a 6m shark, there were mantas jumping and the visibility was superb.”

We fly in expanding circles around the boat. A black smudge, resembling a half-submerged car, comes into view. “There’s a manta out here if you want it,” Rob says to the skipper.

“Yep, which way?”

“A kilometre. Your one o’clock.”

The boat speeds towards the pirouetting manta, Rob guiding it in. “Your 11 o’clock, 20 boat lengths,” he says.

The boat slows. “Okay, thanks mate. I can see it now.”

From 500m we watch a rush of people splash into the water and swim towards the manta.

Rob heads south, his neck cricked searching for the creature that sits at the summit of the WA ecotourism food chain. The local boats guarantee visitors an encounter with the world’s biggest fish, which is why so much effort goes into working out exactly where they are. If a whale shark isn’t found, the operators promise to keep taking out visitors until one turns up.

The pressure is on Rob too; spotting whale sharks can be difficult. “They almost look like a tadpole,” he says. “Their tails are negatively buoyant so they sink down and they have this big flat head. If you see a small one you have to make sure it’s spotted not stripy because you do get tiger sharks hanging around here as well.” More than once a boatload of snorkellers has been offloaded onto a man-eater instead of a whale shark. “It happens occasionally, but I haven’t done it yet,” Rob says.

We’re now running parallel to the reef, waves crashing in tubes that seem to last half a minute. A smudge appears in the water. It does look like a tadpole but, because of its pectoral fins, a partly metamorphosed one. Its motion is slow and calm. Rob calls the skipper. “I’ve got a whale shark here. It’s about 6 m, heading up along the reef towards the north passage.”

The boat speeds towards the enormous fish while we fly tight circles directing the skipper until he’s 30m – the legally desig­nated minimum distance – in front of the shark. The tourists jump into the ocean and split into two groups – one on each side of the behemoth. After a few minutes, only the strongest swim­mers maintain their shark-side vigil and then it dives, disappearing from view.