“Now! Now! Now!” yells Nat, her voice an excited, high-pitched squeal. “Here he comes!” We’re sitting on the back of our boat, Wave Rider, fins on but struggling to get our masks over our faces. “Go,” yells Murray, the captain, from the boat’s fly bridge as he points to a spot in the distance. Nat is in before all of us and wildly waving and pointing to where she wants us to go. There is a frenzy of flailing arms and fins as five of us swim toward her. “Heads in,” she implores, and I’m under, staring into the blue. The water is crystal clear, but the depth makes it almost inky. Then a shape appears ahead of us, gliding gracefully towards our group.
He comes so close I can see the barnacles on his chin and, I’m sure, a glint in his eye as he rolls to flash his massive, white-ribbed belly. Time stands still as he disappears into the distance, and it is almost silent but for the faint songs of his migrating mates. There is a sense of peace I cannot describe. But it is the sheer size of him – he’s like a submarine and so, so close – that makes the moment seem unreal. I feel so insignificant and, in a way, I am.
A day earlier I am sitting on the sun deck at Sal Salis, a remote safari camp that is part of the Luxury Lodges of Australia group. This low-key, environmentally friendly glamping site is the epitome of barefoot luxury, pitched perfectly among the sand dunes protecting an endless shimmering beach. With just 16 tents, all spaced to allow maximum privacy, it is a place that allows you to do as much or as little as you choose. A group of guests has headed to a lagoon within Ningaloo Reef to hopefully snorkel with manta rays. A Swiss traveller has paddled out on a kayak and I watch with amusement then some alarm as the tide takes him out of my sight. Another group has hiked into Mandu Mandu Gorge in the surrounding Cape Range National Park. Recent rains have produced vivid greens among the rocky ochre range.
I have chosen a more sedentary option. Candace, our host, has offered me a cold craft beer and a pair of binoculars and I spend most of the afternoon glued to the waters beyond Ningaloo Reef. Humpback whales are spouting at regular intervals and I see three breach before I’ve finished my first Little Creatures. It is nature putting on its best show and I can’t help but look forward to the following day when I will be one of the first to swim with the beautiful creatures in this part of the world.
Previously an endangered species, the end of commercial whaling in the sixties has thankfully meant humpback numbers are now more than healthy. With more than 30,000 migrating through West Australia’s Ningaloo Reef every June to November, it is a little surprising interactions have only just been permitted. With the area already renowned for swimming with whale sharks, the existing infrastructure and the seasons crossing over slightly (the whale shark season is from April to July) Ningaloo Reef will no doubt become one of the world’s hot spots for marine encounters.
Regulations are strict however, and the following day, after boarding the luxurious Wave Rider, we are introduced to Nat, our onboard marine biologist. She takes us through what to expect and explains that, unlike other countries, we are not allowed in with a mother and calf – interactions are also not guaranteed. Only five of us are allowed in the water at any time and we are split into two groups. Nat has a nervous excitement about her as she explains how new this all is and how important it is that, once in the water, we watch her and swim exactly where she tells us.
As she’s talking, Murray yells from the bridge: “Over there!” We abort the briefing session to watch a whale seemingly wave at us only 20 metres from the boat. He’s a male and he’s surfaced on his side. His huge pectoral fin breaks the ocean’s surface then slaps down hard on the water. It is almost as if he is beckoning us to join him.
In between more sightings, Nat manages to finish her briefing and goes on to point out a spotter plane circling high in the sky ahead. “He’s trying to spot a lone male,” she explains. “When he does he’ll radio down to Murray which way the whale is heading and we all have to be ready to go.” It isn’t long before we’re madly suiting up and making our way to the back of the boat.
Afterwards we are all beaming – none more so than Nat. To see someone so elated, especially someone who has spent the past few seasons swimming daily with whale sharks, only highlights the enormity of what we have just done. It is a matter of minutes before the second group is summoned and among a flurry of fins and masks they dive into the sea. In the distance we see another whale diving towards them and I’m sure I hear a scream through someone’s snorkel as he passes underneath.
Once back on Wave Rider we share the excitement before Murray again tells us to get back in the water. There is a whale shark heading our way. “We’re here,” Murray explains. “Might as well check him out.” Nat again leads the way and I hear a commotion from the first few swimmers. An unexpected humpback and her calf swim past the first group. I curse myself for not listening to Murray and hurrying. A lucky few watch the humpbacks as the lumbering whale shark cruises through our group. Unlike a humpback, whale sharks are slow and, with a little effort while you’re wearing fins, you can swim alongside them. At almost six metres long and with the look of a man-eater, they can be confronting. Thankfully they are toothless krill feeders and pose no threat. We swim with it for a few minutes – just long enough for Jana, the onboard photographer, to snap some images more than suitable for bragging on social media.
We celebrate that evening back at Sal Salis. As the sun sinks Candace and her crew have set up drinks and nibbles – a selection of the best West Australian wines, craft beers and canapés, including crocodile and emu – on the beach. Candace mentions she has come across a new boutique gin and after hearing my self-professed martini-making skills I’m assigned the task. It sums up Sal Salis; bare feet in the sand sipping a martini at sunset with a group of new friends still beaming about the day’s events. It is a sort of casual style of luxury more about the experience than anything else. And what an experience it was.
Qantas has flights from Perth to Learmonth Airport twice a day during the week and daily on the weekend. Sal Salis is about a 90-minute drive from the airport.