Ultimate Guide To Swimming With Whale Sharks – Ningaloo Reef, WA (Exmouth and Coral Bay)

Swimming with Whale Sharks on the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, has to be the best, or if not one of the best experiences that the west coast has to offer!

swimming with whale shark ningaloo reef wa

For those looking for a helpful guide on swimming with Whale Sharks then you’ve come to the right place.  In this article, I cover everything you need to know when it comes to swimming with these beautiful creatures along the Ningaloo Reef, off the northwest coast of WA.

Where is the Ningaloo Reef?

aerial view of ningaloo reef western australia

The Ningaloo Reef is the world’s largest fringing reef located off the northwest coast of Western Australia.  

Stretching over 300 km from Exmouth all the way down beyond Coral Bay, the Ningaloo Reef is considered one of the world’s ocean paradises where some of the largest whale sharks in the world can be found.

When is the Whale Shark season in WA?

In Western Australia, the whale shark season runs from March through to August each year.  Note, however, whale sharks can be seen throughout other months of the year along the Ningaloo Reef though March through to August is the best time to see whale sharks with tours run by operators throughout this period.

Where do whale shark tours operate from in Western Australia?

coral bay western australia aerial

Whale shark tours operate out of two coastal towns in the northwest of Western Australia, these being Coral Bay and Exmouth.

exmouth western australia sign

Both towns are situated along the Ningaloo Reef with Coral Bay at 1122 km north of Perth and Exmouth at 1248 km north of Perth.

There are a number of ways to get to either Coral Bay or Exmouth, including driving via car, catching a bus or flying.  If you’re driving it will take you around 12 hrs to Coral Bay with Exmouth taking slightly longer.  

If you’re flying there it will take you approximately 2 hrs to get there from Perth with Qantas offering daily flights to Learmouth airport located in between both towns.  

Once you’ve reached Learmouth airport it’s about a 1-hour drive south to Coral Bay or 25 minutes north to Exmouth.

Which WA location will provide the better whale shark experience – Coral Bay or Exmouth?

When it comes to which location is better, my recommendation would be Exmouth.  

The reason I say this is that there are more whale shark tours operating out of Exmouth vs Coral Bay giving you more operators to choose from.  

However, don’t worry if you are staying at Coral Bay as there are still tour operators that offer great whale shark experiences, though just not as many as Exmouth.

How much does it cost to swim with a whale shark?

swimming with whale sharks on ningaloo reef

Due to logistical efforts involved, swimming with whale sharks can be considered quite expensive with prices ranging from $400 – $660 per person for a full-day tour.

Initially, this may seem quite expensive, though these prices usually cover everything including transport, necessary equipment, WA state permit costs, food and beverages.  

Best to check with the tour company you plan to go with, though you’ll also find that this price can include photography and videos too.

Whale shark tour operators

There are a number of whale shark operators to choose from both in Exmouth and Coral Bay.

Exmouth Tour Operators

Heading to Exmouth? Here is a list of whale shark tours on offer from Exmouth:

Ningaloo Whaleshark n Dive

Photo Credit: Ningaloo Whale Shark n Dive

Visit their website >

Exmouth Dive and Whalesharks Ningaloo 

View their tours available >

Live Ningaloo

View their whale shark tours >

Three Islands Whale Shark Dive

View their website >

Ningaloo Discovery

Photo credit: Ningaloo Discovery

View tours available >

Ocean Eco Adventures

View whale shark tours >

Ningaloo Blue Dive

Photo credit: Ningaloo Blue Dive

View their whale shark tours >

Coral bay Tour Operators

If you’re based in Coral Bay then below are tour operators within the area.

Coral Bay Ecotours

Photo credit: Coral Bay Eco Tours

View their whale shark tours >

How long does a whale shark tour go for?

Whale shark tours are typically a full-day experience with some tour operators picking up customers from their accommodation as early as 7 am and dropping them back as late as 5pm (times depend on the operator you go with)

How does your typical whale shark tour work?

See the below list for an insight into how a typical whale shark tour operating out of Exmouth or Coral Bay will work.

1. Transportation to the boat and onboarding

whale shark visitors heading out from boat ramp
Whaleshark swimmers getting transported out to the charter boat

Once you’ve been picked up from your accommodation you’ll be transferred to the local boat ramp where you’ll board the boat and set out to the Ningaloo Reef.  Once you board the boat you’ll be given a safety briefing on the boat and a rundown on how the day will go.

2. Snorkelling on the inner reefs

Snorkelling on the ningaloo reef Western Australia

Usually, while spotter planes fly along the reef locating the whale sharks, you’ll have the opportunity to snorkel the inner reef section of the Ningaloo Reef.  Apart from seeing some of the amazing marine life (including the chance to see some turtles) this also provides you with the chance to get familiar with your snorkelling gear.

3. Heading to the outer reef

Once spotter planes have located the whale sharks and you’ve finished up your inner reef snorkel it’s time to travel out to the outer area of the Ningaloo Reef for a swim with the whale shark.

4. Ready, set, go…enjoy!

This may vary depending on your tour operator, though usually you’re split into groups of up to 10 swimmers who get ready to enter the water with a dedicated swimming guide.  

When the skipper gives the go ahead you’ll then enter the water at a safe distance from the whale shark and as the whale shark cruises by you’ll be asked to swim a particular direction to maximise your experience with the whale shark.

As the whale shark approaches you start to feel breathless, not from the swimming, though from the pure beauty of this gentle spotty giant cruising toward you!  As it cruises along you’ll have the opportunity to swim alongside it.  

Once the whale shark swims away into the distance your boat will then pick you up whilst getting ready to repeat the process for the next group of swimmers.

Depending on the tour and number of sightings, you should then get the opportunity to repeat the process.  Once your whale shark experience comes to a finish you’re then usually offered a late lunch and the option to do more inner reef swims (again, this will depend on the tour operator you’ve gone with).

5. Returning home

Once you’ve finished up for the day, your tour operator will return to the local boat ramp before transferring you back to your accommodation.

What happens if you don’t see a Whale Shark?

You’ll be glad to know that most Whale shark tour operators offer a no sighting policy, that being that if you don’t see a whale shark on your tour you can join the next available tour.  This isn’t the case for all whale shark operators, hence best to check this before booking with them.

What about safety…is it safe to swim alongside the largest fish in the world?

The short answer is yes, swimming with whale sharks is considered a safe activity, not only for people though also for the sharks.  

As whale sharks are filter feeders and don’t have teeth they’re not known to deliberately attack or show aggressive behaviour to humans.  This allows you to be able to swim a relatively close distance to them without having concerns.

What should you bring on the tour?

When it comes to what you should bring, you’re best to check with your tour operator though as a general guide I would take the following:

  • Swimmers/bathers
  • Towel and warm jumper (the afternoon winds can be cool after swimming, especially if you sitting in a shaded area of the boat)
  • Sun smart clothing such as sunglasses and a hat
  • Sunscreen
  • Seasickness tablets such as kwells (If you’re prone to sea sickness)
  • Camera/mobile phone

Will there be lots of swimming involved?

Yes, well depending on how many whale shark sightings there are and how opportunities you get to enter the water will have a direct impact on the amount of swimming you’ll do throughout the day.  Hence saying this, you should be prepared to do a fair bit of swimming especially if you want to swim alongside the whale sharks.

Do I need to know how to use a snorkel and mask?

No, it’s not a necessity to have previous experience with a snorkel and mask though I feel that it helps.  The more confident in the water you are will allow you to focus on your interaction with the whale sharks without worrying about how to use your snorkel etc.  

Not to worry though, if you haven’t used one before that’s okay as most tours give you the chance of a morning snorkel on the inner reef which allows you to get used to using your snorkel and mask before heading out to see the whale sharks.

Are children permitted to swim with whale sharks?

For the majority of whale shark tours children are permitted to swim with the whale sharks, however they must always have adult supervision.  If your children wish to stay on the boat then they must also be supervised by an adult.  If you have further questions regarding your children accompanying you on your whale shark experience then reach out to the tour you’re interested in to clarify any concerns you may have.

What will the water temperature be like?

The water temperature along the Ningaloo Reef will vary depending on the time of the year.  Below is a guide of what temperatures to expect:

  • Summer (December – February): 25-28°C
  • Spring (September – November) & Autumn (April-June): 20-24°C
  • Winter (June – August): 18-22°C

What is the depth of the water?

When you’re snorkelling with the whale sharks you are out in the open ocean hence the water is deep (usually unable to see the bottom).  However, when you’re snorkelling amongst the Ningaloo Reef the depths range from approx. 8 – 12m with the shallow coral being as low as 1-2m under the surface.

How good will the visibility be?

How good the visibility will depend on weather conditions with this changing day to day.  It can be as low as 5m or up to 25m depending on the conditions, however usually visibility will be around 10-15m.  On the day I went out it was around 15m.

What will the ocean conditions be like?

Similar to visibility, how calm or wavy the ocean is will vary depending on the weather.  When you’re swimming with the whale sharks you’ll be in the open ocean hence if the weather is in your favour then conditions could be nice and flat, whereas other day there could be bigger swell.  Note, if the skipper of your tour feels the conditions are too rough your tour will be rescheduled to another day.

For those that get seasick, you might want to consider taking sea sickness medication prior to heading out.  I don’t suffer from sea sickness, though my son does.  He always uses Kwells which works well, or another good brand in WA is Travalcalm. 

What else will I get to see on a whale shark tour?

Although there is no guarantee, in addition to seeing whale sharks, if also snorkelling on the inner reefs you are likely to see a range of different fish species and corals.  For those lucky ones, you may also come across turtles, stingrays, manta rays, dolphins or even whales!  However, as always such sightings depend on the day and other factors such as visibility.

What not to do when swimming with whale sharks

There are strict rules and regulations that swimmers and tour operators must abide by when swimming with whale sharks.  These include, though are not limited to:

  • Swimmers must not touch or attempt to ride whale sharks
  • In anyway, restrict the movement or behaviour of the whale shark as it approaches
  • Get closer than 3 metres from the head or body of the whale shark and 4m from the whale sharks tail
  • Use camera with flashes or extension poles when taking photos or videos of whale sharks
  • Utilise motorised propulsion aids such as sea scooters
  • Be apart of a group that exceeds more than 10 people in the ocean at any point in time 

More information can be found on the Whale shark management in WA – Swimming with whale sharks page.

My final thoughts

Thanks for reading this article and I hope you found it of use when booking your whale shark tours in Western Australia.  Personally, I really enjoyed heading out to see the whale sharks and although it may not be for everyone, if you’re keen for an experience you’ll never forget then I highly recommend it!

More Information

To help out I’ve included some links to other articles that may be of interest.

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