Fish Spotting

To say that Coral Bay is a magical place is no exaggeration. Not only is it beautiful and serene with amazing views and sunsets, but it also has an abundance of wildlife. On our first evening we noticed rays swimming around in the water and we waded in up to our knees to see them up close. As we walked around in the warm water we noticed hundreds of little anchovy sized fish swimming around in the water. We moved slowly and as we began to “blend in” to ocean background, they began to swim carelessly around us – close enough that I could get some macro shots of them (above).

Occasionally, a larger predator fish would come to “hunt” the anchovy pack and they would flee in all directions including out of the water. One time, one of them jumped up and smacked right into my chest, bounced back into the water and swam away at high-speed. I was quite surprised and then we had a good laugh about it. The fish didn’t seem to be too worried about our presence and Andrea was able to reach down into the water and give the fish a tickle before they shyly swam away.

During the day time the snapper fish were quite aggressive and eager to find a tourist who would offer them some bread or crackers. Knowing that a human based diet wasn’t the best for them we scavenged some snails from along the shoreline and offered them to our scaled friends. The snapper ate them quickly and when they grew to trust us they would eat them right from our hands. For the next few days they followed us around the ocean like stray dogs waiting for their next meal. In hindsight, we probably shouldn’t have fed them as it distracts them from their own foraging – if they become too dependent on food from humans they may forget how to hunt for themselves.

About an hour before dusk the various rays become quite active and begin feeding. We found that if you wade out from the shore in knee-deep water and move very slowly, the rays don’t seem to be very disturbed by our presence and we could get relatively close without spooking them. We were able to get just a few feet away from dozens of rays and take photos of them. We saw Spotted Rays (below) and Manta Rays and one or two other varieties.

If we stood very still in the water, often the rays would swim right up to us and then gracefully glide by. It seemed as if they were flying in the water rather than swimming; their bodies had the motion of flying birds and their wings seemed to flap in the water like bird wings in the wind.

 

If you want to go ray spotting, be sure to move slowly. It is better to stay outside of the radius of the ray’s tail as he has a nasty barb that can leave a nasty sting. In the photo below you can see how long the ray’s tail is – despite his size, he has a long reach.

As each day passed we began to notice the same rays would hunt in their own piece of turf (surf) each day. We began to notice particular scars and markings and we could identify some of the rays by sight. Aside from the snorkeling, a visitor to Coral Bay can see a world of ocean wildlife just by walking around in knee-deep water. Unfortunately, most of the other swimmers we encountered were too impatient to wait for 10 or 15 minutes to see a ray, snapper or other fish. Most of the other visitors we saw would walk away if they didn’t see something after 2 or 3 minutes. If you want to see wildlife, take a pause and just wait, it is amazing what will happen by (or swim by)!


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Coral Bay: Sun and Sunsets

We had visited Coral Bay a few days earlier on the way up to Exmouth but unfortunately it was rainy and dreary. On our return we were graced with bright blue skies and warm weather. We went back to the same hotel that we stayed in our bus tour and just as soon as we had dumped our bags we headed to the beach. As we crossed the street and the grass of the park near the main street we could see the ocean coming into view. We crested the small bluff at the beach edge we were greeted with a beautiful beach of white sand, baby blue water in the shallows turning to a deep blue azure further out at sea (top photo).

Nearby children played, families basked in the sun, retired couples paddled around in kayaks and the seagulls ran back and forth along the shoreline snacking on small crabs and snails. The entire beach was quite and peaceful and a cool breeze blew in from the ocean. Aside from these pleasant sounds the beach was quiet and still. We had a few days here and I was already getting into a “laid back” beach mode.

After we dropped our towels and sun tan lotion we decided to go in for a dip as the weather was quite warm. The only disadvantage of the warm air is that it makes the ocean feel quite cold even though it wasn’t. There is no surf to speak of as it breaks up off shore about a kilometer out. The coral reef rests just at the surface at this distance and it takes the pounding of the surf leaving the beach looking more like a pond than a direct line to the Indian Ocean. Straight out to see is nothing but blue water until you get to Sri Lanka or India.

Coral Bay is in a remote location in Australia and not many people make it out this far. We had to endure a long drive to get here and high prices once we had arrived but the payoff was worth it: serenity and a view to die for.

Andrea brought her mask and fins with her but I had to hire some. I found that if I rented some for three days I could get a discount and I ended up paying $15 AUS for the three-day rental. It was probably one of the cheaper things to do in Coral Bay; hotels STARTED at $50 a night for a dorm with shared bath, private rooms were upwards of $250 AU, a beer would set you back at least $6 and a burger was about $12. There is no grocery store in town, just one or two little mini-marts & the only place to buy alcohol is at the local bar. If you are coming in from out-of-town, bring all you can – Coral Bay is a little monopoly, everything is trucked in and everything is expensive.

We had a swim around Coral Bay but learned that the reef was much more accessible from Paradise Beach just a few hundred meters to the south. We walked from the area of children and families and senior citizens in their kayaks and float boats and wandered down the shore. We ran into another couple and asked them to shoot our photo and as I look at the pictures now and compare them to the photos of my mind, I see that they are close to showing how beautiful it is here but they don’t really do it full justice.

There is a large rock that extends into the sea, just below the observation deck that is frequented by so many tourists. In low tide it is possible to walk to Paradise Beach from Coral Bay and keep your feet dry but during mid to high tide you have to wade across in ankle to waist-high water. This is a good thing I suppose as it filters out the lazy tourists and those carrying too much junk. Paradise beach is only a few meters of sand but its narrow depth is a small price to pay for owning your own little slice of heaven.

There are large rocks along the beach and if you wedge yourself between two you don’t see anyone else, they don’t see you and you can enjoy the view and the sound of the ocean and the breeze and you feel like you’re on a deserted island all by yourself. In the photo above I’m looking up the beach towards Coral Bay and the rock that separates the two beaches. In the photo below I’m looking down the beach towards the south. Just off shore, about 3/4 of a kilometer (1/2 mile) out you could see the waves breaking on the outer reef; the ocean swells looked quite massive but once they were dissipated by the reef there was almost no swell at the beach were we were resting.

And so, with my hired fins and mask we set about to explore the unknown under the water. As we swam out we could see all sorts of varieties of little fish. And after the initial rocks by the shore there was about 100 meters of sand and a few snapper fish followed along looking for a treat and after that the reef started. When you first encounter the reef it is about 4 to 5 meters (12-15 feet) deep and looking through the water everything takes on a kind of green color. But as you swim further and further out to sea, the reef rises higher and higher until it is only about a meter deep and the colors are brightly reflected in the sun and your eyes are washed with the color of the reef. It was one of the most beautiful reefs that I have dived on and we spent the better part of a few days swimming around just looking at the reef and the fish that lived there.

I remember looking out over this bluff one afternoon thinking to myself that it was so beautiful; it almost made your head hurt to absorb in the beauty of this place. I tried as hard as I could to make a mental image of it because I knew that after some time it would pass, my journey would continue and then I would eventually have to go home and return to work.

Sunsets are like fingerprints and no two are the same. And with a digital camera it is so easy to take a hundred photos and then selecting one or two can become the work of an entire afternoon. And as I look at these photos I am reminded of the warm breeze, the beautiful sights and the conversations with Andrea as we chatted about politics and travel and everything and anything else that we could think of.

And each evening the sky would turn orange and red and then after the sun set it would turn blue with such beautiful pink and pastel colors. The horizontal line of the ocean reflected back a thousand million little ripples and as you think about each one you realize how big the world is and then you look up and see the first stars and you realize how big the sky is and feel so small and insignificant on this little beach in the middle of nowhere.

Having looked at the night sky in the Northern Hemisphere my whole life I am accustomed to seeing the constellations in a certain order and that goes right out the window when you’re down under. Every night at sunset I could see Orion just above the horizon with its belt, Orion Nebula and the big red giant Beltaguese on the shoulder. Each night I would look up and see Scorpio and the Southern Cross – two constellations I’d never seen before. It was a nice change to see the sky so different and it added to the mystique of this land down under and I thought again, how I wished my vacation would last forever.


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Whale Sharks!

I was once asked, “What was the worst day of your life?  What was the best day of your life?”  I can certainly remember the worst day of my life but when I think back to the best day in my life I can’t think of just one day.  I’m not sure I’ve yet had my best day.  I wrote a list of my best days ever and by the time this day was over it was in the top 5 best days of my life.  Aside from seeing several tornadoes today we would have the chance to dive with Whale Sharks, the biggest fish in the sea. An adult whale shark can be as small as 5 meters long (15 feet) and as big as a city bus.  The whale sharks that we saw on this day were six and nine meters long (18’ and 30’).  The whale shark feeds on microscopic plankton and his huge mouth swallows hundreds of tons of sea water every hour.  As the water passes his mouth thousands of small teeth catch the little animals and feed this massive giant.  The Whale Shark – like all sharks – is relatively harmless to humans.  Really, the only way that one could injure you was if you got too close and spooked it and it turned to swim away and schwacked you with its tail.  Unlike sea mammals (whales and dolphins) that swim with vertical tails and an up and down motion, the Whale Shark has a vertical tail and swims with a side to side motion. After we boarded the boat and had our safety brief the crew of our ship gave us instructions on the proper and legal way to dive with Whale Sharks.  The Whale Sharking business brings in huge revenues to the Exmouth area and the government has taken great care to ensure not only this revenue source but to protect the Whale Sharks as well.


Our instructor explained that a spotting plane would be used to sight the whale sharks and the coordinates would be relayed to our spotting boat.  Once we were close to the Whale Shark the airplane pilot would talk the boat captain to steer our boat into the Whale Shark’s path.  Meanwhile, the Whale Shark tourists (us) would assemble on the back deck of the boat with fins and masks on.  As the Whale Shark closed to our position spotters would jump into the water and as soon as the spotter verified Whale Shark the order to “dive, dive, dive!” would be given.  In something resembling D-Day, all of the shark tourists would dive into the water and try to get a view of the huge shark.  To develop a bit of muscle memory we did a mock jump near a patch of the Ningaloo reef and then we were able to swim around a bit.  This also gave the instructors a chance to see who had bent the truth when they said that they were strong swimmers (a prerequisite for diving with the sharks).


Some additional rules included: you must never close to less than 3 meters (9 feet) with the shark, you cannot swim under or over the shark and if it is coming towards you, move out of the way.  Getting hit by its tail – we are told – isn’t a pleasant experience.  We are told that “accidental” infractions would receive a warning with a second infraction resulting in a revocation of your diving privileges.  An intentional infraction would result in your immediate ban.  The instructors were quite insistent on this point and explained that an unchecked infraction could result in the revocation of their Whale Shark license.  This would mean the unemployment line for the entire crew. While we were swimming around the reef someone spotted a sea turtle and I took a shallow dive down to the bottom to get a closer look.  He looked a bit annoyed and after we stared and took his photo he swam off.


We all piled back onto the boat with eyes hungry for Whale Sharks.  I kept an eye on the clouds as well hoping to spot another tornado.  We received a report that a Whale Shark had been spotted and while the captain changed course, we crammed to the back deck ready to jump.  But it was not to be, a nearby boat poached our shark.  The rules are quite explicit: only one boat at a time can view (harass) a shark and must break contact after 45 minutes.  Of course, there is a queue of boats waiting so that a 45 minute dive for one set of Whale Shark tourists could be a 4 boat 3 hour encounter for the Whale Shark.  Well, at least the Aussie gov.gov has instituted rules to protect the sharks; I’ve heard of swimmers in Thailand grabbing a hold of Whale Shark fins and going along for a ride. We were all a bit disappointed that our shark had been stolen but then the captain announced that Manta Rays had been spotted.  We all crowded to the back deck again and we dove into the water in the same way we would if we were ever to see a Whale Shark.  The Manta Rays were an added bonus; there are entire tours dedicated just to viewing these rays.  These majestic creatures are also filter feeders and their wingspan is about 3 meters (9 feet) wide.  I say wingspan because they appear to fly through the water rather than swim and they look just like underwater birds something akin to a huge condor or eagle.


We trolled around in the water for a while waiting for another call from the pilot above.  I went up to the top deck and chatted with the captain.  He told me that he had been driving this boat Whale Sharking for the past 10 years and this day was the first day that he’d ever seen more than one waterspout or tornado.  Someone behind me called out dolphins and everyone on board crowded to the port side of the boat to see them.  Sure enough there were three dolphins swimming in the water.  The captain turned the boat for a better look.  I noticed that the sea appeared to be boiling; it was churning with sardines that were breaking the surface trying to flee schools of tuna that were feeding on them.  The dolphins in turn fed on the tuna and the whole surface seemed to be full of activity.   Then the captain called out “sea snake” and sure enough I saw a bright orange snake swimming along in the water.  The snake seemed to be unconcerned with us and transited along.  The captain said that he was very venomous and if you were bit by one of this type you probably would never reach the shore.


After a while later the captain finally called out “Whale Shark” and everyone scrambled to get their fins and masks on and then to walk like so many penguins with their big feet to the back of the ship to jump in.  My group would be the first in and we waited impatiently as the spotting divers jumped in.  One diver went in and a moment later he shot his fist into the air – the sign that he had sight of the whale shark.  It seemed that the shark was immediately behind the boat and only a moment later we saw a large dark shadow approaching just to the back-left side of the boat.  The shadow grew bigger and bigger and soon we could see that it was a bus sized Whale Shark.  Just when it seemed that it would swim past the instructor called out, “dive, dive, dive” and we all jumped in with great excitement.  I was on the far edge of the jumping platform and – probably due to my long legs – I jumped almost on top of the shark.  It looked further away but when I landed in the water and got my bearings I was only a few feet away.  I tried to back-pedal and take a photo at the same time and I got off one blurry shot before the instructor angrily pulled at my fin signaling that I needed to back up.  Later, the B team told me that the other instructor on deck went nuts screaming and hollering at me (like I could hear her – I was under water).


I swam away a bit and was able to get a better (in focus) photo.  Unfortunately I couldn’t seem to get the entire shark into the photo; it was so long that I would have to back up quite a bit to get it to fit.  Another problem photographing the Whale Shark is that you constantly have to swim to keep up with it – and swim fast!  Once you are dropped into the water you wait until the Whale Shark approaches.  If it is close enough you can shoot a photo or two as it passes and then you try to swim along parallel with it and observe it while it glides through the ocean.  But to take a successful photo that isn’t blurry you really need to stop in the water and shoot the shark as it swims by.  The only way to do this is to swim ahead of the shark and get photos and video as it passes by.  Considering that the shark’s cruising speed is about as fast as you can comfortably swim wearing fins, to pass it you have to make a full strength burst – in other words, you have to swim like hell to get ahead of it.  One or two full speed-full effort bursts and you are just wiped out.  Before the day ended we each had 4 whale shark dives; at two or three full out bouts of speed swimming, we were exhausted by the last dive.


I finally got the hang of it – swimming ahead and shooting photos as the shark passed and I did get a few decent photos.  But it always seemed that I misjudged the positioning of the camera.  I was looking through a mask, underwater and at the back of my small Olympus waterproof camera.  The bright sun through the water and the glare made it tough to see the back of the screen and I couldn’t always tell if I had the whole shark in the frame; most of my photos have the head or the tail cut off.


On the last dive we must have been about 40 yards from the Whale Shark and everyone spread out.  I popped my head above the water and tried to judge where the spotter was indicating its position and then I swam to that position and waited – camera in hand.  I was pleasantly surprised when I saw this huge bus-sized whale slowly materializing out of the blue water ahead of me.  I captured a photo when it was just within sight.


The Whale Shark swam right up to me and gently turned and continued to my left only about 10 feet away.  Since I was sitting still and wasn’t out of breath from chasing to keep up I was able to shoot a relatively tranquil photo.  You can see in this photo that this Whale Shark has an entire entourage of small fish, Ramora (under its fins) and a few juvenile Black Tipped Reef Sharks.  I suppose that the smaller fish find some comfort in this massive giant.  The Whale Shark swam along ever so gently and didn’t seem to be disturbed by a dozen tourists as they splashed about taking photos and yelling back and forth to each other.


One of the great difficulties in swimming with the Whale Sharks is that you’re swimming with about a dozen people and when everyone is crammed in for a front row seat there tends to be a bit of pushing and shoving.  It is unintentional but everyone really gets quite excited being next to such a magnificent creature and they’re swimming with all their strength to keep up.  Add in the difficulties of limited vision with a diving mask and people were constantly kicking off each other’s masks and bumping about in the water.  I tried to avoid all of this by swimming around behind the crowd of swimmers and intercepting the Whale Shark ahead.  I would swim back away from the shark behind all of my friends, kick like a madman to get ahead of the shark and then wait for it to pass again.  In one such attempt I was able to capture this video and in it you can see just how big this Whale Shark is.  Behind the shark you can see another diver.  I believe that Jenna is the diver in the foreground at the end of the video.

 

 

After you “run out of gas” and can no longer keep up with the shark you flip over on to your back and point your fist into the air signaling the boat that you are ready for a pickup and if they aren’t busy dropping off the other swimmers eventually they come around to pick you up and then the boat moves ahead of the shark for another approach.  In this way we had 4 dives with the shark and while each one maybe only lasted a few minutes it was terrifically exciting to be face to face with a shark the size of a school bus.  When the boat came to pick us up after one run I shot a photo of it from the water.


As you can see by the smiles on the faces of my friends, each Whale Shark dive was fun and exciting.  The whole day everyone was smiling and laughing and having such a great time.  By the end of the day, the tornado weather had moved away and while it was still producing funnel clouds it was far enough away so that we had sunny skies and bright clear water.


The hospitality on the boat was wonderful; lunch was a huge buffet spread of sandwiches with every kind of meat and bread that you could imagine. There were regular snacks after each dive to include a lot of fresh fruit and the whole atmosphere the entire day was lighthearted and fun.  For the rest of the day after we got back to our lodging in Exmouth, everyone was talking and retelling stories about their Whale Shark encounters and how much fun they had.  If you ever make it out to Exmouth, be sure to take part in a Whale Shark dive.  I will always look back on this day as one of my best.  I hope you have enjoyed reading my story :-)


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