Monday, May 23, 2016

An Eighteenth Birthday and an Excellent Adventure

The day of Max's 18th birthday - Max and I swimming with a whale shark.                        Photo: Leith Holtzman

A few weeks ago, just after lunch on a Friday, Max and I headed off on our excellent adventure to celebrate his eighteenth birthday. Instead of a birthday party or material present, my gift to Max would be some lifetime memories.

The itinerary, somewhat to his frustration, was a complete secret from Max and I, somewhat to my amusement, only revealed it bit by bit as we went along. We drove straight to Tullamarine airport near Melbourne and boarded a plane to the other side of the country.

The first part of our excellent adventure was a weekend in Perth. We caught up with cousins Warwick and Thelma in Dalkeith and our friends, Jen and Iain near the Swan Valley.
Max with Thelma and Warwick

Max with Jenny and Iain

Late on Monday morning we flew off on the next leg of our journey; a two-hour flight to Exmouth, 1,253km north of Perth, where we would spend the next four days.

Situated near the northern end of Ningaloo Reef, Exmouth is a base for people wanting to see one of the world’s largest fringing coral reefs. Teeming with marine life, the underwater world of Ningaloo is famous for its whale sharks and one of the few places in the world you can swim with them.

Monday afternoon we settled into our self-contained accommodation at the Exmouth Escape Resort; did a grocery shop at the local Exmouth IGA supermarket and booked ourselves onto a charter fishing boat for the following day.

Just after 7.30am the next morning Max and I and a dozen or more other people, boarded the Blue Horizon Charters’ 60-foot fishing boat for a day of fishing, or in my case, observing.

There was no shortage of fish but there was also no shortage of sharks... within twenty minutes or less of finding a good fishing spot, the sharks moved in and chomped up the fish before we could land them onto the boat. Exciting to watch but no good if you’re trying to catch your dinner! Unluckily for Max, twice he hooked big spangled emperor fish (that would have been just perfect for Tuesday Night Dinner) and twice a great big lemon shark relieved him of his catch.
The lemon shark, munching on Max's fish!

The next day was Max’s birthday and I had planned our whole Excellent Adventure around it. Months earlier I had booked both of us onto a full day tour with Kings Ningaloo Reef Tours to swim with the mighty whale sharks.

Arriving every year from March until August to feed in the plankton rich waters of Ningaloo, these enormous sharks are the biggest fish in the sea… and fortunately for Max and I, "filter feeders" and harmless to people.

Marine biologists and our instructors for the day, Zoe and Sasha, arrived at our accommodation at 7.15am and drove us out to the Tantabiddi Boat Ramp on the western side of the North West Cape. From here we, along with about eighteen other keen swimmers, were taken out in a tender to the Magellan, our boat for the day.

Max and I were put into Zoe’s group and she was a font of information about the whale sharks and the reef in general.

We were fitted up with a pair of goggles, snorkel and fins and given instructions on whale shark swimming etiquette: a maximum of ten swimmers in the water at any one time (plus Zoe, our spotter/instructor and Leith the photographer/videographer) we weren’t to swim in front of their mouths (in case we were inadvertently swallowed), to keep a minimum of three metres from the side of their bodies and a minimum of four metres away from their tails.

A practice snorkel on the reef ironed out any equipment glitches and gave us our first glimpse of the magical underwater world we would be in for the day. A multitude of different coloured fish of all shapes and sizes swam in and out of the coral around us and Max caught sight of a large turtle cruising past.

Once everyone felt confident with their snorkelling ability, it was back onto the Magellan and we headed out into the deeper water, where the whale sharks would be found. With a spotter plane overhead searching, it wasn’t long before Bill, our skipper received a call on the radio from the pilot, directing him to the closest whale shark.

Our group quickly assembled on the marlin board of the boat and seconds later we were in the water, swimming in a line next to Zoe who directed us to put our faces into the water and look down about five metres to our right.

Out of the dark blue deep water came a sight I will never forget: a huge spotted whale shark about seven or eight metres long, glided silently up towards us.
Max and I, swimming with a whale shark.                                                      Photo: Leith Holtzman

The whale shark set a gentle pace, swimming smoothly and effortlessly through the crystal clear water, seemingly oblivious to us as we swam along beside it. I found it difficult to judge just how close we were in the water and a number of times I felt as though I could have easily touched it, if I had stretched out my hand only slightly.

It was truly a sight to behold.
Me, swimming with a whale shark.                                                            Photo: Leith Holtzman

After what felt like a good swim, maybe ten or fifteen minutes (I had no idea of the time), we swam back to the Magellan and the second group had their swim with the whale shark. We kept swapping like this for the duration of our whale shark swimming experience. All up, we were lucky enough to swim with three different whale sharks and a total of about six or seven swims.
Max and I, in the water with the whale shark.                                                    Photo: Leith Holtzman

The second whale shark we swam with was a young male, about five metres long. He set quite a pace and we were all feeling pretty puffed by the time we got back to the boat. Our last deep water swim for the day was with an enormous whale shark, over nine metres long at Zoe’s estimation. I felt completely overawed by this huge, gentle shark as it dived down and disappeared into the dark blue water below us.
Max and I, after our whale shark swimming experience.

Back on the boat we motored out of the deep water and back through a break in the reef to the calm waters of the lagoon where we enjoyed our lunch of cold meats and delicious salads and then afterwards, snorkelling amongst the corals and brightly coloured fish.

As we made our way home, the sharp eyes of one of the crew spotted an ornate eagle ray; a large spotted and striped ray with a very long, 12-foot tail, classed as rare and endangered. Cameraman, Leith quickly got into the water to capture the ray on film. He said afterwards, it was like winning the underwater photo lottery and there had been less than a dozen sightings of the ornate eagle ray in Australian waters.
Ornate Eagle Ray                                                            Photo: Leith Holtzman

Before we arrived back at the Tantabiddi Boat Ramp, the crew from Kings has one final surprise – a beautiful dark, rich chocolate birthday cake for Max – a yummy end to a memorable day.
Our tour group on the Magellan                                                           Photo: Leith Holtzman

The next day Max and I hired snorkel gear from the Exmouth Visitors Centre and drove out to Turquoise Bay in the Cape Range National Park. We spent a couple of hours enjoying the “drift snorkel”.
Max at Turquoise Bay, Cape Range National Park

Starting at one end of the beach, we swam out into a current that allowed us to drift over the coral and get out at the other end of the beach. I felt as though we were on the magical film set of Finding Nemo. There were so many different types of colourful fish swimming around the coral…  I was relieved we didn’t see any sharks.

On the drive back through the national park we came across a large dingo chasing down a small kangaroo. The kangaroo didn’t stand a chance and the dingo killed it within seconds, right in front of our car; no doubt a welcome meal for the dingo.

The third and final part of our Excellent Adventure was a trip out to Hyden for a short weekend with our friends Astrid, Andy and their son, Max M.

Hyden is a small rural town, 323km east, south-east of Perth in Western Australia’s “Wheatbelt”. Two years ago, Max had flown west and stayed with Astrid and Andy for two weeks work experience in their family run business, The Ag Shop.

Andy met us at the airport on Friday afternoon, along with Astrid, who had just flown in from the eastern states. It was a happy surprise for Max, who had no idea we were going to Hyden for the final leg of our Excellent Adventure. On the way back to Hyden we collected Max M from his boarding school at Narrogin.

Hyden is famous for it’s geological feature the granite inselberg, Hyden Rock and in particular, the northern side, known as Wave Rock. Shaped like a tall, breaking ocean wave, it is around 14m high and 110m long. After a tour of The Ag Shop on Saturday morning, Astrid, the two Maxs and I drove out to see Wave Rock.
The two Maxs at Wave Rock, Western Australia
Max, Max M, Andy and Astrid

Sunday was our final day of Excellent Adventuring: back in the car to Perth, onto a plane to Melbourne and then back into the Barrmobile to Barham – all up, a total of 3,350km for the day. Home before midnight, safe and sound and with memories to last a lifetime. Happy Birthday Max!
Max and I at Wave Rock, near Hyden Western Australia

Annie Barr