This post is mostly a review of the experience in case you are someone trying to figure out if this tour operator, 3 Islands, is the one for you. Or, if you simply want a more-detailed account of our adventures with the whale sharks.
We left early to arrive at Tantabiddi Boat Ramp by 8am. They do actually pick you up from Exmouth, but since were going to stay in the national park and didn’t know where yet, we just asked to meet them at the boat ramp. By 8:30am we were shuffled onto a water taxi and onto a boat, after signing our consent paperwork. After a small safety briefing and meeting our crew (Kelsea, Chantelle, Jemma, Rory, and one other that I am forgetting at the moment), we got to snorkel there in the Tantabiddi Bay for about 30min, then it was off to find a whale shark while we snacked on pizza, brownies, fruit, and muffins and drank warm tea to warm up (the wind was a bit cold in the morning). While we were waiting on them to appear (they were being spotted by spotter aircraft and reported to the boat), we were notified that the first humpback whales of the season where nearby, so we scuttled off to catch a glimpse. (I don’t think there were any other tour groups that did this while they were waiting on the fish to arrive.) This was very exciting as normally they aren’t around until June in this area. Our first wild whale!
Then, the main attraction, whale sharks! We had a false start or two before we finally got to see one. We were in group 1, which has its disadvantages during the initial spotting. When they see one, they ask you to get your gear on (on the floor so you don’t trip and sue them) and then wait. Sometimes you get as far as getting into the water before they realize the whale shark has dived and you need to wait and relocate. On the other hand, there is a possibility that the whale shark will dive even before group 2 gets their chance. There weren’t very many at first, and we were going to have to share a whale shark with another tour operator, but eventually we got our chance. Each boat can get to follow the whale sharks for up to 60 minutes per day, and you can only have 10 people in the water with the shark at once. This results in each boat having 2 groups, where one gets in the water, then other is relocated further ahead of the shark and placed in once the first group pulls off the shark. Trading places constantly. Each group got 5 viewings of the fish and the grouping was nice as it allowed you to take a break and recover.
Jonathan and I actually both struggled with motion sickness (not too surprising for me, but very rare for him)while we were out chasing the humpback whale. The swells were probably around 2 m high, making it a bit rough for us at times. I just did a bit of deep breathing and keeping my head in the wind and eyes out on the horizon to manage it. But on the 2nd swim with the whale shark, Jonathan really started to feel green and skipped out on the last 3 swims and snorkeling. I went in on the 3rd, and started swimming with the whale shark, but suddenly got overwhelmed with nausea and called for the water taxi. After a few minutes, I was fine. I think I may have gotten a bit too mesmerized with the tail fin, combined with the restricted breathing of the snorkel, making me a bit nauseous. However, I was able to go in for the next swim with no issues. By then, I had had my fill of whale sharks and decided to skip the last swim as well.
Everyone in the reviews mentions how awe-inspiring and thrilling this swim is. So, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was cool, but not as awesome as everyone makes it out to be. The water was a bit murky because of the tremendous amount of krill and plankton in the water (which is what brings the whale sharks). And, the fish was beautiful. Ours was a male of 6-7m in length, I was told. I would describe him as a gentle giant. It wasn’t terrifying. It might have been a bit more “thrilling” if the fish had swam faster, but it was slow moving one. That did make it easy to keep up with and take pictures. They just swim near the surface and then occasionally slide down into the deep waters, nothing too exciting. They don’t really jump out of the water off, or come up to breath (not necessary for a fish), so the only way you can see them clearly is via a swim. I would probably do it again, but I wouldn’t say it is a must-do experience for everyone. They are currently doing studies about swimming with humpback whales, which would be an even more interesting one. Though, instead of having to stay 3-4 meters away from them, you have to stay 20 m. I think, depending on how clear the water is, it might not be as interesting. Considering that if I was that far from the whale shark, I couldn’t even see him in the food-rich water.
Anyways, after the whale sharks, we had a lunch of make-your-own cold deli sandwiches, cold chicken, salad, potato salad, and cole slaw. Fairly tasty. Jonathan has a small egg allergy and they were careful to list what had egg in it and what didn’t and even reserved some salad without dressing for him. I heard the $400 tour had a bit more impressive food, but I don’t feel like I would have wanted to pay $15pp extra to get that benefit. Then we had another small snorkel and received fruit, crackers, and cheese as a snack. As mentioned in most of the reviews, we were the last tour group to come in (around 4:15pm), which makes you feel a bit better about the value of the tour, as compared to the others.
Other things to note. They provided sunscreen, water, and all snorkel gear including stinger suits and anti-fogging spray. Despite the stinger suits (which were hoodless), 3 people got stung by jellyfish in the face and neck (including one of our guides). They had vinegar at the ready though, and everyone who got stung was back in the water next chance. The free CD has to be picked up from their offices the next day, otherwise they charge you $5 to mail it.
Overall, I would recommend the experience, especially with this operator. And, the crew was very friendly and informative. Though, to be fair, seems like all the operators are very good. Just a matter of what you are looking for in the details.