Swimming With Whale Sharks at Australia’s Ningaloo Reef

All we wanted after a magnificent snorkeling session off the coast of Western Australia was for the stupid motor home to start, to stop grinding away with that almost-but-not-today sound that made our hearts race faster than the engine. Bertie, as we called the 21-foot recreational vehicle we had rented, sounded like she wanted to work. She just lacked the energy.

My wife, Diana, turned the key once, twice, three more times, yielding only the same sneezy rhythm. I could see panic in her usually cheerful eyes as she pulled her hands away from the troubled ignition. We were in a remote spot with more marsupials than people.

“OK, breathe,” she said, exhaling slowly.

I stayed silent, as did our two children, Baz, 14, and Amelia, 12. Sitting in the van with the teal Indian Ocean to our left and a campground to our right, we were shocked at our misfortune. Five years ago, Amelia bounded home from school begging with third-grade enthusiasm to someday see what she’d apparently just learned about in class — the Ningaloo Coast, home to one of the longest near-shore reefs in the world, where hundreds of enormous, peaceful whale sharks gather every year.

We were 150 miles from her dream. I had already paid a fortune for us all to swim with the gentle giants early the next morning. It was our third attempt. The first, for Amelia’s 10th birthday in July 2020, fell to Covid lockdowns. So did the second — just a day before departure, no less, leading to wails and desperate pleas for refunds.

Even this time, we feared and attracted trouble. A Category 5 cyclone hit Western Australia the week we arrived. It was about 800 miles north of us, but on our first night, wind gusts tossed our R.V. from side to side like the plaything of a Marvel villain.

Amelia, miraculously, took it all in stride. “I don’t think Western Australia likes us very much,” she joked as Diana called the rental agency to ask for a tow truck, and as I searched the web for a taxi service willing to travel long distances on remote roads for God knows how much.

“We’ll get there, Amelia,” I said. “I just don’t know how.”

Truth be told, stuck in the rusty plains of a vast continent, we were all feeling torn between problem-solving and doom. The pandemic was still whispering in our minds: Do not trust in the gods of serendipity and adventure; every little thing will not work out.

Pre-Covid, Diana and I had been true believers. We’d dragged our kids at a moment’s notice to new places all over the countries where I’d worked as a New York Times correspondent, without rigid itineraries. During Covid, living in Australia, where state and national borders were closed for more than a year, that was impossible. And when borders reopened, we were racked with doubt. We feared snags at airports, Covid, quarantine, labor shortages that slashed services. Travel had changed. So had we.

More than anything, we wanted all that fear to be gone. We wanted to move around the world like ourselves again, to exorcise the Covid demons — and what better way to do it than by reviving a trip to Western Australia that the coronavirus had ruined?

But, sheesh, were we out of practice. After picking up Bertie in Perth, Diana and I argued about how long to drive on Day 1 — she was nervous about hitting kangaroos after dark; I was nervous about missing out on sledding down giant dunes of salt. And when we arrived at our campground a few minutes past dusk (OK, an hour; the salt dunes took a while) we learned that I had forgotten to pack enough flashlights. We gave up on finding the showers. With the most minimal setup accomplished, I persuaded Diana to do what we often did during travel setbacks in our 20s: Sit down with a drink.

As we sipped gin and tonics in camping chairs, the kids surprised us by getting to work with dinner. Amelia made a salad; Baz cooked some steaks. It was the first time they had ever cooked an entire meal for us. Maybe we could get used to this R. V.ing thing after all.

On the second night, the comedy of errors continued — we didn’t have the right hose connector for the water hookup so we had to borrow one from a couple next to us. They were from Perth, and regular road trippers. Asking about our plans, they raved about the Kalbarri Skywalk. We had a few stops planned on our way north, but not that one.

Diana and I examined our itinerary. It would add an hour or two of driving, but with the cyclone still around farther up the coast, why not slow down, pivot, enjoy?

On the way into Kalbarri, we doubled down and decided to follow signs for a pink lake. There are a bunch of them around Western Australia, produced by salty aquifers and algae that produce beta carotene (also found in carrots). Like so much on our journey, the pink lake was otherworldly, awe-inspiring and Instagram-friendly.

Then we pulled into the Skywalk parking lot and found ourselves amazed by the giant platform stretching out over a canyon of planetary proportions in deep reds, oranges and browns. Suspended over it all, we were able to take in the expanse with only a few other people, and then grab a decent flat white at the national park’s cafe.

Diana and I were starting to feel pretty good about our progress. A few days in, we were finding our rhythm: Drive for up to six hours a day, make at least one sightseeing stop, and find a campground by sunset with help from a crowdsourced app called WikiCamps.

The long stretches of road bothered us less than we had anticipated. The kids rolled around in the back with unlimited screen time — a reprieve to keep the peace — while Diana and I talked, listened to podcasts and admired the landscape, which became progressively drier, redder and emptier, but that still offered the occasional surprise.

American have always boasted about rugged individualism; Australians emphasize the communal effort of “mateship.” We were reminded of that difference on our road trip whenever we had a question at a campground or on the road — and especially when Bertie decided not to start.

Stuck in Coral Bay (population: 245), we didn’t just call tow trucks or try to pay our way out of the problem with a taxi. We also asked for local help.

Everyone we asked gave us one name: Johnny. About 45 minutes later, a guy with a bald head, a truck and a trailer full of tools showed up. First Johnny tried to give us a jump-start. When that failed, he asked to see the key to the motor home.

“Has it gotten wet?” he asked.

The key fob’s button to open the doors hadn’t worked for the whole trip. Rather than leave it on the beach, Diana had suggested we take it with us when we snorkeled.

“That’s the problem,” Johnny said. Today’s key fobs remotely connect to the computer in the vehicle, even when they can’t open the doors. Soak the key, forget starting the engine.

Johnny sent me to the store for a new battery as he pulled out the corroded one inside and laid out all the parts in the sun.

“I’ve seen this work maybe one out of 20 times,” he said. “I’ll be back in an hour.”

When he returned, a sherbet-colored sunset was cooling the evening. Our options had dwindled to luck with bad odds. We all held our breath as Diana turned the key.

Bertie roared to life. After confirming she could hold her diesel gurgle long enough for a drive, I danced in the parking lot. The kids screamed. Diana — leaving the engine running — gave Johnny a huge hug through tears. He just smiled and waved away our questions about the cost, saying he would take the package of extra batteries and nothing more.

The next morning, we were up at sunrise and in the water before noon. The whale sharks were huge, the largest creatures we had ever seen. Spotted, majestic and navy blue, they are identifiable as sharks because of their vertical tails that look the same as a great white’s. But as we swam as fast as we could to stay beside them — one, two and three times in separate dives — I kept thinking they looked like prehistoric catfish.

The second one we saw was about 30 feet long, according to our guides with Ningaloo Discovery. It was the same company I’d booked with three years earlier. They’d given me a rain check, a refund, then a third wonderful try.

We had an all-female crew of sea lovers who told us Ningaloo is the only place where you can swim with whale sharks, observing them without interference — unlike in the Philippines and Mexico, where tours attract them with food. A few hundred show up in Western Australia every year. Many are returnees with nicknames like Fingers (for a split fin).

“They all have personalities and different behaviors,” said Holly Matheson, our boat’s underwater photographer. “The best ones are ‘bubble eaters’ — they see our bubbles and swim toward us.”

Between whale shark swims, we saw dolphins speeding along with us at the nose of the boat. We snorkeled near a pristine section of the Ningaloo Reef. We ate tasty snacks and sat in the sun at the front of our catamaran, where Baz and Amelia laughed as water drenched their faces. We even met an American who had been close to a mutual friend in Senegal.

The day was a mix of random, meditative and wonderful. It was travel as the serendipity gods intended and as we’d remembered.

The next morning we watched the sunrise from a lighthouse outside the town of Exmouth. The natural beauty of white dunes and red earth astounded us all. We had breakfast at a beach where we were alone and went for another swim.

On our return trip to Perth, we all seemed to be more relaxed. Vast distances traveled in tight quarters had cleared our minds of anxious clutter.

We played cards as a family at night while by day, Diana and I worked out the driving and revived our spontaneity so much that we were quick to book a quad bike tour of a national park near Shark Bay — a highlight as we sped down dirt tracks at sunset with the kids.

On our last night, we pulled into Cervantes, a town just a few hours north of Perth, with a mix of relief and ambivalence. After 2,000 miles and more than a week of travel, we were one night away from an actual bed, not on wheels.

So after a pub dinner and another glorious sunset, we did what made no sense at all — we crawled up into the narrow bed at the back of the R.V., squeezing in side by side like sardines, to watch “Ted Lasso” by connecting a laptop to Bertie’s tiny television.

It was the episode from the most recent season where the team is in Amsterdam trying to figure out how to reconnect and revive their sense of purpose. There may have been some illicit substances involved — Diana and I did not do a great job explaining hallucinogens — but by the end, Team Lasso is back on the bus, a little lighter but still trying to make sense of a confusing world tilting between despair and joy.

Suddenly, Rebecca, the team’s owner, breaks out into song — a Bob Marley song that all four of us recognized and also started to sing. Squeezed so close together that we could feel every breath and note in back end of a rented R.V., we shouted to ourselves, to a town named after Don Quixote’s creator and to everyone everywhere: “Every little thing gonna be all right.”

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