Thursday, 24 February 2011

Western Australia V: Ain't it the life?

A few stories remain to tell from my Australia series, put on pause from last year. You rejoin us at the most northerly point of our road trip along the Western Australia coast, a mile out to sea, where I am having a few difficulties. The rest of the series, which covers topics as diverse as landslides, sheep, epic railway journeys, mutiny and the difficulties of finding breakfast, can be found on my travel page.

THE problem with small boats is the plumbing.

The presence of twenty tourists gleefully sunbathing, drinking and helping themselves to the bountiful buffet, ravenous after several bouts of vigorous exercise swimming in the open ocean, ultimately puts a strain on the ablution facilities of such a vessel. Eventually, they can no longer cope and flatly refuse to flush any longer, creating a moment of panic for whoever might be standing nearby at the time.

I mention this not to put you off your dinner, but to help you understand. We had spent the entire day about the Indian Ocean just off Ningaloo Reef, swimming first with manta ray and turtles at a fish cleaning station and then, throughout the day, three whale sharks. These immense creatures, around 12 metres in length, are the largest fish in the ocean, mysterious filter feeders with distinct and unique spotted patterning. To give an idea of scale, the mouth of the whale shark can reach 1.5 metres in width, and the largest ever rumoured to have been caught, at 18 metres in length, was holding up to 1,000 baby whale sharks inside. The fish had been our hosts, allowing us a privileged 30 minutes or so of their company at a time before diving beyond reach as they migrate along the coast. We would chug up and down the North West Cape coastline, awaiting the call from a spotter plane above. When a whale shark was spotted and the call came through, dozens of boats would race to be the first to reach the animal, sometimes running rings around one another in a bid to block their rivals from reaching the quoted coordinates first. One boat per shark, those were the rules.

The ocean was cold, and I had foolishly opted out of using a wet suit (I was the only one to do so), but only a few minutes of swimming alongside the shark was enough to get the blood pumping and to keep warm. For the whale shark, effortlessly gliding through the water, this was a mere amble. Indeed, a true shark would have scythed through the water at a far greater rate, but for the humans eagerly following alongside this was more than fast enough. The rules were to stay at least 3 metres from the body or 4 metres from the tail and never to swim in front of the fish, but in reality it was difficult to ever get this close: the fish was just too fast. Not that the fish cared of course, as it happily pottered along, eating, pondering and peering curiously at these human things, so clumsy in their locomotion.

Between swims we would dry in the sun, breathe the salty air and spot dolphins and humpback whales in the distance. The buffet was a fine, healthy spread. The day, all in all, was relaxing, healthy and a once in a lifetime – really – experience: to swim with such a creature was an honour. To swim with three, well, you get the idea.

You can see then, why problems involving narrow plumbing might ruin the mood. True enough, it was I who was the bearer of the final insult and, not to be too graphic, the timing of such a catastrophic disposal refusal could not have been worse.

So I exited the cubicle and found a staff member to report the problem. Janelle, in khaki military cap and sunglasses, was having a quiet moment to herself at the back of the boat. I had wanted to talk to her all day, and now was my chance. So we sat in the sun and discussed life. Life out here seemed effortlessly simple, and I was keen to know more about what she had seen and done. Furthermore, I wanted to know how you became a guide on a whale shark tour, your principal responsibility to swim at the front, alongside the largest fish in the ocean, with one arm up, so that us stragglers knew where to aim for should we fall behind.

Janelle, surprisingly, started out as a lab assistant, analysing blood samples and biopsies in a hospital. Working alone in a lab, on dry land, she could not possibly have seen herself leading tour groups on the Ningaloo Reef – handling the general public while at sea, particularly as, even today, she gets sea sick and can only lead groups once a month. Janne, our other guide and on-board marine biologist, was the leader of the two for our voyage.

But life in the lab was not for Janelle either, a difficult and thankless job she was happy to have moved on from. In what sounded like an inspiring quest for adventure, she had left her job in the laboratory and gone to work for a holiday camp near Kalbarri on the Mid West coast. Starting with menial tasks behind the scenes, she began to lead kayaking groups, slowly realising that she could handle groups of people. Furthermore, she quite liked it. Now she was based in Exmouth, working for Ningaloo Whaleshark-n-Dive, and she loved it.

In 3 years, she told me, she had never had as long a swim with a whale shark as we had had on this trip.

She showed me some of the photographs she had taken today, pointing out the spotty patterns so unique to each individual that star cluster algorithms are being used to form a census of whale shark numbers. She told me of the beaches nearby where she had witnessed turtles laying their eggs. She told me of her love for the outdoors, for the wonders her homeland could offer and how she was lucky to be able to work in such an environment. She had moved alone to Exmouth, so isolated from the rest of Australia (790 miles from Perth, itself isolated), but was happy. How could she not be, alongside such bountiful shores? Exmouth lies on the border between Ningaloo Reef and the haven of Exmouth Gulf, home to the highest density of humpback whales of anywhere in the world, a site of pilgrimage where the whales come to give birth.

It was a wonderful conversation of which I wish I had written more down.

It was such a wonderful conversation, and so engrossing, that we had completely forgotten to do anything about why I had struck it up in the first place. And as Janelle spoke of her encounters with species, including scientists, a number of fellow passengers had innocently entered the toilet facilities, unaware of the hazard that awaited. As we chatted, sharing a blissful reverie in the afternoon sun in the middle of the sea, dreaming of gentle giants, turtles and a trouble-free existence, we failed to register the background chaos that I had caused – panicked tourists, racing from the cubicle, in desperation trying to find a member of staff who could help; panicked staff then assembling to strategise and resolve the offending issue, drawing up plans and back-up plans before picking straws to decide who might go in first. It was a messy business, happening in plain view of Janelle and I, but we were too busy being content with our lot to notice.

Only after did I feel guilty, by which time the problem had been resolved, and only a few people had been offended. I never did own up.

Image from, stuff I was told on the day, New Scientist, ECOCEAN, Ningaloo Whaleshark-n-Dive

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