Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Biggest Fish in the Sea

It's not every day you get to tick something off of your bucket list. Ever since we learned about whale sharks, we'd been talking about getting over to WA to snorkel with them. Years later we finally made it and the experience was nothing short of extraordinary!

Carl and Jan looked after the boys so that we could have a whole day to ourselves - a rare and much appreciated opportunity!

We chose to go out with King's Ningaloo Reef tours. Our boat for the day, the Magellan.

I'm seriously stoked to be doing something we'd been talking about for ages, not to mention the novelty of a kid free day with my husband!

The first part of the morning is spent snorkeling on the reef to make sure everyone is comfortable with their equipment. I tried to smile for the camera and got water in my mask :)

The reef is beautiful, perhaps not quite as colorful as the Great Barrier Reef, but full of interesting fish. (Note, we had a professional photographer and videographer on board with us for the day and you'll easily be able to differentiate her photos from ours by the obvious watermark on hers.)



Brian free dives (or duck dives as they call it here) to snap a photo of a sea turtle.

 Hi, little guy!

Me (above and below) having a good time and we hadn't even seen a shark yet! Oh, the anticipation!

After our morning snorkel, the passengers are briefed on the rules for swimming with whale sharks. Follow your spotter in the water, get in a single line, look where she's pointing and stay four meters away from the pectoral fins and five meters from the tail. Most excitingly, once the fish has passed by, you can take off and swim along beside it (until you're called back or someone comes along to tug on your fin and tell you it's time to head back to the boat).

Our fist glimpse of a whale shark!

Such supremely gorgeous creatures!

That's me below with a seven meter (23 foot) long whale shark in the background! Early on, I discovered that after the shark had passed the group, most of the slower swimmers would swim along on the same side of the shark. If I zoomed around to the other side of the whale shark, I was offered a terrific view and a more serene experience than when trying to navigate the "crowd" on the opposite side. Bliss.

Brian and the big fish...

The group watches a whale shark swim past...

The twenty passengers on the boat are divided into two groups as strict regulations mean that only ten people can be in the water at a time with a shark. The groups get in and out of the water to take turns with an individual shark. We had about seven or eight opportunities to get in the water with the sharks and swam with about five different ones in total.

Brian snapping a photo on one of our encounters.

Brian and I with the biggest fish in the sea.

Our group only got a fleeting glimpse of this whale shark, but it was nine meters (30 feet) long and had a crook in its back, which you can see in the photo. Apparently it had once been injured, probably by a boat, but had recovered. Using it's distinguishing features and unique spotted markings to identify it, we were told it was last recorded in the area in 1994!

In case you were wondering, swimming with whale sharks is quite safe as they are filter feeders and those big mouths are used for collecting plankton. Young sharks in particular can be very curious and will approach boats and divers.

The whale shark lives in the open sea and is found in tropical and warm oceans. While the animal is the size of a whale, it is actually a shark and breathes through its gills so it never needs to surface for air like a whale. It has a lifespan of about 70 years.

The largest confirmed individual had a length of 12.65 meters (41.50 ft) and a weight of more than 21.5 metric tons (47,000 lb) and there are unconfirmed reports of individuals over 14 meters (46 ft) long and weighing 30 metric tons (66,000 lb). The whale shark is by far the largest living non-mammalian vertebrate, rivaling many of the largest dinosaurs in weight.

The population of whale sharks is unknown and they are listed as a vulnerable species. Sadly, they are still hunted in some parts of the world.

One last glimpse....

Swimming back to the boat after our end of the day snorkel we saw this huge sting ray resting on the sandy sea bed.

One more adventure for the list of pretty awesome things we've done together in the last decade!

A boat full of blissed out passengers!

Thanks to the awesome crew of the Magellan for providing the experience of a lifetime!.

Finally, you might like to the see the video highlights of our under water experience that Brian put together:

All I can say is wow. The experience was surreal and awe inspiring. What a great privilege to see such a graceful and mammoth creature appear seemingly out of nowhere and then slip out of sight once again.  I might just be so bold as to suggest that you add this experience to your bucket list too - you won't be disappointed!

Friday, June 14, 2013


After five days in the Perth area we boarded a another flight for Exmouth. Situated 1,300 kilometers north of Perth, the town was built in1967 to support the nearby United States Naval Communication Station. Today it relies on tourism for its existence and it's one of only a few places in the world where you can swim with whale sharks. That will be the fourth and final post in this series and it's gonna be a good one!

Off for a wander around the town. With fewer than 2000 permanent residents, there's not much to do in Exmouth itself but it's a terrific starting point for adventures in the Cape Range National Park and the World Heritage listed Ningaloo Reef.

You know you're in the tropics when you see Frangipani everywhere. We've got a particularly soft spot in our hearts for this fragrant flower as they're common in Hawaii (though they call them Plumeria there) and we recall the time we lived in Maui quite fondly.

My handsome boy.

I booked Carl and Jan on a boat tour to swim with whale sharks on our first full day in Exmouth. We were scheduled to go out the next day which meant Carl and Jan would look after the boys for us. They set off bright and early and when we woke up, Brian suggested we take the boys out on a glass bottom boat tour. A quick phone call found they could just squeeze the four of us in and they'd be around to pick us up in a half hour! Excited to be doing something spontaneously, we scurried to pack towels and snacks and water and the million other things required for outings with kids and then caught the shuttle to the marina.

Ari (looking beat up from a face plant off a park bench the day before) and I find our seats on the boat.

All the kids liked looking through the glass bottom...

..and we actually saw quite a lot of fish and even a turtle!

The owner and guide for the morning was really friendly and knowledgeable and kindly sent us a photo of everyone after our morning snorkel. Riker even got in the water and while he didn't like having a snorkel mask on, he happily swam in the open ocean with his floaty vest for the first time!

One of the nice features of the glass bottom boat tour was that the shuttle bus stopped at a few notable sites on the way there and back that we wouldn't otherwise have visited.

We stopped at the beach with the shipwreck of the SS Mildura, the Jurabi Turtle Centre and the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse (shown below).

After a great morning getting to know Exmouth we were ready to head back to our villa to rest up for the day we'd been talking about for years - the day we'd get to swim with whale sharks!

Sunset on our three bedroom villa in Exmouth.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Western Australia

After a lovely week pottering around Canberra, we boarded a plane for a holiday in Western Australia. We thought we may as well take advantage of the grandparents visit to see a part of the country none of us had been to before. And with two extra pairs of hands, the reasonably long flight seemed somewhat less daunting.

We landed in Perth in the evening (very late in Canberra time), picked up our rental car and drove about 45 minutes to our three bedroom apartment in downtown Fremantle. We spent the next five days exploring Fremantle, Perth and the Swan Valley wine region.

Our first day was spent exploring the markets in Fremantle, followed by a wander around the waterfront and the esplanade. On Mother's Day, I scored a nap with the kids and while this is quite possibly the best gift ever, Brian returned from a mother/son hot chocolate outing with a stunning opal necklace for me. What an awesome fella, that one. Then it was on to the Little Creatures tasting room before having fish and chips on the pier. (Note to beer enthusiasts - give Little Creatures a miss and go straight to The Monk brewery and restaurant).

The next day we drove a half hour north of Perth to the Swan Valley for a visit to Feral Brewing and several wineries. Since I was the driver for the day and didn't intend to sample any wines, Jan and I dropped Carl and Brian at the Sandalford Winery and headed off to the Margaret River Chocolate Company with the boys. Ari was less than thrilled at being prevented from pulling every bar of chocolate off the shelves (read screamed the whole time) and Riker zoomed around trying to decide if he wanted a giant chocolate cookie covered in rainbow sprinkles or a chocolate chicken. He chose the chicken in the end and back in the car, both boys were placated with copious amounts of chocolate.

Riker cradles a melting chocolate chicken with affection before biting off its tail.

Heading back to the Sandalford Winery we found Carl and Brian ready to leave as the tasting room was closing. I was pleased that Brian had found a nice bottle of 2009 Shiraz that will cellar for up to twenty years. My colleague and friend, Barry, had mentioned that in his wine cellar, he had special bottles of wine in the same vintage as each of his children and he was planning to enjoy them with his children when they turned eighteen. (Legal drinking age here is eighteen FYI.) We liked the idea and had been on the lookout for suitable bottles from 2009 and 2011. While Riker probably won't have an appreciation for expensive red wine at eighteen, at least we'll enjoy it! He keeps talking about drinking it for his eighteenth birthday so if you hear him mention that, you'll know why my three year old is talking about wine!

The Prendiville Reserve 2009 Shiraz from Sandalford that we'll sip in fourteen and a half years.

The next day we decided to take advantage of Perth's public transport system by taking the train from Fremantle into the city. The boys enjoyed the train ride at first but at some point they seemed to forget that they were on train. At least they could look at them out the window!

It wasn't long until we reached our destination, the Scitech Discovery Centre and  interactive science museum in West Perth.

The boys enjoyed the hands on activities all over the museum (as did the grown-ups).

After a morning at SciTech we boarded another train and a bus to find ourselves at King's Park and Botanic Garden. With beautiful views of the city and the Swan River, we all had a really peaceful afternoon wandering through the trees. Of course, it helped that both children were asleep in the pram :)

I don't recall what variety of native plant this is, but it was one of many uniquely Australian flowers we admired.

The park was filled with thoughtful details that caught my eye like this leaf embedded in a rock. It reminded me of a pottery series I did in high school with leaves all over everything. Anybody remember that?

The images below were found on the footpath around a small pond.

And I loved this sweet mother and child pair gracing the pond with their loving embrace.

Also couldn't tell you what variety of Eucalyptus tree this is, but as I'm fascinated by the great variety of leaves and seeds on this species, I always find myself pointing the camera at bits of trees.

Another morning was spent visiting the Fremantle Arts Centre. Carl and Jan went off to visit the Maritime and Shipwreck museums and Brian and I went to the Arts Centre with the kids because we'd heard that the traveling Buster the Bus was going to be there. Somewhat similar to Paint n Play in Canberra, the traveling toymobile is stocked with books, paints and toys of all varieties and we were so glad we made the effort to get there!

Set in a beautiful 1860's limestone castle-like complex on five acres, the Arts Centre has previously housed a lunatic asylum, a women's home and midwifery training school, an American naval base, a technical college and a museum.

Brian and Ari just starting to explore some of the fun toys spilling out of Buster the Bus.

Ari in particular loved these red plastic toy motor bikes. Just the right size for a toddler, the wide wheels made it very stable for a two wheeler.

The Arts Centre had all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies filled with drawings and artwork and thoughtful little features all over the grounds, like the clay model house above and the concrete sofa below.

To top off stumbling upon a great place with a fun activity for kids and interesting art exhibits, we had a terrific lunch at the Centre's cafe. Situated in a cozy courtyard full of greenery and natural light, the food and coffee were deliciously memorable. Highly recommended.

Can't complain about the company either. Okay, they could be quieter and less messy but still, I like 'em. 

After five days in the greater Perth area, we see why everyone we've met from there raves about the city. It's big enough to be interesting, the weather is terrific, the public transport beats Canberra's and it feels laid back and comfortable. I was already glad we made the long journey to the other side! Hopefully we'll get a chance to return to explore more of the area in the future.