By Joseph Barker (The University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia)
The midterm break during my semester abroad provided the ideal opportunity to explore Australia’s west coast, which has proved to be the highlight of my study abroad exchange so far. Having excitedly planned the trip in the preceding weeks, I took to the road with nine of my fellow exchange students, cramming a week’s worth of food, sun cream and ‘Goon’ (The Aussie equivalent of Tesco’s own brand red wine), into two hire cars. With a rather unfortunate amount of American pop music being blasted from our stereo, we set off on our first real adventure down under!
The one downside of our excursion was our accommodation, or lack of it. Due to the financial restrictions of student life, we decided to buy $40 tents and sleep in campsites throughout the trip. Despite the ever-present plague of flies, roughing it in Australia’s countryside whilst visiting a variety of national parks provided an authentic experience of the stunning Aussie desert. Even more incredible were the beaches of the west coast: my description of the sensational views, pure water and soft white sand they have to offer truly does not do them justice. Our visit to Shark Bay, where we wondered at one of only three surviving stromatolite formations on the globe (which provide a glimpse into the biological history of the earth), exemplifies the astonishing natural features that confirm Australia’s coast provides much more than beaches on which to tan (or burn, if like me you have an incredibly pale complexion).
The wildlife we were fortunate enough to witness, however, managed to eclipse the outstanding natural sights. Throughout the trip we were able to snorkel above coastal coral reefs, coming within inches of an extensive variety of beautiful, multicoloured tropical fish. Furthermore, we were able to see both wild dolphins and sea turtles during our visit to Monkey Mia. The highlight of the trip, however, was an experience totally unique to Exmouth, our most northern destination: swimming with whale sharks. Whale sharks are the largest species of fish in the ocean, reaching up to lengths of over twelve meters, with the capability to dive over three km down into the ocean and reach one hundred years of age. Despite the day costing $380, swimming with these astounding creatures was worth every penny…
Our day began as we were picked up from our campsite and provided with a bus tour of Exmouth en-route to the harbour. From there, our whale shark swimming company Charter 1, which I would thoroughly recommend, provided snorkeling equipment and food throughout the day as we sailed on their boat. Whilst the company’s spotter plane flew in search of whale sharks, we were once again able to snorkel around coral reefs, this time in deeper parts of the ocean, allowing us to see both jellyfish and a baby shark. After the spotter planes found our first whale shark, however, we set off in hot pursuit. Once the boat was ahead of its target, we rapidly formed lines within the water to avoid scaring the shark as it swam. The thrill of being able to swim with such gigantic sea creatures five times over the course of the afternoon made for a truly unforgettable day. During our third swim, one shark unexpectedly changed direction, meaning we had to quickly dive to its side in order to avoid colliding with one of the largest animals on the planet! The image of an enormous shark being a mere two meters away from hitting you is one of the most terrifying, yet memorable, moments I have had thus far during my time in Australia. Overall, our trip was a truly unforgettable experience, which in my opinion demonstrates the incredible opportunities studying abroad offers to students outside of academic terms.