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Australasia & Pacific

On The Road: Conquer your aquatic anxiety by swimming with a giant of the ocean

I'm afraid of the ocean. It seems ridiculous for someone spending time in Australia, but I really don't like swimming in the sea and snorkelling is even worse. How can anyone not have a panic attack when they hear themselves breathing like that?

So when the opportunity arises to swim with whale sharks, I'm not completely enamoured with the idea. I drag myself out of bed and onto the bus at 7am with leaden feet, even though I know it's something I should do and everyone around me is buzzing with excitement.

The warm-up snorkel is just as awful as I'd feared and I end up clawing my way back to the boat by the line. Just as I collapse onto the deck one of the crew bends down and says kindly, "You should have told us it was your first time snorkelling. We can help you. Would you like another go?"

I smile wanly and shake my head. If only he knew how many times I've swallowed by own bodyweight in saltwater to try to look at fish. I think I should just save my energy for the main event.

Swimming with whale sharks is planned with great precision; it involves being split into groups and entering and leaving the water at speed. The process is in no way relaxing, and when it's my turn I lag behind and am left treading water unsure of what to do next. Then I feel a hand take mine and the guide pulls two of us along to catch up with the others and points.

From first glance any stress or anxiety just fades away. Face to face with an enormous filter-feeding whale shark, I no longer hear my own breath; I swim as if it's the most natural thing in the world. It's just me and the sea creature, nothing else exists. I'm in awe of its vastness and speed, its beauty and its disregard for the humans staring at it from a distance. What lasts for only a few minutes feels infinite.

I should probably buy my own fins and snorkelling mask when I get back to shore. There may be hope for me yet.

Footprint's West Coast Australia Handbook is published in August