Hidden away in remote and dusty Western Australia, Ningaloo Reef should be on everyone’s bucket list. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Listed site, and for my money, it’s up there with the best marine environments in the world. Less busy than it’s eastern counterpart, the Great Barrier Reef, it’s stunning location, friendly locals, great pubs and hostels and of course marine life, draws the punters in.
Whale sharks are huge and dive to incredible depths, and as a result no one knows exactly how they reproduce or pup, but they do appear every year from April to July near the surface at Ningaloo Reef, one of only a few places around the world where you can jump in and swim with them.
Swimming with the whale sharks is big business in Exmouth, the main town in the area, with a number of companies looking to take you out for the day. I choose Ocean Eco Adventures, who are on the pricier end, but I’m not disappointed.
Their major selling point is the fact they employ their own, exclusive spotter plane to find whale sharks each day, whereas the other companies all share a plane. It’s not make or break, but on a busy day out, it means you aren’t all targeting one or two sharks. Owner Andy Edwards is up to his 17th whale shark season and provides all the gear you’ll need. He even edits and sends you a DVD of the day to remember your day – I’m sold.
Everyone on the boat is pumped. There’s a definite mix of water ability so we head out for a warm up snorkel to see how we all fare. After seeing a stingray, a school of parrot fish and loads of colourful little fish we all pass and get back on board to head out to sea.
The two spotter planes are circling above us in the sky and before long Andy yells “We’ve got one!” Scrambling for fins and masks, it’s on!
The legs start pumping like there’s no tomorrow, heart beating out of my chest and I’m sucking the air back like it’s my last. It looks as though we have found one.
Our small group is churning their fins through the water, giving chase to a seven metre young male whale shark. Even though the water is clear blue, there are fins and body parts flailing about and all I can see are bubbles and butts. I veer off to the side of the group to escape the churn, and then I see it. My first glimpse of the biggest fish I have ever seen in my life. Momentarily entranced by the beast, I realise it’s pretty much coming right for me. A bit of bicycle kick manoeuvring and I’m out of the way and enjoying the spectacle of him swimming past only three metres in front of me.
Captivated by the majestic whale shark, I only tear my eyes away when I accidentally suck seawater through my snorkel in the excitement. It was a blessing though, as the spotters on the boat are yelling, “There’s another one, to your left” and madly pointing out beside me. My head goes back down and I’m in a whale shark sandwich – trailing our original shark at the same time as being circled by another six-metre creature.
You may see more than one shark in a day, but I’m later told it’s very rare to see two swimming together. It’s an incredible day out, topped off with a double manta ray swim on the way home.
Exit stage to Exmouth
Situated on the North West Cape, a measly 13 hour drive from Perth, Exmouth feels like a world away. Barren, red, dusty earth meets the shallow turquoise water. Locals are friendly and fun, and thongs are all you need. It’s a very laid back town and I quickly get into the casual swing of things.
Exmouth began in 1964 as a naval base, when the Americans came in to set up huge submarine communication towers (which are still active) and flew 3,000 servicemen in to work on the now disused base.
One of the legacies of their time is the Navy Pier, which is now consistently voted one of the top ten dive sites in the world. Wes from Ningaloo Whaleshark ‘N’ Dive, the only company allowed out on the Pier, took my travel buddy out and he reported back it was one of the best dives he has done, which, based on his dive card, is pretty impressive.
There are two pubs and three backpacker hostels in town. I’m told by our deckhand that the Potshot Hotel is where the locals drink and Gracie’s Tavern is for the rest, but for research sake, of course, I try both and there’s a fair mix of locals and blow-ins. Gracie’s is the pick for a night out.
Wes also imparted some valuable local knowledge – a trip to Blue Lips fish and chips. And what a tip – it’s the best I’ve eaten in Australia, incredibly fresh fish and crunchy chips. Also try Whaler’s Restaurant for fresh local seafood, gumbo and pasta and Pinnochio’s for a pizza, ribs and live music.
All fours on Coral Bay
Ninety minutes south of Exmouth lies the even tinier town of Coral Bay. A one street set-up, it’s small but loads of fun. Ningaloo Club Backpackers is a good spot to set up base, in the centre of town. Driving in I notice a lineup of quad bikes next to the hostel advertising a sunset dune ride and immediately book a spot. Before I know it, I’m in a helmet screaming through the dunes of Coral Bay. The two hour trip goes so quickly but it’s an awesome ride. Then it’s off to the pub to toast the dying moments of the incredible sunset in the huge beer garden overlooking the reef.
Days here are spent snorkelling, lounging in the shallow waters of Coral Bay, fishing, and taking manta ray tours out to the reef. You can also take a day trip into the Cape Range National Park, a red dusty escarpment full of rock wallabies, bush figs and kangaroos. The Mandu Mandu Gorge walk is excellent for rock wallaby spotting, or the Yardie Creek boat tour for a relaxing cruise up the only fresh waterway in the National Park. Take your swimmers as the reef is so close to the roadside you will want to jump in a few times on the way.
The reef is now protected by a World Heritage listing, which shows how significant this marine park is for both Australia and internationally. It’s an incredible holiday for all budgets – swimming, snorkelling, hiking, eating seafood – and fast becoming one of Australia’s iconic destinations.
One last stop
After a day or so in Coral Bay, I decided to splash some cash and book a few nights on a live aboard catamaran. Luke and Lannie Riley, owners of Sail Ningaloo are the ultimate hosts. Young and vibrant, they know Ningaloo Reef inside out.
They’ve identified and named loads of snorkel sites themselves and I spend three incredible days trailing up and down the Reef swimming with everything from endangered loggerhead turtles, guitar nosed sharks, reef sharks, lion fish and even little Nemo, the clownfish.
Damage & Details: oceanecoadventures.com.au‘s run whale shark swims daily in season. Costs $395 including lunch, transfers and DVD. Quad Bike tours in Coral Bay start at $95. Sail Ningaloo host live aboard diving and snorkelling trips from $1,550 for a three days, with meals and gear hire. Beds at Blue Reef Backpackers in Exmouth from $31per night.
Photos: Getty, Thinkstock