Ningaloo – Australia’s other great reef – forms the regular playground not just for the biggest breed of shark in the world, but the biggest fish of any kind. And you’re invited to come for a swim . . .By Martin Auldist
Standing near the old gun emplacements on Vlamingh Head near Exmouth on WA’s mid-north coast, it comes as something of a surprise to discover that the region was bombed by the Japanese in World War II. With your back to the ocean, you might wonder why they bothered. The dry, barren landscape is strangely beautiful in its own right, but such desolate desert scenes are a dime a dozen in Australia’s vast interior. Shift your gaze 180 degrees in either direction to take in the expanses of the mighty Indian Ocean, however, and your outlook is likely to change.
Travel pamphlets universally proclaim Exmouth to be “where the outback meets the sea”, and the eclectic mix of rugged gorge, desert landscape and ocean vista is admittedly alluring. It’s a place where the spinifex, red sand and rugged rocky outcrops of the Cape Range National Park tumble down to meet turquoise bays and white beaches, where Sturt’s Desert Peas grow in the table drains near the boat ramp and where kangaroos graze among giant termite mounds only meters from the crashing surf.
Of course back in 1943 the Japanese didn’t attack the Exmouth peninsula for its ocean scenery, but for its strategic importance as a US Navy submarine base. Similarly, the aboveground views are simply an enchanting backdrop for the activities of 200,000 modern invaders that visit the region each year. It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that most of today’s visitors are there for a close encounter with a marine creature of one kind or another. And the main stage for those encounters, Exmouth’s ace in the hole, lies off the western shore of the peninsula, concealed from view beneath the waves: the Ningaloo coral reef.
Ningaloo is Australia’s other reef. Queenslanders might not like to admit it, but Ningaloo is providing its better-known big brother, the Great Barrier Reef, with an increasing level of competition in the tourism stakes.
Western Australians brag that Ningaloo is Australia’s largest fringing reef system (extending directly from shore), with its advantage lying in the fact that it’s much closer to land than Great Barrier, and therefore more accessible. No need to spend hours on a catamaran to see the reef here. No being disgorged onto a crowded pontoon to share your reef experience with dozens of other sweaty tourists. No, at Ningaloo you can launch your very own reef experience straight from the shore wherever and whenever you so choose – although some places are safer and more sensible than others.
Not only is the reef close to shore, but beyond it the Continental Shelf also comes closer to dry land than at any other point on the mainland. The result is a unique environment, an aquatic corridor that provides the ideal meeting place for man and marine beast. In many places the colourful coral of the reef sweeps within swimming distance of the shore – less than 100m – providing a diving and snorkelling paradise. Ningaloo, from the Aboriginal word for “nose” and probably referring to the jutting nature of the North West Cape into the Exmouth Gulf, boasts a kaleidoscope of more than 180 species of coral, which provides habitat for more than 400 species of fish. To protect the reef environment, the WA Government established the Ningaloo Marine Park, encompassing some 260km of coastal waters beginning at the tip of the Exmouth peninsula and ending some 50km south of the settlement of Coral Bay.
For visitors with hydrophobic tendencies, the reef can be viewed though the glass bottom of aboat. It’s far more up close and personal, however, to grab a snorkel and mask and get wet. Exploring the shallow lagoons in this way is perfectly feasible under your own steam; you won’t necessarily need a wetsuit and you can basically just swim out from the beach. If you’re a bit short on snorkelling experience, be wary of the dangerous local undertows that can develop. On the other hand, it’s these very currents that provide a great source of locomotion for shore-based drift divers, and several companies offer the safe and informative option of drift snorkelling as part of an organised group.
Organised dives are also a good way to go for visitors looking to submerge themselves in deeper waters. Professional guides will escort both scuba divers and snorkellers on a range of dives, from local reef dives for beginners to more challenging day trips all the way out to the magnificent Muiron Islands 20km off the tip of North West Cape. The primary focus of many of these deeper dives is for participants to connect with the larger ocean dwellers. For starters there are whales – and not just one or two: between June and November there’s a veritable passing parade of humpbacks, including many cows with newborn calves alongside. There are also manta rays, dugongs, dolphins, giant potato cod, sea turtles and sharks of many kinds. But the marine migrant that Ningaloo has become most famous for, however, is the whale shark.
Something in the water
With a largest unconfirmed report of 18m in length and an average length closer to 12m, these are not just the world’s largest shark, but the largest fish of any kind – and between April and July they congregate in Ningaloo to feed on some of the ocean’s smallest organisms – microscopic zooplankton.
At this time, visitors from all over the globe head to Exmouth just for the experience of snorkelling alongside these gentle giants. Most people opt to utilise the services of local dive companies, which employ spotter planes to cruise the wild blue yonder, searching the wild blue below for the nearest beasts.
Those sharks that are found are destined to spend much of their day accompanied by half a dozen observers that shadow the big fish like human satellites around a piscine planet. For snorkellers and nature buffs, this is quite simply as good as it gets.
Other tourists are drawn to Exmouth by the unparalleled sports fishing. Outside the reef, anglers troll bibbed lures or plastic skirts in the hope of inducing a smashing strike from one of the pelagic hooligans that patrol the deep. Silver speedsters such as sailfish, Spanish mackerel, tuna and wahoo abound here and are especially active in the warmer ocean currents of September to March.
Be warned, though: this is no place for the fainthearted. These powerful fish have a nasty habit of exploiting the slightest weakness in rod or reel and humiliating ill-prepared anglers. Inside the reef there’s more sedate but still excellent fishing for queenfish and spangled emperor, while in places land-based anglers cast and retrieve surface poppers the size of coke cans in the hope of attracting a line-stretching giant trevally. The briny here is Shark City, though, so don’t be tardy getting your catch in or you’ll soon lose it to the Razor Gang.
Game fishing can be undertaken by chartering one of the ridiculously luxurious big game boats operating out of Exmouth. Such expeditions offer a premier, all-expenses-paid angling experience. As with diving, there are local daytrips to renowned hotspots or extended trips further afield (even overnight). The best boats can be pricey, but it’s a great way for anglers to experience the very best the region has to offer.
Anglers on a budget are more likely to book a spot on a reef-fishing expedition. Those who partake in the cattle-boat caper will be rewarded with a great day on the water and a feed of fresh reef fish at a price that won’t break the bank – even if you’ll have to share the experience with ten or 20 others. Another option is to hire a boat and skipper it yourself – there are launching facilities at Exmouth, Bundegi and Tantabiddy on the west coast. Out from Tantabiddy, the route through the treacherous reef is known as the North Passage. Here there are spectacular views of the ocean swell smashing against the outer edge of the coral. The mountainous waves rear skywards like gigantic white horses, their frothy manes lingering momentarily in space before being whipped away by the wind. It’s an awesome display of the power of the ocean and a reminder not to get too close.
Exmouth itself is a small settlement located around 1300km north of Perth. It has only 3000 permanent residents and, to be honest, could be considered an unremarkable township if not for its proximity to the reef. It’s situated on the eastern shore of a large peninsula, adjacent to the calmer but less spectacular waters of Exmouth Gulf. The town centre is set well back from the sea and consequently doesn’t really have the nautical feel of other beachside towns (although the recently constructed marina is sure to help). What Exmouth definitely does have, however, is that relaxed, amicable atmosphere of a holiday town. It seems almost everyone here is on leave and the pervading good mood is highly contagious. Throw in a couple of excellent watering holes where holidaymakers mix seamlessly with locals and you’ve absolutely no excuse to be grumpy in these waters.
Make no mistake, though: whichever way you hold the map, Exmouth and Ningaloo are a long way away from nearly everywhere. In fact, if you were to mark an “X” at the spot on a map of Australia that was as far from the major centres of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane as possible, you’d end up pretty close to Exmouth. But don’t be deceived by the distance; this isn’t some rundown, rough-as-guts holiday destination. It’s admirably set up for visitors, with all the shops and facilities you’ll need as well as medical and mechanical assistance on hand. For the most part the lodgings don’t stretch to what you might call luxury, although this is also changing with the development of plush villas near the marina. Nevertheless, there are a range of clean and comfortable hotels, hostels, chalets, cabins and campsites to choose from. There are also stacks of holiday houses available for short-term rental – including ex-Navy houses complete with cyclone-proof concrete roofs.
The road to Exmouth, although long, is good; the waves of Sundowners and Grey Nomads who travel there in motorhomes or towing caravans are proof of that. Flat stretches of bitumen leading all the way from the western capital are punctuated with regular roadhouses at which to revive the driver. It’s easy travel, even if you’ll need to be patient – the trip takes around 13 hours from Perth (money-rich, time-poor travellers could choose the more convenient but less adventurous option of flying to Exmouth with Skywest).
So what are you waiting for? If you love the liquid and the creatures that lurk in it – and you don’t mind hiking a bit to get there – you definitely won’t be disappointed with Exmouth. Mark it on the map as a priority holiday spot. There it is, over there, high up on the left, on the very edge of the other side.
There are two main outlets servicing whale shark experiences, one at Exmouth and the other 50km south at Coral Bay. Both offer day-long, all-inclusive shark spotting boat tours for a little over $300 per head.
Seeing the sharks
Exmouth Diving Centre
WHERE: Payne Street, Exmouth
PHONE: (08) 9949 1201
Ningaloo Reef Dive
WHERE: Shop 8, Coral Bay Arcade, Coral Bay
PHONE: (08) 9942 5824
DETAILS: Exmouth and Ningaloo
Best months to go: April to as late as August for whale sharks, June to November for humpback whales, September to March for fishing.
Most underrated aspect: Plenty of space between tourists – you’re sure to find a beach to yourself.
Most overrated aspect: The township of Exmouth is actually a 30min drive from the reef.
Be prepared for: The WA govt has locked anglers out of 25 percent of the Ningaloo Marine Park.
Watch out for: Marine life nearly everywhere you look.
Best value encountered: Renting a holiday house for a week covers six people and costs just over $100 each. Contact Exmouth/North West Cape Real Estate on (08) 9949 4400 or via www.exmouthcaperealestate.com.au.
Contacts: For general info about the region, check out the Exmouth Visitor Centre on 1800 287 328 or via www.exmouthwa.com.au.