Exploring the Underwater World of the Ningaloo Reef
By Monica Puccetti
The chaotic world of civilization falls further and further away as the odometer climbs higher. Kilometer after kilometer tick by, seemingly in time with the roadkill. One dead kangaroo, one kilometer was driven.
It’s the strange, wild math of the Australian outback.
The arid, desolate land stretches far into the horizon, giving one the sense that they will forever be stuck in this land of spinifex, doomed to try to survive on a plant even camels refuse to touch.
Glaring at a Bush
I glare at a particularly large bush on the side of the road as if it has personally offended me.
Perhaps it has, after all once one has walked unawares through the horrid plains of spinifex one will forever have a healthy hatred of this plant and its microscopic thorns with a penchant for embedding themselves under sensitive skin.
Grateful for the Gust
Dry wind whips in the open window of our 1999 Land Cruiser Troop Carrier, affectionally named Terrance. My sticky skin is grateful for the gust, but nothing can fight the sweat currently accumulating from my neck to my knees.
We love Terrance and all his old car quirks, but sometimes I do wish we had a working air conditioner.
How much would it cost to fix? I wonder as I stare vacantly out into the bush. A couple hundred at most, ya, we should think about that…
“We’re here!” Kane calls triumphantly, if a little exhausted, from the driver’s seat, snapping me out of my internal monologue.
An Inviting Seascape
In a heartbeat, the landscape has transformed from the endless parched bushland of the west coast of Australia to an inviting seascape of rolling white dunes surrounding a crystalline turquoise bay.
The ocean has snuck up on us. I cannot get to the beach fast enough, practically falling out of our oven of a car in the process. I remind myself it’s not Terrance’s fault his air conditioner is broken and then promptly forget everything except the bay in front of me.
I’ll apologize to the car later, I’ve got snorkeling to do.
Into the Blue
Our first stop is the aptly named Turquoise Bay. A ribbon of fine, snowy sand curves around a bay of clear turquoise water, creating the perfect beach.
This beach has everything, I think to myself as I ditch my sweaty clothes and wade into the shallow water. I soon realize that not only does Turquoise Bay wow from land, but it also awes from beneath the waves.
Schools of inquisitive dart fish flash between our legs as we walk up to the drop-off. The crisp water caresses my body as I dive into the blue, a refreshing break from the winter heat of Northwest Australia.
Spangled Emperors the size of small dogs swim lazily around us, content in the knowledge that this is a marine sanctuary and that they have a very limited chance of ending up as someone’s dinner.
We spend almost an hour floating around the calm right side of the bay, but as the day gets later the wind picks up. The wind is starting to strengthen the already formidable current and we opt to pass on snorkeling the left side of the bay, the famous drift.
The currents in Turquoise Bay are caused by a build-up of water in the lagoon behind the reef that then rushes back out to sea. It is advisable not to snorkel on the sand spit that acts as a barrier between the two sides of the bay and as a funnel out to sea.
However, in good conditions, the left side of the bay, the drift, is considered some of the best snorkeling in the park.
On the Edge of Nowhere
The reef here is part of the Ningaloo Coast, a world heritage area on the west coast of Australia. The Ningaloo Reef is the world’s largest fringing reef and the only reef of its size near any landmass.
This makes the Ningaloo reef one of the most accessible large coral reef systems in the world, easily rivaling the Great Barrier for diversity while making seeing it as easy as wading into the shallow water.
The irony here is that while it is accessible in the manner of entry, one does not need to pay big bucks to take a boat out to the deep reef, it is probably one of the most remote places in the world.
The Ningaloo Coast stretches 300 kilometers and contains 2,435 square kilometers of the protected marine reserve, but it is 1,200 kilometers from the nearest city, Perth, which also happens to be the most remote city in the world.
The only real towns near the reef are Coral Bay, to the south, or Exmouth, to the north. Coral Bay is tiny, a glorified caravan park, and while Exmouth is slightly larger, it still would not register as a town in most developed countries.
The only other human life on the Ningaloo Coast is at the cattle stations that border the reef, the two most popular for camping being Warroora Station and Ningaloo Station.
Driving the Ningaloo Coast
The best way to see the Ningaloo Coast is to drive it, as while there is an airport in Exmouth, flights are expensive, rare, and altogether not worth it.
Most people opt to make the Ningaloo a stop on a larger road trip around Australia because the distances out west are just too large to make a short trip worth it. This is our first big stop on our three-month overland journey from Perth to Darwin.
Part of Their World
The next day we are up with the soft light of dawn, the usual for a night spent in a tent. Groggily, we make our breakfast, grab our snorkel gear, and drive the 60 kilometers back into the park. Today we are headed to Oyster Stacks, a section of shallow reef just off a rocky entry point. One can only snorkel at Oysters Stacks on the high tide, so we stop at the visitor’s center on the way in to check tide times.
We enter the water at 10 am, slightly later than intended as we managed to lock our keys in the car. Thanks to the help of some friendly German backpackers, their tent hook, and Terrance’s less than secure back door we still have time to snorkel before the mandatory exit time of 12:30 pm.
The current pulls us up the coast to the left of the entry point, but we don’t fight it. Instead, we let ourselves drift along on this aqua travelator. Huge parrotfish nibble brilliantly blue coral heads as we drift
overhead. Massive conglomerations of hundreds of different types of fish dart about the stacks of coral that give this stunning site its name.
Clark’s anemonefish play hide and seek while convict surgeonfish swirl above them in ever-changing schools. Blue-spotted rays glide silently through the water, their wings swishing with the grace of an aquatic acrobat. I can’t help but feel like I’ve been dropped into a world-famous aquarium.
As we float along in this world under the waves, I muse over the sheer abundance of life on the Ningaloo Coast. The Ningaloo is home to more than 500 distinct species of fish (reef and pelagic), 300 species of coral, 600 species of mollusks, and the largest congregations of whale sharks in the world (it is estimated that the population is between 300 and 500 from March to June).
This is one of the few places in the world where whale sharks are so common that the dive boats guarantee a swim with these benevolent giants.
Here, on this tiny tip of land on the edge of nowhere, you can swim with massive manta rays, stare down buff kangaroos on the side of the road, spot a shy dugong, be ignored by proud dingos, float in schools of tropical fish more diverse than in any aquarium, and even have a strangely intense moment going eye to eye with a clearly intelligent and clearly pissed off octopus while trying to free it from a fishing hook.
Yet, despite all this, most Australians have never even heard of this reef that rivals the Great Barrier, let alone swum in its diverse waters.
Such a pity, I think as I almost run into a snapper. The meaty redfish darts off and I swear I see it glance back at me, a peeved look in its inhuman eyes. I wonder, do fish complain about the idiocy of tourists?
The Smell of Adventure
Reluctantly, I climb out of the water. The sun is high in the sky, signaling noon and the end of high tide. We pile into Terrance, showering him with salt and sand, and head back to our campsite at the Exmouth Lighthouse Caravan Park. The smell of sunscreen, sweat, and salt mingles with old car smells and I breathe it in like a fine perfume, the smell of adventure.
Want to Go?
There are two main options for visiting the Cape Range National Park section of the Ningaloo Coast, camping in the Cape Range National Park Campground or staying in Exmouth town and driving into the park every day. If you want to stay in the park you need to book in advance on their online booking system.
To book a site go to parkstay.dpaw.wa.gov.au. We stayed at the Exmouth Lighthouse Caravan Park due to its location midway between Exmouth town and the Cape Range National Park. We stayed on an unpowered campsite for $31 AUD per night; this includes the use of all facilities, i.e. laundry, showers, toilets, and camp kitchen.
Call 08 9949 1478 for bookings if you are in Australia or go to www.ningaloolighthouse.com for more information. Exmouth Lighthouse Caravan Park happily accepts walk ups, bookings are not necessary unless you are traveling over school holidays.
Exmouth Airport is the only option to fly into the area, however, most visitors to the Ningaloo drive. If you are an overseas visitor there are many different campervan or caravan rental options, the most common being Britz Campervan Hire, www.britz.com.au, and Maui Campervans, www.maui.com.au.
However, campervan hires can get expensive for long-term travel, such as three months or more, and many backpackers opt to buy a car then sell it at the end of their trip. One good website for used car sales is www.gumtree.com.au. It is important to note that many of the roads in this area are unsealed and 4×4 only.
Cape Range National Park Entry
A day pass to any national park in Western Australia (WA) is $12 AUD and if you are driving in every day you will need to pay the entry fee every day. A four week National Parks Pass costs $44 AUD and can be purchased onsite at any WA National Park. The pass covers unlimited entry to all WA National Parks during a four-week period.
The only services; food, fuel, etc.; are located in Exmouth town. The Cape Range National Park is remote and there is only bush camping available so make sure you bring all food, water, and fuel you need in with you. Prepare wisely.
Monica Puccetti is originally from California. She has gotten lost in 35 countries, writes about her adventures on her website, www.whichwayswest.com, and is currently counting kangaroos somewhere in the outback of Western Australia.