Ningaloo Reef … Western Australia’s “Great Barrier Reef”
Author – Felicity McNaught
Australia’s ‘other’ great barrier reef, Ningaloo Reef Marine Park off the West Australian Coast, offers encounters of the spectacular kind, ranging from colourful coral spawning and brilliant snorkelling opportunities, to the ‘bucket list’ favourite —swimming with the largest fish in the ocean, the magnificent whale shark. UNESCO World Heritage listed Ningaloo Reef is the world’s largest fringing reef, reaching nearly 20 kilometres seaward and covering 5,000 square kilometres of ocean just off Western Australia’s mid north coast. Even more impressive, Ningaloo Reef’s closest point is within 100 metres of shore, so you can easily slip on a snorkel and come face-to-fin with over 500 species of fish, and glide over more than 250 varieties of coral, just by stepping off the beach. Or, if you’d rather stay dry, glass-bottom boat tours offer a window to this exciting underwater wonderland. Nowhere else on the planet can you access a large coral reef so easily. Ningaloo Marine Park’s incredible biodiversity also includes rare marine creatures such as the Manta Ray, Dugong, Humpback Whale, and Green and Loggerhead Turtle.
Coral Spawning & Whale Sharks
The turquoise waters of Ningaloo Reef transform into multi-coloured clouds each year during the coral spawning season. Night tours from Coral Bay or Exmouth allow visitors to experience up close this incredible natural phenomenon, which occurs between 7 and 10 days after the full moon in March and April, and is a part of the all-important Ningaloo Reef regeneration process.
The coral spawning event is also a major factor in the whale shark’s attraction to the area. At up to 16 metres in length, it’s very rare that these enormous creatures swim so close to shore, but whale sharks visit Ningaloo Reef every year just in time for the coral spawning. Krill and plankton are drawn to the Reef by the spawn and the whale sharks, with mouths over a metre wide purposely designed to scoop up plankton and krill, move in to enjoy the feast. Lucky for us humans, whale sharks are filter feeders and completely harmless, and Ningaloo Reef is one of the few places on Earth where you can swim with them.
To enjoy a magical moment with these amazing creatures fly to Learmonth or Exmouth, or drive to Coral Bay or Exmouth from Perth and join a whale shark swimming tour. In a small group of up to 10 swimmers, you’ll marvel at their enormity, elegance and unique spots and stripes. Coral Bay’s whale shark season generally runs from March to June. The season is slightly later in Exmouth, starting in mid-March and ending in late July, sometimes longer if the whale sharks linger.
If you’re travelling through Ningaloo between June and November you can see another giant of the ocean, the humpback whale, as they make their annual migration between summer breeding grounds in the North West shelf and winter feeding grounds in the Antarctic.
Mother whales with newborn calves usually stay the longest in the waters of Ningaloo Reef Marine Park and travel more slowly so their calves can grow. By the time they reach the Antarctic, the calves have developed a thick layer of blubber to protect them from the extreme cold. Humpback whales can grow up to 19 metres in length and weigh up to 40 tonnes. You can spot them from shore or get up close on a whale watching boat tour from Coral Bay or Exmouth.
Turtle Nesting and Hatching Season
If you miss the whale shark or humpback boat, you can catch the turtle nesting and hatching season when tours run from December to March. Ningaloo Reef and its adjacent islands are a major breeding area for sea turtles. During the breeding season, night tours provide visitors with the opportunity to watch Green and Loggerhead turtles as they make their arduous journey up the beach to lay eggs, or watch the new hatchlings scramble down to the water’s edge.
For the ultimate turtle encounter, join a day tour to the tranquil Muiron Islands and dive or snorkel at Turtle Bay, a nesting sanctuary. The Muiron Islands are nestled in the Ningaloo Archipelago and boast white sandy beaches and warm tropical waters teeming with marine life and complex coral reefs. You’ll find many fantastic dive sites just offshore, with colourful coral gardens at depths of 3-20 metres. Regular day tours to the Muiron Islands depart from Exmouth or for the ultimate in quiet and relaxation, get permission to camp overnight and explore the Islands at a more leisurely pace, lazing on a deserted beach or casting your line in the shallow waters on the hunt for a giant trevally.
Mandu Sanctuary Zone
Located off the Cape Range Peninsula, the protected Mandu Sanctuary Zone provides an excellent opportunity for snorkelling amidst Ningaloo’s stunning corals and abundant diversity of marine life. Oyster Stacks are located within Mandu and its best to time your snorkel or dive experience with the incoming tide to avoid the impressive but sharp Stacks.
Must Do’s at Ningaloo Reef:
1. Be amazed by the abundance of marine life
Jump on a boat and watch the spectacular mass coral spawning in March and April and swim with the imposing but harmless whale sharks between April and June. Watch humpback whales between June and November and see rare turtle species hatch on guided, eco-interactive tours in January and February. Sea kayak from Exmouth and spot migrating whales and visit remote sites teeming with dugongs and turtles. Swim or snorkel in the turquoise waters off Exmouth or Coral Bay and see clownfish bathing in anemone tentacles, lionfish and predatory moray eels on the hunt, as well as hundreds of other species of tropical fish. Unsurprisingly, the fishing in Ningaloo is first-rate, with tuna, marlin and sail fish the prized catches. Remember to stick to the designated beach zones or join a fishing charter.
2. Dive down to get a better view of the Reef
Head to Lighthouse Bay or the classic desert Muiron Islands for spectacular reef diving. Sea creatures of all shapes and sizes will amaze you in the reef sanctuary of Bundegi Bombies, which has shallow waters perfect for entry level divers and snorkelers. More experienced divers can discover the diverse collection of large sponges, gorgonians and sea whips in the sponge gardens at the entrance to the Exmouth Gulf. For a more relaxing adventure, don your mask and flippers and snorkel your way through coral lagoons and gardens in calm, protected Coral Bay and meet graceful manta rays, dolphins and brightly coloured fish.
3. Explore the salty seaside towns of Exmouth and Coral Bay
Hire a car, or join an eco safari or a beach, reef and game fishing tour in Exmouth. Wander the yachting marina and visit the town’s local tavern, as well as cafes, restaurants, boutiques and wine bars. Learn to surf on the gentle waves of Wobiri, catch a left-handed swell on The Bombie or ride the reef breaks at Dunes Beach and Murion and Montebello Islands. In the idyllic seaside town of Coral Bay you can snorkel, swim and feed fish off the beach, do a dive trip, or take a scenic flight over the Reef.
4. Embark on an amazing road trip – Exmouth to Shark Bay
Drive and explore the remote west coast in the company of whale sharks, dugong, manta rays and bottlenose dolphins. Beginning in Exmouth and heading south along the treeless coast, the little-driven highway offers vast outback views before you turn towards Monkey Mia and one of Australia’s most famous interactive wildlife encounters – handfeeding bottlenose dolphins.
For your Ningaloo escape, head for Coral Bay or Exmouth. Flights from Perth get you to nearby Learmonth airport in two and a half hours, or alternatively, you can make the two day drive from Perth, or join an extended tour. April to September is the peak of the tourist season, with temperatures in the comfortable range of 17-31 degrees Celsius. The townships of Exmouth and Coral Bay get extremely busy in the winter months, so bookings are essential. Weather over summer can be brutally hot, but these months are often when the marine wildlife is at its most spectacular.