After leaving the Pilbara, we burned over to the Coral Coast!
Our first stop was Exmouth, the closest town to Cape Range National Park and the northern section of Ningaloo Reef. Exmouth was pretty quiet, although there are a lot of fancy holiday homes with private jetties being built in the area so it looks like it could get quite hopping when all the folks with their own boats show up. As Ningaloo Reef is a pretty big tourist draw, there is a very nice visitor’s centre and cute shopping plaza there. Many people swear that Ningaloo Reef is nicer than the Great Barrier Reef, possibly because it’s less visited thus in better condition and not so crowded.
Exmouth for some reason also has a lot of emus that just comfortably wander around town, seemingly oblivious to the people and cars.
Cape Range National Park
From Exmouth we spent a couple days driving to and from Cape Range National Park. You can also camp in the park, but you definitely have to “rough it” out there, and the caravan park in town had free wifi, so… But anyways, it’s only about a half hour drive into the park and the snorkelling is pretty impressive. The water was shockingly cold at first, as we had gotten accustomed to the almost too warm bathwater oceans of northern Australia, but that didn’t stop us from checking out all 3 main snorkelling areas in the park:
Turquoise Bay: Probably the most popular snorkelling location, Turquoise Bay is a lovely white beach where you can do an easy snorkel in a protected bay, or a harder drift snorkel along the reef. The hard part is mainly making sure you don’t get swept out to sea by the rip tide that forms in between the two areas. We’re pro snorkelers at this point so we did both a couple times.
The drift snorkel area probably has the clearest water of everywhere we snorkelled in Ningaloo, although I think it was also the coldest. In addition to the gazillions of fish, we saw some big turtles, a few reef sharks, and a scary huge potato cod in the area. Yes, I think potato cod are scarier than sharks. even though they have a kind of stupid name.
Lakeside: Lakeside is a sanctuary zone that I will always remember as the place Chris almost drowned himself by getting overexerted while trying to swim out to the zone buoy marker. After he had gotten over that traumatic experience however, we did see a lot of reef sharks there, plus an enormous stingray.
Oyster Stacks: Oyster Stacks was the easiest and also busiest snorkelling area we came across in the park. It’s a very safe and easy snorkel as the reef is protected, however it’s also very shallow so you can only snorkel there on days the tide is high enough. It’s called Oyster Stacks because, as implied, there are a bunch of stacks of oysters there. I was really excited while we were here because after many many tries, I finally succeeding in finding a turtle chill enough that I could take a selfie with it. Meanwhile, after about 10 minutes Chris decided it was too cold and hung out on the rocks. He watched a couple of German backpackers drop their car keys into a deep crack in the rock, but with the help of a small French child’s skinny arms they were able to retrieve them.
We also decided to splurge and spent a day diving with Exmouth Dive Centre up at Blizzard Ridge and Bundegi Bombies. For some reason we both showed up to the dive shop that morning wearing our dive school t-shirts from Amed, which excited our divemaster as he had recently been there and loved it. He warned us that the visibility in Ningaloo would be nowhere as nice as in Bali, but that the reason that Ningaloo is so good for diving is because of the amount and variety of wildlife, which is a result of the less than crystal clear water.
After getting all our equipment we headed out on the boat. There were ten divers plus two divemasters, so we split into two groups. Chris was impressed by the dive company because here you actually set up your own equipment and do a proper buddy check before getting into the water. I have found that after getting certified, a lot of dive companies will just toss you your equipment and be like, “Alright, let’s go!” instead of going through all the proper procedures you are initially taught. Doesn’t really bother me, but Chris likes following protocol, so. Luckily we had recently dived in Amed or else we might have a hard time setting everything up properly.
Anyways, the first dive was a bit of an adventure, as the water was quite rough and there were two Europeans with us who were newbie divers and hadn’t dove in the ocean before (I think they must have learned in a lake?). We ended up spending the first 20 minutes being tossed about on the surface while they tried to get everything figured out. One of them ended up opting out and going back to the boat, the other eventually made it down after about 8 tries. Once we were underwater things went a bit more smoothly; we saw tons of nudibranchs and some black catfish, which are endemic to Ningaloo. We also saw a huge Wobbegong shark, which I was super excited about because they are crazy looking and I have never seen one in the wild before.
Because I have superior oxygen efficiency (WHAT UP), when everyone else in our group ran out of air I still had plenty left, so our divemaster sent them back to the boat together and me and him swam around for a bit more. We saw another cute Wobbegong in our extra time. Sadly I have no pictures from these dives though because we were too busy figuring how to set up our equipment to remember the GoPro when we disembarked the boat.
After the debacle with the surgy water on the first dive, for the second dive we went to the shallower, calmer part of the reef. Everyone made it into the water this time and since it was a really shallow dive (shallower = oxygen lasts longer), no one ran out of air early. We saw lots more nudibranchs, a big stingray, and a huge grouper.
On the way back to the harbour we had some lunch and cookies while we warmed up. The water in Ningaloo is cold!
Mildura Wreck and Vlamingh Head Lighthouse
This part of Ningaloo Reef surrounds a peninsula, and at the tip there is an old lighthouse and the wreck of a cattle ship. It’s a popular place to go to see the sunset (much to Chris’s dismay).
The lighthouse was built because the day before a bunch of officials were to meet to decide where to build some new lighthouses a ship got wrecked nearby (you can still see it there). So that made their decision easy for this area. The people that lived at the lighthouse were basically the only people for miles around, so to supplement the food brought in on camels, they grew their own food, caught fish, etc. Sounded like a pretty lonely existence.
Shothole Gorge and Charles Knife Gorge
On the way out of Exmouth, we drove into Shothole Gorge and Charles Knife Gorge, which are part of Cape Range National Park, but on the non-ocean side. The drives were pretty easy, even though one of them is classified as a 4WD-only road. The gorges have some nice views, but we didn’t do any of the hikes because it was a billion degrees out.
From Exmouth we went to Coral Bay, a Ningaloo Reef “town” further south down the coast. I say “town” because it’s not so much a town as it is a tourist settlement. The only things there are two caravan parks and a resort, plus a bunch of tour companies and a few restaurants and cafes. Coral Bay is also apparently where all the families go to visit the reef, as holy cow was the caravan park full of intense camping setups and kids. It was basically a tent village, with giant 10 person canvas tents everywhere, people with tvs, hammocks, etc. The reef at Coral Bay is much more accessible than Exmouth (basically a five minute walk from any accommodation and you’re at the beach), so I guess this is why it’s more popular.
Bill’s Bay and Purdy’s Point
The main beach area is called Bill’s Bay, with the best snorkelling around the corner at a section of reef called Purdy’s Point. Despite there being tons of people on the beach, the water was actually pretty quiet, I think being due to how cold it is. Ningaloo Reef is not a place you can snorkel in your bikini and not freeze to death. We quickly learned why most of the locals bring wetsuits with them. That being said, the reef surrounding Coral Bay was definitely the most impressive coral I’ve ever seen.
The coral structures are huge and crazy and go for miles, forming “fastastical lanscapes”, as Chris put it. You can swim a kilometre out to sea and still not see any sand. We also got to spend a while swimming with a super chill turtle while we were here, which was a pretty magical time.
There are other sections of the reef you can visit if you are capable enough to drive your car over the sand dunes without getting stuck. We thought about it, but when we went to see what the track looked like we witnessed the (much more confident) driver in front of us get stuck a couple times trying to get over the dunes, so we decided not to chance it. Chris was still a little traumatized by his Cape Leveque experience I think (i.e. remembered that if we get stuck he has to dig us out because I suck at shovelling).
Skeleton Bay Shark Nursery
On the northern end of Bill’s Bay there is a protected area called Skeleton Bay that is also a reef shark nursery at the right time of the year. As this coincidentally happened to be the right time of the year, we walked over to take a look. It’s a bit of a long sunny walk along the shore, but when you get there you can see lots of little baby sharks swimming around in the shallows, which is quite exciting. Sadly you can’t go into the water, because it disrupts the sharks and also they may bite your toes and ankles.
Manta Ray Tour!
Besides the reef, Coral Bay is famous for being home to manta rays year round. As such, we figured we’d better do one of the popular manta ray snorkel tours while we were there. We contemplated diving again as well, but there is only one dive company in the area and the dive spots were already all booked up, so c’est la vie – we snorkelled instead, with Ningaloo Reef Dive.
Anyways, we went out on a boat of other backpackers and families to look for the mantas. We had to wait around for awhile at the start of the day because their bus broke down and they had to get another for us but after that we were away. Our snorkelling guide was pretty attractive and also set the tone for the snorkel when he revealed his free diving skills (diving pretty deep underwater to “check things out” for about 90 seconds). I tried to copy him a couple of times but am not so good. Anyways, during the snorkel we saw lots more crazy coral formations and fish.
After we finished our first snorkel it was time to see some manta rays! There is a long intense procedure that gives the best tourist experience, I guess. They have a spotter plane that flies around and finds the mantas. Then they send the guide into the water and he swims around until he finds the manta. When he sees it be raises his arm and half the boat slips into the water and follows the manta. They follow it around for a bit, then everyone stops, the first load gets picked up, and it is repeated for the second group. And then repeated again and again. Our poor guide had to swim kilometres with one arm raised up the whole time. He also got stung by a bluebottle on his face at one point so then he had to get back on the boat and rinse his lips with warm water. The first manta ray we saw was a bit shy so after a bit we went to another spot where the plane had found another and that was better. We followed it for quite some time, as all the swimming keeps you pretty warm. The second that was complete our guide was back on the boat chopping vegetables for lunch; you think being a snorkelling guide is a great job, but not necessarily!
Our second snorkel was really cool. There are two highlights in that area; the first is a big coral formation where cleaner fish hang out. Because the fish are there, reef sharks like to swing by and get a bit of a spa experience. So there were like 8 reef sharks hanging out there, which is pretty much the most sharks I’ve ever seen at once. We hung out for a short time before the diving group showed up and annoyed the sharks with their bubbles (Fun fact: Sharks hate bubbles, you can use them as a deterrent.). The second highlight is a narrow (1 person wide) gap between two coral formations that form a bit of a rip. It is super fun to shoot through the gap.
The water is pretty cold so people weren’t too enthusiastic to be swimming about for too long, but there really is just a jungle of coral around there and lots of things to see. Our guide even just took off at one point and reappeared a ways off – he was excited because he had never seen a white tipped reef shark in the area we were in at that point before. Once we were all too cold to swim anymore, we had some onboard hot chocolate and headed back to shore.
We were getting pretty snorkelled-out by now, so down the Coral Coast we went!