Discover magical Ningaloo Reef

written by Catherine Lawson

turtle sea ocean reef coral beauty planet

Credit: Erin Simmons

Crossing the beach in three easy strides, we dive deep into Turquoise Bay, kicking out over giant coral bombies to join the mesmerising, swirling mass of marine life that colours Ningaloo’s underwater canvas. Scattering parrotfish in our bubble streams, we spook bluespotted stingrays hiding in the sandy shadows and keep pace with solitary green sea turtles that rise slowly from their resting places in lush pockets of seagrass.

On we float, drifting gently in the current that pushes us north over Turquoise Bay’s famously blue lagoon, sandwiched between Australia’s largest and most accessible fringing coral reef and the rugged red canyons of Cape Range National Park.

Where it sweeps closest to the shore, Ningaloo’s 300km-long World Heritage-listed wilderness brings incredible marine inhabitants within easy reach, enabling wondrous encounters with 12-metre-long whale sharks, sea turtles, gently gliding manta rays and, for just a few nights each year, a massive coral spawning.

The reef’s rollcall of inhabitants is undoubtedly impressive and Ningaloo’s year-round calendar of wildlife events creates a huge buzz on the Coral Coast.

On shore, the rugged red canyons of Cape Range National Park extend the adventure, luring bushwalkers and paddlers away from the sea and into chiselled rock chasms carved deep into the range.

Located roughly halfway between Perth and Broome, Ningaloo Marine Park and Cape Range National Park team up to inspire the kind of fun that spans all ages. In an active week, from our base camp on the beach, we paddle our sea kayaks across calm, see-through seas, hike the high trail above Yardie Creek Gorge to watch rare rock wallabies emerge at sunset, and witness the mass mating of green sea turtles while standing awestruck on the shore.

Elsewhere, from Exmouth to Coral Bay, there are lonely surf breaks and nocturnal turtle nesting tours, boat cruises and bird hides, fishing trips and deep-sea dives that all compete for our holiday time. But the easiest way to enjoy Ningaloo’s vibrant underwater world is to simply grab a mask, snorkel and fins and slide into the sea.

On the reef

Nurturing more than 200 coral species, Ningaloo easily boasts the best shore-based snorkelling in the country. Unrivalled and unspeakably beautiful, Turquoise Bay is a top place to start, luring a constant stream of snorkellers who ride the Drift Dive north, floating in the gentle current over reef flourishing exceptionally close to shore.

On our first morning here we eyeball snoozy leopard sharks that sleep through our duck-diving antics and, later, spook timid reef sharks sheltering under rock ledges alive with bright nudibranchs and anemone fish that dart continuously in and out of their soft, sticky homes.

The reef’s rollcall of inhabitants is undoubtedly impressive and Ningaloo’s year-round calendar of wildlife events creates a huge buzz on the Coral Coast. Come March and April, when full moons trigger the annual mass coral spawning, this underwater wonderland becomes food central for fish. Krill and other tiny sea life swarm to Ningaloo Reef to feast on the corals and this fleeting free buffet attracts whale sharks measuring up to a dozen metres long.

Away from the sea, bright orange Sturt’s desert peas bloom on the arid spinifex plains, which we cross at dawn en route to the top of Cape Range for grand ocean vistas.

Swimming with the planet’s largest fish is big business at Ningaloo where spotter planes guide tour boats to the whale sharks and snorkellers pay upwards of AU$400 to swim alongside these gentle giants as they slowly feed close to the surface. The timing of our trip means we miss this bucket-list thrill but, by chance, on an afternoon beach stroll, we reach a tiny blue cove to find the sea thick with mating sea turtles.

They couple together in the shallows, rolling and tumbling in the breakers, before weary females lumber slowly ashore for timeout on the sand before re-joining the fray. This revealing spectacle brings turtles into closer view than I’ve ever experienced at sea and the experience captivates me entirely.

In the weeks and months after the great mating season, those same weary females will lumber ashore for a second time, returning to their birthplaces in the dunes to dig sand nests and lay their eggs. Nesting may continue until February, with tiny hatchlings emerging from their nests under the cover of darkness. This part of the process is more easily witnessed on a guided nocturnal tour with Ningaloo’s Jurabi Turtle Centre. Book through the national park’s Milyering Visitor Centre (AU$20 adults, 3-4 hours) and find out more at ningalooturtles.org.au.

Climbing canyons

Away from the sea, bright orange Sturt’s desert peas bloom on the arid spinifex plains, which we cross at dawn en route to the top of Cape Range for grand ocean vistas. Past spindly bloodwood trees, a favourite trail follows the rocky, ancient riverbed deep into Mandu Mandu Gorge, scaling its rugged northern ridge to spot emus and euro kangaroos from the canyon’s crumbling rim.

Rated Class 4, this excellent leg-stretcher (1.5hr/3km) is best tackled in the cooler hours of the day when wild things are more active. If you pack a torch for the return trip, it also provides especially scenic views of the sun setting west.

The extreme summer heat shortens the time we spend on the opposite side of Cape Range in Charles Knife Canyon, south of Exmouth, although views of Shothole Canyon and the shallow expanse of the Exmouth Gulf make the hike worthwhile. An easy, breezy paddle up Yardie Creek appeals more, luring us in search of well-camouflaged black-footed rock wallabies that stake out rocky ledges on the canyon’s sheer walls.

Beneath towering rock walls we dip our paddles slowly upstream, the silence interrupted by noisy corellas that roost beneath sheltered overhangs.

Holding the only permanent water in the national park, Yardie Creek is a peaceful place and paddling its calm, tidal flow is a relaxing endeavour. Beneath towering rock walls, necks craned to spot the sea eagles that build vast stick nests in caves high above the creek, we dip our paddles slowly upstream, the silence interrupted by noisy corellas that roost beneath sheltered overhangs.

At day’s end, the setting sun throws gloriously golden light across Yardie’s red rock walls and, slowly, dozens of wallabies emerge to feed. If you haven’t brought a kayak with you, the easy walking trail along the high rim of the gorge brings you close to where the rock wallabies rest and Yardie Creek Boat Tours runs hour-long interpretive trips up the creek over winter.

Sandy sheets & sunset views

For travellers happy to forgo daily showers for early-morning drift dives (and that most definitely includes me), you can’t beat the back-to-basics beachfront campsites in Cape Range National Park. Despite the lack of hot showers and freshwater on tap, these rustic nooks are in high demand over the busy winter travel season when caravanners and campers arrive in droves.

With stellar ocean views and access to prime snorkelling sites, boat ramps, walking trails and birdwatching hides, these are some of the most sought-after camps on WA’s Coral Coast — and there are more than 100 different campsites to choose from. If you love to snorkel, try for a spot at Lakeside or North Mandu campgrounds. There are campsites for those relying on generators or wheelchair-accessible toilets, too. If fishing is your game, the camps at Neds, Tulki or Yardie Creek come recommended.

Surprisingly, despite its significant marine park protection, about 66 per cent of Ningaloo’s pristine waters can be fished. As a vegetarian, I’d rather keep the underwater world alive for my snorkelling enjoyment, but anglers might see otherwise. Travellers with a boat in tow can launch at Tantabiddi boat ramp just north of the national park entrance, a favourite haunt of ospreys.

Outside the national park, conventional holiday parks tempt with power and hot showers, but true glampers should look to Sal Salis for the perfect combination of location and luxury with fully catered stays in waterfront safari tents perched on the edge of the sea (salsalis.com.au).

For straight-off-the-beach snorkelling teamed with resort-town conveniences, Coral Bay on Ningaloo’s southern tip provides a convivial base. The tiny town’s ever-expanding cluster of cafes and caravan parks teamed with a dizzying array of guided trips and tours will put your head in a spin — everything from glass-bottom boat cruises and sunset sailing trips to fishing charters and whale shark tours.

Yet the town remains an ideal destination for travellers not ready to abandon their creature comforts. Here, you can step right off the sand to snorkel Bills Bay or Purdy Point’s brilliant coral bombies or take your 4WD or tinny further afield to snorkel Oyster Bridge and the Lagoon.

Wherever you stay along Ningaloo Reef, this west-coast wonderland facilitates some of the most intimate wildlife encounters on Earth. If snorkelling, diving and sea kayaking are your kind of relaxation, you won’t find a more accessible, affordable reef experience anywhere in the country.

Travel routes

Ningaloo lies 1250km north of Perth via the town of Exmouth. National Park entry costs AU$12 per vehicle.

April to June to swim with whale sharks and during summer to encounter nesting turtles.

Camp by the beach in Cape Range National Park (AU$10/adult, AU$2.20/child), glamp at Sal Salis or search visitningaloo.com.au for resort rooms, motels and holiday park cabins in Exmouth and Coral Bay.

Snorkelling gear, fishing rods, surfboards and hiking boots.

Sunset views in Yardie Creek Gorge.

Visit here, here or here.


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Catherine Lawson

Journalist, editor, author and adventurer Catherine Lawson travels full-time with photographer-partner David Bristow and their 5-year-old daughter Maya. Captivated by wild places and passionate about their preservation, these storytellers advocate a simple life and document their outdoor adventures to inspire all travellers, but especially families, into the world’s best wild places.