THE wonderful thing about Western Australia’s World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef, apart from its crystalline waters, breathtaking marine life and year-round glorious weather, is its easy access.
Unlike the Great Barrier Reef on Australia’s east coast, to which you must travel by boat or plane, the lesser-known Ningaloo is one of the world’s longest fringing reefs – those found so close to the shore that you can walk, swim, dive or kayak straight to them. From vast stretches of white sandy beaches you can find yourself on the rainbow coloured reef in just a few minutes.
An hour’s flight north of the buzzing city streets and urban beaches of cosmopolitan Perth is the remote township of Exmouth on Western Australia’s north-west coast, in an area dominated by four intense natural colours: the deep ochre desert landscape, the turquoise waters, the white sand beaches and a piercing blue cloudless sky.
I had come to this town full of marine enthusiasts to sample part of the new multi-day kayaking trail, which is the brainchild of Ray De Jong, Co-ordinator of the Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW) for the Exmouth district. His passion for kayaking and exploring the Ningaloo Reef in an environmentally friendly way drove his plan to develop kayak moorings along the reef and marine park, with an opportunity to camp at special catered sites and then continue paddling the next day. Starting at Bundegi Reef in the Exmouth Gulf, the trail then wraps around the tip of the peninsula and continues 155km south towards Coral Bay on the Indian Ocean.
“The first steps in creating the grand scale kayak trail launched with 10 moorings, which have provided somewhere to paddle out to, tie up kayaks and jump into the pristine warm water to snorkel on this unique reef,” says De Jong, who wants to see the trail eventually extend along the entire 300km long reef.
Leaving Exmouth, I drove the 155km south to the beautiful, fish-rich waters of Coral Bay, a small yet lively settlement in the shire of Carnarvon. Here I met Cory Hann, founder and head guide of Ningaloo Kayak Adventures, which runs popular ecological reef tours. You can hire a stable sit-on kayak and paddle the reef by yourself or join one of his guided tours. You don’t need to be an expert kayaker, but should be a confident sea swimmer.
The plan was to spend the next four hours paddling to different moorings too far out to swim to. First was the Ashos Gap mooring, a large black floating ball with “Kayak Mooring” in large white letters, 400 metres away. There we slipped into the bath-warm water and thousands of fish filled my view: neon damsel and pink anemone fish swam by, while boldly coloured parrotfish nibbled at living coral.
Ashos Gap is known for its busy shark cleaning station. With mouths wide open, sharks swim low over a huge dome-shaped rock known as a bommie and the small cleaner wrasse fish that live inside swim up and into the shark’s mouth to clean it of parasites – a sort of “swim-through” dental hygienist for sharks. I watched, mesmerised, with my face in the water as around 25 reef, whitetip and blacktip sharks swam over the bommie with their open mouths. Their sheer number was intimidating, but I soon realised they had no interest in me. Next we paddled to another mooring called the Maze, where we swam with a green turtle for almost 20 minutes before it got bored and swam away.
Early evening brought another turtle experience at the Jurabi Turtle Centre 13km from town. Between November and April, threatened loggerhead, green and hawksbill turtles come to Exmouth’s beaches, hauling their bulky bodies over the soft sand beach in search of a safe place to lay their eggs.
The centre, run by volunteers, offers an insight into the life cycle of these ancient animals and the challenges they face, and during nesting season it runs educational talks on how to observe them with minimal disturbance. A non-invasive nocturnal walk to view the turtles coming to shore to nest took us to the deserted Jasnz Beach, where we “stopped, dropped, and acted like a rock” so as not to disturb the incoming creatures. Sitting in the damp sand we focused on one creature as she hauled her body up the beach then, using her fins, dug a deep hole and laid more than 100 shiny, ping pong ball eggs, before covering them with sand and returning to the sea. It was a magical experience.
From January to April, you can see the result of the turtles’ efforts, as their unaccompanied hatchlings burrow their way out of the sand and head to the water.
After an energetic aquatic day, I was ready to eat, and there’s no shortage of fish and seafood in Exmouth’s restaurants. I dined at the popular Mantaray restaurant at the Ningaloo Novotel, where I devoured their chilled Exmouth king prawns with spiced avocado, followed by local snapper fish. Other eateries include Pinocchio’s Italian restaurant, where juicy, homemade, wood-fired pizzas and Italian dishes, including specialised smoked meats, are served. The Deck @ Potshot is a casual place where locals and visitors mingle over cold beers and bar food.
The following day I was up early to go scuba diving with Ningaloo Whaleshark-n-Dive. It also operates snorkelling day trips to see vast and placid whale sharks, the largest of all fish, which come to Exmouth’s shores between mid-March and September.
Our dive began with a two-metre jump into 14 metres of clear water. As I leapt, a group of squid passed close to the surface. Then I descended into the depths and immediately found myself among a beautiful swirling mass of bigeye trevally fish swimming in a vortex like a silvery underwater tornado down through the pier’s barnacle-covered structure.
A big, friendly grouper swam past, followed by a long, black sailfin catfish, which is unique to the Ningaloo Reef. Grey reef sharks lay on the sandy seabed and, incredibly, a shy and well camouflaged wobbegong shark swam right to me.
Swimming so close to the marine life on this miraculously unspoilt reef is really special and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better ocean experience than at Exmouth.
• Hotel: Novotel Ningaloo Resort
• Park: Department of Parks and Wildlife
• Kayaking: Ningaloo Kayak Adventures, Robinson Street, Coral Bay, 6701 (www.ningalookayakadventures.com.au)
• Diving: Ningaloo Whaleshark-n-Dive
• Getting there: London to Perth: Emirates operates 16 daily services from the UK to Dubai and beyond, which includes three daily flights from London Gatwick and two from Glasgow. London to Perth (via Dubai), from £721 return, Glasgow to Perth (via Dubai), from £754 return. To book call +44 844 800 2777 or online via www.emirates.com.
Virgin Australia Perth to Learmonth Airport, Exmouth, from around $404 in June (www.virginaustralia.com.au)