Ningaloo Reef Overview
- Dune-backed beaches, reef-fringed sea
- Coast Life
- Weighty whale shark watching
The tourist hordes may head for Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef, but those in the know are talking up Ningaloo – a remote yet ravishing reef off the coast of WA where you can swim among rainbow fish and psychedelic coral just metres from shore.
No boat trips or long schleps are necessary here: just swim, snorkel or kayak out, and the madly beautiful underwater world is yours for the taking. The Ningaloo Marine Park stretches for 280 kilometres south along the North-West Cape, flanked by national park and edged by white-sand beaches and a dramatic desert hinterland of classically Aussie red crags and gorges. It couldn’t be more of a contrast with the vibrant aquatic life offshore. To top it all off, this is the best place on earth to see, and swim with, whale sharks, gentle giants which are the world’s largest fish.
Naturally Ningaloo ReefWhale sharks are the big attraction here; they love to chow down on the spawning coral along Ningaloo’s coastline. These slow-moving beasties may seem intimidating because of their size: they can grow up to 12 metres in length and weigh about 18 tonnes, plus they have a huge mouth, around 1.5 metres wide. Like whales though, they’re actually harmless filter feeders who eat plankton, algae and krill – but not humans. In fact, they’re happy for you to swim alongside them. The whale sharks may be headline news here, but the coral is pretty amazing, too, with over 200 species of fantastically formed hard coral, which spawn during March and April (hermaphroditic branches ejecting eggs and sperm into the water). You don’t see that every day.
- This ain’t NYC, so don’t expect to hail anything other than passing fish. Transport chez Ningaloo is on a BYO basis, so hire a car or contact Exmouth Visitor Centre (www.exmouthwa.com.au) to join a tour.
- Tipping culture
- Tipping is optional – and certainly isn’t expected. However, it is customary to tip waiters 10 per cent of the bill if you’re pleased with the service. There's no need to tip for any organised group tour, on or off the water, but you might want to give a private guide some extra monetary love.
- Siesta and fiesta
- This is outback Australia. Most shops will keep a nine to five regime, and may just open on Saturday mornings if you're lucky. Bars and restaurants, such as they are, may close up by 9pm or 10pm if things are quiet.
- Packing tips
- Your best bikini/trunks, mask, snorkel, goggles and an underwater camera. You’ll be doing most of your socialising under water, with mainly marine life to impress.
- Recommended reads
- Whale Sharks: The Giants of Ningaloo Reef by Geoff Taylor will help you bone up on this ridiculously cool creature, which is solitary, speckled and feeds on plankton through its mega-wide mouth. If Ningaloo had book clubs, this tome would be in constant rotation. Alex Garland’s Thailand-set The Beach may be an oldie, but it’s still the most gripping novel about escaping to a mythically amazing beach we know (although a paradise that turns sour).
- on fresh fish and shellfish, especially locally caught prawns and rock lobster. On the drinks side, look out for Chapman Valley Wines – Western Australia’s most northerly winery, mind you, it’s a 10-hour drive south of Ningaloo.
- Australian dollar (A$).
- Time zone
- GMT +8 hours.
- Dialling codes
- Australia country code: +61; Exmouth, and all Western Australia: (0)8.
- Do go/don't go
- It’s warm and sunny year-round, with slightly cooler temperatures from July to September (22–32ºC) and things hotting up from January to March (32–38ºC). The Indian Ocean here stays a peachy 24–26ºC. Visit in March and April to catch the coral spawning or between April and July to see the whale sharks.
Don't go home without...
snorkelling at Turquoise Bay; if you walk south along the beach and swim out about 40 metres you can drift with the current over the coral and fab fish before hopping out at a sand bar and pressing repeat (always check for rips first though).