Stepping off the plane at the small airport of Learmonth we were greeted by a warm breeze, which was accompanied by the most amazing smell of dry, hot wood. We had landed in Exmouth, a place that enjoys around 320 days of sunshine a year. This day was no different; it was only 7.30am yet the temperature was making its way up to the high thirties. It was going to be a holiday of sun, sea, sand, snorkeling and muchos suncream.
Where and what is Ningaloo Reef?
Ningaloo Reef is located in the north west coastal region of Western Australia. It is a World Heritage Site that is recognised as one of the planet’s last great ocean paradises and is referred to as one of Australia’s best kept secrets. Ningaloo is one of the largest coral reefs in the world encompassing 5355km of ocean and can, unlike most reefs, be accessed straight off the beach. It is home to over 220 species of coral and 500 species of fish, many being endemic to the area. Basically, the pristine waters of the Coral Coast teem with aquatic life- we couldn’t wait to get in the water!
Getting around the Coral Coast
You will need a car if you want to make the most of your time here, as places are really spread out! We rented a car from Learmonth Airport but had to plan our trips well, as we were limited to the number of kilometres we were allowed to drive it.
It is rather surreal travelling around this area – the landscape being how I had always envisaged Australia to be. The land is flat, dusty and covered with bright red soil, low lying trees and hundreds upon hundreds of odd shaped termite mounds. The road stretches as far as the eye can see and you soon understand why people can fall asleep or choose to read a book whilst driving through the outback!
Exmouth – There are lots of different of places to stay that suit a range of budgets e.g. villas, hostels, hotels, campsites and holiday lets. They can be hit and miss – we had a great time staying at the Exmouth Escape Resort.
Coral Bay – Accomodation is limited to two caravan parks, a hotel resort and a few holiday lets.
Beach Days – Cape Range National Park
There are limitless snorkelling sites along the coast and various ways to access them – car, dive boat, snorkel tour, catamaran, glass bottom boat, sea kayak or you can just step off the beach and into the water. We spent our first day doing a beach crawl along the coastline of the Cape Range National Park. You have to pay an entry fee but various passes are available -it was only $12 for a day pass.
It is roughly a 40 minutes drive away from the town of Exmouth. It is known as one of Australia’s best beaches and is among the top twenty beaches in the world. It wasn’t hard to see why with its white sands and the clearest, most pristine water I have ever seen.
I wasn’t a wimp about diving into the water to have a snorkel. Dan usually resors to threats to dunk me under before I agree to immerse myself but the water was extremely warm so it wasn’t a problem! We did the famous drift, swimming out to the reef on the southern end of the beach and letting the current take us north to the sand bar. The colourful coral and fish took my breath away and are a sight not to be missed. It is not so great for babies and children as there are no shaded areas and the tide has quite a pull and gets deep quite suddenly.
The Oyster Stacks
A minute’s drive down the road brought us to five isolated islets that protrude from the reef and are covered with. ..oysters! It is best to check with the DEC office in Exmouth or the Exmouth Visitor Centre for tide charts -it is advisable to snorkel at high tide or you will risk damaging the reef. It was a popular spot but, unfortunately, there wasn’t anywhere comfortable to sit because the shore was covered with jaggered rocks and broken coral and shells. Luckily for us, bub decided to take a snooze other wise it would have been quite difficult. Access to the water was tricky, as you had to lower yourself in via the slippery, sharp rocks. You’ll see that it’s all worth it though once you are snorkeling though!
Our beach crawl ended at Sandy Bay; its shallow waters and shaded picnic areas making it a family friendly beach. There is some snorkeling to be had but it is more a relaxing beach where children can wade out quite far and play without worrying about currents and deep waters. It’s also a popular place for kite and wind surfing, as it is rather windy – be aware of this if you take an umbrella and be sure to wedge it firmly into the sand. Don’t become the umbrella runner that becomes the talk of the beach!
The day before flying back we returned to do the drift at Turquoise Bay before checking out another beach called Lakeside. A very tranquil place with kangaroos and a few snorkeling hotspots – we saw lots of colourful crabs and a range of stingrays. There is a lagoon at the top of the beach, which fills at high tide and then trickles back down to the sea. This was great for bub, as he cooled off and played in the stream.
A note on facilities – all the sites mentioned above have toilets but drinking water is not available and there are no shops. Only Sandy Bay provides shaded picnic areas and Lakeside had lots of trees, which provide natural shade.
Swimming With Whalesharks
Little is known about whalesharks though they are referred to as the gentle giants of the ocean. They are filter feeders who visit Ningaloo Reef every year between March and August.
If you are wanting to go on a whaleshark day tour then it is advisable to book ahead of time, as spaces fill up quickly especially during school holidays. The companies that provide free photos of your experience tend to book up first so we ended up going with Ningaloo Whaleshark n Dive where we paid $60 for a USB of professional photos. At $395 per adult, it is a costly experience but this is a pretty standard rate and leaves you with some fantastic memories.
The price includes pick up and drop off from your accommodation, delicious food for the whole day and all neccessary snorkeling gear including wetsuits and
stingersuits. Whatsmore, we got to spend the day relaxing on a very spacious and modern tourist vessel whereas the other companies apparently use converted fishing boats, which looked rather cramped. See this website for more information-http://www.ningaloowhalesharkndive.com.au
I must say, the crew were extremely friendly, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. They made sure everyone enjoyed their day and we always felt safe in the water – you couldn’t help feeling a thrill of excitement as you threw yourself off the marlin board into the deep and murky water.
So, we saw 2 whale sharks in the morning and spent an hour and a half swimming with them. We also had 2 relaxing snorkelling sessions where we spotted a turtle, a reef shark and various fish as well as unknowingly swimming with a tiger shark (much to the amusement of the skipper when we returned to the boat!). As the plane spotted the whalesharks early on, we were able to spend the afternoon taking a leisurely cruise across the reef where we saw mantarays, turtles, sea snakes and dolphins. This is not always possible, however, as you may be waiting for a long time for the sighting of the whalesharks.
Babies are allowed on board and charges only apply for children between the age of 6-16. We didn’t take bub with us this time, as he spent the day with his Nain (grandma). It would be easier to go with friends and /or family but it would be doable if it was just you and your partner -turnaround would be quite tight so you would just have to accept that you might miss some of the swimming. There would be room for a small stroller on the boat. Also, we got picked up in a minibus and I’m not sure whether they would allow baby to sit in your lap; if they do, I personally wouldn’t be happy to do this considering sudden braking might be required if a kangaroos or other wildlife leaps out in front of the bus. The alternative would be to drive to the launch site to meet up with the group.
An hour and a half away from Exmouth lies the small town of Coral Bay. It is a beautiful place but the main beach, Bill’s Bay,was bustling with people when we arrived -the shaded picnic areas get snapped up pronto. The shallow waters lap at the shore gently and are perfect for children to play in – bub enjoyed lots of splashing around. Coral Bay is Australia’s only fringing reef so, just metres off the beach lies the most astounding underwater garden. It was truly breathtaking and the photographs just can’t do it justice.
It is worth noting that snorkelling, scuba and kayak tours are available in the area along with whale shark and mantaray tours. Mantaray sightings are pretty much guaranteed but whale sharks are not. Also, there is a fish feeding event that takes place daily at 3.30pm at Bill’s Bay. A tour guide gives an informative talk before handing out special fish pellets to the audience. The fish frenzy then begins with spangled emperors bumping into your legs and each other in a bid to get food!
Exmouth – There are two competing IGA supermarkets within metres of each other. The choice of food is good but limited and rather pricey. This is true for baby items too though they do stock a range of nappy brands and on-the-go snacks. Alcohol is also very expensive.
Coral Bay – There is a very small shopping centre that houses a supermarket, bakery, newsagent, post office and a dive shop. It is probably best to stock up in Exmouth before driving down.
A good find for little ones – Exmouth
There is a water spray ground in the town centre with easy access to the shops. It is a great place for little ones to cool off and have fun. Bub really enjoyed the sea life theme!
Favourite places to eat
Blue Lips Fish & Chips – the norwest snapper (spangled emperor) was delicious.
Whaler’s Restaurant – I was dubious at first because it was the on site restaurant of where we were staying. However, the food was sublime and the whole family were impressed and happy with their chosen dish. Again, it is expensive but definitely worth a visit.
It was difficult to leave this magical place and board the plane back to Perth. Dan and I agreed, however, that it would be worth travelling to Australia just to visit this spectacular place. We hope to return one day – when bub is older – and I look forward to spending more time exploring this special place.
Where do you go to reconnect with nature and escape the daily grind?