The Ningaloo Reef

Have you ever been to the Ningaloo Reef on Australia’s west coast? Oh. My. God. It is so beautiful. Crystal clear, turquoise water? Tick. Outback canyons and ravines? Tick. Lots of coral? Yupp. Heaps of different fish? Yes. Mega fauna like whales, whale sharks, turtles, sharks and rays? Lots! Scuba Diving? Yep. Snorkelling? Heaps. Playing golf? Yupp. Taking to the air in a micro light? Even that! Swimming with the biggest fish in the world? Can do! Fancy restaurants serving delicious food? Mmmhhhmmm… yes!

Whether you prefer to be on the ground, in the water, in the air or in a reclining chair by the pool – Exmouth and the Ningaloo coast has it all. What a place.

Whether you want relaxation or adventure – it’s all there, and Pete and I had a good mix of both this last week.

Writing this I feel like a tourism bureau promoting the region but rest assured – the Greenie of the Outback remains fiercely independent 🙂 I feel I would do humanity injustice if I didn’t tell my story of the wonders of the Ningaloo Reef.

Pete and I had four full days in Exmouth and we made sure to make the best of it. Hot Tip: If you’re silly and naive like us and don’t look up the school holiday calendar and happen to be in Exmouth during the school holiday week leading up to Easter, do yourself a favour and pre-book your accommodation, your activities and make sure you reserve a table for dinner. A couple of times we casually strolled to our chosen place of dinner, thinking that a table for two should be easily found, only to be asked to come back in an hour as every table was currently taken by families or Germans. I reckon families and Germans made up about half of Exmouth’s population during our week there (and yupp, I contributed to those stats :)). A lot of Germans seem to have come to Exmouth during their travels and have decided to stay and run restaurants or hotels. I must admit I may have had a couple of moments where I asked Pete why I had to meet him in Meekatharra and why he couldn’t have been in Exmouth – I might have turned out to be one of those perfectly tanned, salty locked sun bleached blonde beach haired, perfect humans that seem to inhabit the town. Instead my white sneakers are a light shade of red thanks to Meeka’s red dirt and my family in Germany always ask me “don’t you live in Australia? We are browner than you!” not realising that Meeka’s summer is stinkin’ hot and you go from indoor aircon to indoor aircon, and the winters (thanks to the easterly winds coming off the desert) are actually cold enough to make you wear long sleeves. The tanning-without-burning-and-developing-skin-cancers opportunities in Meekatharra are rather scarce. But, the beauty is that Meeka is only about 13 hours drive from Exmouth which is a long day in the car but it’s do-able and means I might just pop back over there one day (good idea, Lucy?!) 🙂

Okay, hands up: who has ever swum with a shark? Who has ever swum with the biggest fish in the sea? Who has ever been only 3 metres away from a 9 metre long shark? Me me me!!!!! It was AMAZING! Yes! I swam with a whale shark! The Ningaloo Reef is one of the best spots in the world for swimming with whale sharks as they reliably come back every year. And not only did I swim with one, or two, but with three and then with all the exhilaration I lost count. We found about half a dozen of these big spotty fish and took turns hopping into the water when they were close enough. This was so cool.

The beauty is that they are totally harmless as, although they are sharks, they are filter feeders like a lot of whales, meaning they filter krill and plankton out of the water. They do have teeth but they’re only tiny and are certainly not used to consume humans. Their mouths can get up to a metre wide but I think no child has ever been inhaled and swallowed.

It was just incredible to be in the water, looking around and then suddenly this massive creature just appears out of the blue (literally) and just swims past you, not seeming to care one bit about you being there. Once we even had to quickly get out of its way because it was just continuing straight on, never minding the humans bobbing in the water in front of it. And then you just swim along with it (well, that sounds easy, they actually put on a decent speed!) and eventually you get tired and drop back, or the shark does get sick of his newly found entourage and uses its well developed deep diving skills to just change course into the dark abyss below, and – woosh – it’s gone as quickly as it appeared.

Wow.

If you’re going to the Ningaloo coast and you’re interested in swimming with Whale Sharks I can very much recommend 3 Islands (website here). Once again, I don’t get any benefit for recommending them but I just thoroughly enjoyed my experience – from the knowledgeable and fun (and perfectly tanned and fit) guides, to the focus on whale shark well-being, the care of the reef environment, planting trees to offset carbon, the smooth and well-planned trip all around, and the scrumptious lunch, oh, and the brownies.. Oh the brownies… 🙂 Everything was great and it’s totally worth it.

They also took us for a snorkel inside the lagoon which was just gorgeous. I don’t think I’ve ever been in water this crystal clear. I mean, hey, I’m from the brackish Baltic Sea with visibility of approximately 30 centimeters. So to jump into the water and suddenly see 20 metres into this wondrous water world was an experience to behold. The water was a balmy 30 degrees Celsius (once again, Germans are used to flocking to the beach when water temperatures in the Baltic Sea hit their annual high of 19 degrees…). Due to an influx of red bell jellyfish (it even made the news) and another species of even more dangerous jelly fish that had a few people flown out by the Royal Flying Doctor we wore stinger suits to protect us from the painful sting they can inflict. Now all we had to worry about was not swimming head first into one of them. You gotta love Australia.. “Hey! Let’s swim with the biggest shark there is! Oh, there are dangerous jelly fish? No worries mate, just chuck on a stinger suit and she’ll be right. Just try and dodge’em with your face.” Yeah thanks. Lucky for us though our skipper skillfully located a spot with fewer jelly fish and away we went.

A sting ray

A sea horse!

To explore the under water world further I booked a scuba dive. I LOVE scuba diving! Submersing yourself in this ‘other’ world (although it is totally part of our world) is an all-engulfing experience. All your senses are heightened and you are totally in the moment. All you think about is the fragile coral around you, the beautiful fish, your dive buddy, the remaining air in your tank, equalising your ears and the beauty that surrounds you. The sun light streaming in, the coral waving in the surge, the little fish darting in and out of their protective homes, the weird and wonderful underwater landscapes built over decades and centuries and millennia. The air comes reassuringly easy, your fins gracefully move you forward and your mask sits firmly on your face and provides a window into this aquatic world. We went to a couple of dive sites around the Muiron Islands, north east of the cape. The visibility was not the greatest for Australian standards but it was still about sixteen times better than the Baltic Sea 🙂 We saw different fish, heaps of coral (wow, some of them grow huge! Metres across!), colourful nudibranches, sea urchins, a Wobbegong Shark resting in its safe cave and a Tawny Nurse Shark darting right through our group like a cat dashing from one hideout to another. It was about 2.5m long (in my expert estimation. Who knows. It might have been only a metre long but it dashed along right in front of me and in my wide-eyed excitement all I could do is point my finger and make a ‘woaaaahh’ sound into my second stage which would have resulted in lots of bubbles coming from my face.) It was so cool.

I love exploring these different environments. There is so much more to our planet than our daily road to work and our couch and our local park. There are wonders out there! There are creatures that we know hardly anything about! There are creatures out there that hardly anyone has ever seen and that are not identified or named. This is so cool! There is so much to explore and discover. Scuba diving for me totally re-awakens the inner child that looks around with wide-eyes making incoherent bubble noises marvelling in the diversity that exists on this planet. Unfortunately, in that short split second of excitement I managed to turn my camera off before hitting the shutter so I did not capture this highlight of my dive in a photo, so you will have to put up with still standing and easier to photograph coral:

And then Pete and I did something that neither of us had ever done before: we took to the skies in a micro light. Hell yeah! It looks a bit like a moped strapped to a hang glider and probably originated in someone doing just that some time ago. It is SO much fun! And if you go flying in a location like the Ningaloo Reef and the Cape Range National Park you will be once again blown away by what nature can create. Ravines and canyons that snake their way through a brown landscape, crevices that feather out like trees with ever thinning branches, and then the turquoise waters of the reef followed by a long thin line of white where the deep blue Indian Ocean hits the coral reef. Flying in an agile little aircraft with your body pressed into the seat during tight spirals, listening to the wind in the ears, feeling the breeze zoom around your fingers stretched out wide into the wind, letting your eyes wander over the various colours and facets of this unique and beautiful landscape – this was a buffet for the senses. We were in very capable, experienced and professional hands when we got in the machines with Gavin and Pete of Birds Eye View (website). Once again I am more than happy to recommend this company as they do a bloody good job. Not only are they masters of their trade and know how to handle the machine we trust our lives in but they also are a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the area, the reef and its marine inhabitants. And: they have fun. You can really tell they love their job and are more than happy to share their passion and skills and surroundings with keen visitors. And who knows? You might get so hooked you want to go on and become a pilot yourself. (No Pete! No! Skydiving is crazy enough of a hobby for you!) 🙂

Where the Ocean meets the Reef

When they promote ‘mega’ fauna they do mean mega fauna. Mega big enough for the human eye to spot them from 500-1500ft up in the air. We saw half a dozen whale sharks, turtles, a dugong, a shovelnose ray and a hammer head shark. Seeing a hammer head shark was so cool!

Dugong

A Hammer Head Shark

A Shovelnose Ray

A Whale Shark

 

We had a memorable time and I definitely want to go back there and do more snorkelling (hopefully without red bell or irukandji syndrome inducing jellyfish). This spot of the earth absolutely deserves to be the World Heritage Site and national park that it is. The residents of Exmouth do a great job promoting this place and letting us visitors explore this environment responsibly and respectfully. I am very grateful I got to experience this with all my senses and hope that you, my dear reader, get to go there too one day if you haven’t been there already.

I even took some video footage both under water and from the air, but I wouldn’t call myself a good videographer yet. It might give you an idea of the underwater and above water world though 🙂

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