If you’re a diver, you’ve got to make Ningaloo Reef your next trip! Let me persuade you…
Coral Bay was initially intended as just a fly by petrol stop en rout to Exmouth. A prick on the map we wouldn’t have graced if we weren’t rolling on fumes. It’s not much more than a row of shops, a couple of restaurants and a huge caravan park stepped back from soft white sands and clear sea, inviting until you dip a toe! Being the Indian Ocean (and still stubbornly in winter time) the 21 degree water wasn’t quite what I’d grown used to in Asia; the dreaded wet suit would have to be donned before any serious swimming! The Ningaloo Reef (the biggest fringing reef in the world) runs incredibly close to West Australia’s coast, a 20m wade from shore and the sandy floor drops away from you, becoming studded with blooms of coral and rainbows of fish. The blue beyond hosting manta rays, sharks galore, humpbacks and whalesharks!
Luckily Pea had come equip with her own snorkel gear, (but you can hire it right on the beach) so we braved the cold for my first real snorkelling attempt. A fairly adept scuba diver, you’d think I could cope with just a mask and snorkel, but no. Apparently keeping the end of the snorkel above water was far too complex a task for me so I ended up with a mouth full of very salty water (the Indian Ocean has a much higher salt content than most oceans) more than once! The sea is superbly calm and with a wet suit I could have stayed out for hours, but goose pimpled bare skin craved the warm sand, baking my icicle toes back into life in the sun (free of sand flies too!).
We wandered the shops before leaving and found a salty blonde, long haired dude at the end of the beach who took trips out on essentially underwater scooters for $60, very tempting! There is also a leather faced man who seems to resent almost anyone entering his shop as unworthy of the silver jewelry he crafts and sells. Don’t be put off by his pushy, sarcastic comments, the rings and necklaces are stunning and worth a browse. I ended up with a silver ring encasing the swirl of a white Coral Bay shell (Cultivated, the area has quite an eco conscience and he wouldn’t have nicked shells from the reef) which I absolutely adore and will always remind me of this tiny section of coast that stole my heart!
I’d heard that Exmouth was THE place for diving the reef, but impatient to get a mask on, reg in and under the waves we checked out Ningaloo Reef Dive shop before we left Coral Bay. For $210 they offered a day on a boat with snacks, drinks and lunch, two certified dives with all your gear (the reef is so shallow for the most part it doesn’t make a different if you’re open water or advanced) and a ‘manta ray interaction’. That line where the sky meets the sea was calling, so why not, we booked on for the next morning.
There were just the four of us diving with our guide Rachel (a PADI instructor) so the quality of interaction was fantastic with her pointing out Reef sharks, octopuses (occys as the ozzys call them) and a bazillion different fish for us. There are different spots to dive around Ningaloo, the blooms of hard coral around Coral Bay are stoney shades of brown and grey but you don’t have to strain your eyes to find the colour they lack in the fish that swarm the area. The Muiron Islands on the other hand boast a thriving bounty of colourful soft corals with fewer of the small vibrant fish, but more macro life, being further from shore.
Our second dive at Ashos Gap took my breath away. My buoyancy is bad at the best of times so my retained inhalation lifted me higher than desired for the most perfect birds eye view over a forest of narrow branched Coral, intertwined like the fine twigs of noble, ancient woodland canopy. The tips of these corals, straining towards the sun were bedecked in luminescent electric blue gloves. I’ve never seen anything comparable in intricate beauty. Finally I forced my dropped jaw closed, let me breath out, stopping any lung over expansion in its tracks and floated towards the coral feature to have a closer look. In the depths of the maze of branches hundreds of tiny fish claimed protection amongst the shadows. They turned a beady eye surface-wards as my silhouette grazed their peace, darting even deeper into the labyrinth or out towards me in bold defiance of my clumsy intrusion.
Due to the shallowness of the sites (we didn’t exceed 12m) dive times were pretty long, I could have used up a whole hour peeking into that bloom of coral, and yet we hadn’t remotely plundered all the sites treasures yet! A little further on and a rounded bombie the size of a boat erupted like a giant cabbage. We swam closer, and despite having been warned, the first shark that emerged gliding towards us, head tilted back, dagger teeth exposed, terrified me. I was convinced it was a great white! And it was coming directly at me! In actuality it was a reef shark no more than 2.5m. Boy did I feel a fool; a huge increase in the volume of bubbles coming out of my reg was a sure give away to the rest of the group I’d begun to panic! And after I’d told everyone on the boat I’d rather be in a sea full of sharks than next to a single whale! Kicking against the current, we watch the 8 or so reef sharks tilt their heads back and slow their speed right down for the cleaner wrasse give them a good old floss and polish. They had to slow down on the cleaning station for the fish to do their job so we had to stay still and calm in order not to alarm them in their vulnerable state.
However beautiful the coral was, the manta interaction was probably THE highlight of my time in Oz. I entered the water with trepidation. With a chronic fear of whales I assumed the huge form of a manta ray in the water was also going to twist my stomach with fear. We came upon the three mantas right behind the boat; a mating chain of one huge female in the lead (atleast 3.5m across) followed by two slightly smaller males, one missing his tail. They move like ghosts through the water, silent and blind to anything beyond their own wants and needs. Spiraling each other to the surface seemingly just for fun. They were far too beautiful, like a dancer gliding along, it was impossible to be afraid. Their easy movements absorbed our attention totally and before we knew it we’d been paddling behind them for an hour and I hadn’t even noticed my legs tire! We only gave up when a huge Bull Ray about a 1.5m across and heavily pregnant begged us to duck dive for a closer peak!
Heading back to shore both mine and Livi’s dormant scuba addiction had well and truly kicked back into overdrive. We booked on the next morning to dive the Navy Pier in Exmouth with Dive Ningaloo – one of the worlds top 10 dive sites.
The Navy Pier is pretty self explanatory, but as it’s still in use by he US navy there is a lot of security surrounding the site. We were instructed on where was explorable and where was not, and upon entry had to get out of the bus, line up along its flank, remove hats and glasses and have our passports checked by a navel security officer. Those he didn’t like the look of we’re shot at point blank range.
We’d checked our gear at the shop as dive times at the pier are very tight due to the changing tides creating dangerous currents. When the time came there was no time for hesitation at the edge of the 3m drop before your giants stride entry; a good thing as it looked a bloody long way, you hit the water with a bang!
The moment you’re under water it’s obvious how this has reached the top 10; in the top few meters alone you descend through huge schooling pelagic fish – barracuda and traveli – which swarm above you when you look up from the dive site floor. The floor has the variety of an aquarium, Owen (our fire fighting DMT guide) was endlessly grabbing our attention for wobbegong sharks, frog fish, bearded toad fish, huge moray eels, nurse sharks (with their vile teeth in desperate need of braces), sleeping white tip Reef sharks and of course the BFG (big friendly Grouper). One moment I looked down to check my air and when I tilted my head back up there was the BFG milimeters above my head! Easily the size of a human, he is fearless and apparently is always getting in close to the dive groups to satisfy his curiosity!
I had been slightly put off by the fact it’s described as an intermediate dive site, however a guy dived with us (with an instructor) as an intro dive, so don’t be put off. For the most part I believe it’s because of the 3m drop into the water. Good buoyancy is useful as you definitely don’t want to hit any of the Pier structure, for its sake as well as your own and there is a slight current however I wouldn’t describe myself as a confident diver and I had the best time!
Riding back to base the DMTs were raving about a trip leaving the next day to the Muiron Islands with an over night swag stay on the South Island, a protected turtle nesting site where camping permits are given out rarely. At $490 it was a little over budget, but 10 minutes into the journey back to Termite Nests, our beautiful, toilet paper bedecked, free camp site, we’d given in, called back and booked our slots.
7 of us boarded the boat onto rough seas the next morning and a fairly high percentage then proceeded to be sick over the side. We had two dives that day on deserted sites around the Muiron Islands where the huge bombies of hard coral were replaced with vast rock formations covered in bright soft corals and many more of the bigger fish. A surge current pulled us gently too and fro and made for great fun in the swim throughs; struggling hard just against the backwards pull then zooming forwards with the tide. The sandy base of a deep, narrow gorge lead us below a waterfall of fish cascading down the plunging sides. I couldn’t believe how many there were above us seeking sanctuary, layered almost as thick at leaves in a canopy! Not fancying these swim-throughs in the dark and knowing big things were lurking out there I skipped the night dive in favor of a sunset snorkel over the coral reef and a hot shower on the boat before the nights chilly wind fully sank its teeth in.
A little tipsy after our on board BBQ dinner and bubbles we were ferried to the shore of the South Muiron Island where we had earlier set up our swags, hopefully facing against the wind. One of the boat crew was a zoologist and we combed the beach with flickering torches whilst he told me about all the little creatures inhabiting the shells I picked up, becoming more and more infuriated as I called everything a barnacle. Shining the torch on the dunes besides the beach pricked out the hundreds of glinting eyes of the spiders chaperoning our midnight stroll; creepy. Needless to say, the stars this remotely were unbelievable, the spray of the Milky Way as clear as spray paint and I fell asleep with my swag open, trying to remember the stories of the constellations.
We woke to a confused turtle that had come in too late to nest and was making painful progress back towards the rapidly receding morning tide. Watching her haul her great weight against the sand as she baked in the sun was awful but we sat and observed from a distance until she eventually made it back to the water; to have to do it all over again that night!
Breakfast back on board and we plunged in for one more dive on the islands (The Aquarium) before heading landwards for the most incredible dive I’ve been on yet (Labyrinth), just off the coast of Exmouth within sight of the ravaged wreck of the SS Mildura. A huge crayfish, antennae at least a meter long, was entertaining our group when I spotted a lone manta drift towards us whilst everyone was looking the other way. I reached for my sisters hair and pulled it, desperately trying to get her attention but she batted my hand away in annoyance. Frantically I was trying to get everyone to turn around without too much movement and frightening the ray away. Without anything to bang my tank with I resorted to a sharp squeak that I hoped would travel through the water. Everyone turned round, probably fearing I’d been bitten by a shark to have made such an odd noise! Just in time to watch the ray drift away on the current. I am in absolute awe of the creatures and can’t wait to be in the water with them again.
As we pulled up anchor to finally head back to port and commotion at the front of the boat brought us all running to the bow, abandoning our sandwiches. During August to September, Exmouth is in the path of the Humpback Whale migration path (And March to July for the return journey), they often come so close you can see their blows if not their fins from shore. Three huge, barnacle covered backs were bulging from the water less than 10m from the boat. I’ll admit to being fairly terrified, we were on one of the bigger dive boats I’ve been on but I’m sure a breaching whale could off balance it! They lazily flapped a fin at us then dived back out of site, leaving eerily still patches of surface water amongst the waves as the only ghostly proof of their visit.
Exhausted, we returned to find Sweet Pea had baked in the sun and our poor eski had turned into an oven, boiling everything we’d hoped to keep cool! But there was no time for shopping, we had to get far enough on the road to Karajini that we couldn’t just turn round for another day of diving when we woke up with the come down hitting hard. Swapping underwater stories that could only be mimed at the time, we drove away from the first place in Australia that I truly loved and into the dark nothingness of the bush, keeping a keen eye out for kangaroos.
In Exmouth, Dive Ningaloo are an incredible dive school. They currently hold the only permit to dive the insane aquarium that is the Exmouth Navy Pier ($140 for a single dive, $200 for a double) and their overnight adventure to the Muiron Islands is a bucket list adventure in terms of the incredible diving as well as the dream of camping on a deserted island ($490 including 4 dives, tents, sleeping bags and all meals for the duration). Their boat is spacious and very comfortable and the crew are genuinely friendly, I was so sad to leave them at the end of the 3 days we spent diving with Dive Ningaloo.
For Diving Ningaloo I would highly recommend Ningaloo Reef Dive for diving the hard corals of the close to shore reef and for their Manta interaction tours. The group sizes are small and their provided lunch is delicious. $210 for a day on the boat 8.30am to 3.30pm, manta interaction snorkel and 2 certified dives on the reef, including lunch.
(All photos are my own besides the two underwater photos from Ocean Collective Media with Ningaloo Reef Dive)