Ningaloo Reef: The Other Great Australian Reef to See (and Save)
Visit the beautiful, heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef, but tread carefully.
March 06, 2015
in partnership with
Ningaloo Reef is the only large reef in the world that you can access straight off the shore. Whether you’re lazing on the sand in Exmouth or Coral Bay, all you have to do is slip on your snorkelling gear, paddle out a few metres and, within minutes, you’ll be hanging out in dazzling coral gardens, along with dolphins, turtles and manta rays.
You’ll find the UNESCO heritage-listed wonder 1,200 kilometres north of Perth, from where it runs north along the coast for 260 kilometres, between North West Cape and Red Bluff. Like the Great Barrier Reef, its fragile environment is under constant threat — from both development proposals and excessive tourism. Here's your eco-friendly guide to spending time in Ningaloo, while treading carefully. For the best prices on flights and accommodation on the WA Coral Coast, check out Wotif.com.
SWIMMING WITH WHALE SHARKS
Ningaloo is most famous for the hundreds of mammoth-sized visitors that come around once a year — between April and July. Even though they’re called whale sharks, they’re so gentle you can swim alongside them. And they also happen to be the biggest fish in the world. In few places do they gather in big crowds, but when you have 18 metres of body to feed, Ningaloo’s plankton feasts are hard to pass by.
To swim, snorkel or dive with whale sharks, book yourself into a day tour. Needless to say, we don’t want to bombard them with strangers, so tours are tightly controlled, with only ten people allowed to hang about each creature at a time. If you happen to be in Exmouth between 21 and 24 May 2015, you’ll be right on time for the Whale Shark Festival.
HUMPBACKS, TURTLES AND DUGONGS
Whale sharks aren’t the only underwater life seeking out Ningaloo’s culinary abundance. Where other habitats have been over-fished and stripped of their diversity, Ningaloo is still thriving (so far). 30,000 humpback whales breach and spout their way past between June and November, on their 11,000 kilometre journey from Antarctica to the warm breeding grounds just off the Kimberley. Minke, southern right and blue whales pop by frequently, too. Excellent spots for whale watching include Exmouth’s main beach, Bundegi Beach and Vlamingh Head, but if you’d like to get closer, join a whale watching tour.
Then there are dolphins, manta rays, one thousand dugongs and Jacques Cousteau knows how many fish. Six of the world’s seven marine turtle species call Ningaloo home, four of them vulnerable or endangered, and the reef is one of the most important nesting grounds on the planet for green and loggerhead turtles. To watch hundreds of hatchlings making their dangerous dash to the sea, you’ll need to visit between November and February. The breeding process is incredibly delicate, so you’re asked to follow the guidelines outlined in the Ningaloo Turtle Watchers’ Code of Conduct, which you can pick up from the Exmouth Visitor Centre, or join a tour.
PROTECTION AND PRESERVATION
Back in the 1960s, the WA branch of the Australian Marine Sciences Association recommended that Ningaloo be turned into a marine reserve, but it wasn’t until May 1987 that their suggestion was realised, and not until November 2004 that the park boundary was expanded to incorporate the entire reef. At present, 34% of the reef is made up of protective sanctuary zones.
Regardless of such legislation, however, Ningaloo hasn’t been immune to threat from developers. In 2003, a plan to build a 2,000-bed resort at Mauds Landing was rejected, largely thanks to the Save Ningaloo Reef Campaign. Then, in 2010, sustained opposition successfully defeated a proposal to develop a salt mine in Exmouth Gulf.
Now, the focus is on ensuring that development of, and tourism in, the area happens along sustainable lines. If you’re visiting, be sure to opt for eco-friendly activities and choose ethical tour operators.
Concrete Playground Trips
Book unique getaways and adventures dreamed up by our editors