Swimming with Whale Sharks at Australia’s Ningaloo Reef

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Whale sharks Ningaloo Reef

Located just off the coast of far north-west Australia and stretching over 200km, the mesmerising Ningaloo Reef is one of the country’s lesser known natural wonders. This World Heritage listed region is home to an abundance of diverse and captivating marine life, including more than 500 species of fish, 300 species of coral, and several ray and turtle species. As exciting as these permanent residents are, it’s the temporary visitors that really make this region special – throughout the winter months, dolphins, dugongs, manta rays and humpback whales migrate through the area. And from March to June, the area is visited by the spellbinding gentle giants of the ocean; whale sharks.

It is hard not to compare the Ningaloo Reef to its east coast counterpart, the famous Great Barrier Reef. While the GBR is much more extensive and developed, the remote location of the Ningaloo region greatly increases its charm. The towns of Exmouth, Coral Bay and Carnarvon provide access to the reef and contain a combined population of less than 10,000 people. As well as this, while the majestic outer reef of the Ningaloo can only be reached by boat, the inner reef is just off the shore. This means that, compared with the Great Barrier Reef, the Ningaloo Reef can be accessed easily, with stunning coral living just a short swim from the beach.

Swimming with Giants

Feeding on the large plankton population in the area that follows coral blooming, the Ningaloo region is perhaps best known for its large population of whale sharks that call the area home between April and July. These immense and graceful creatures are the largest fish in the world, and swimming alongside them in their natural habitat is deservedly a bucket list item for many. At their largest, whale sharks can grow up to a massive 18 metres long, but those that visit the Ningaloo region are often younger specimens, usually averaging a still impressive 6 metres.

Whale shark diving and snorkelling tours are offered from both Exmouth and Coral Bay throughout the feeding season. These full-day tours usually begin with a warm up dive or snorkel, followed by a search for nearby whale sharks aided by spotter planes. Once the sharks are located, tour boats speed towards their position to maximise the time spent in the water with these gentle giants. Great care is taken by operators to ensure eco-friendly interactions with the sharks, including a quick run-down of the animals’ expected behaviour and the necessary distance to keep while snorkelling or diving. The whale shark season happily coincides with migrating populations of dugongs and dolphins, some or all of which can usually be spotted on the boat ride back to shore.

Diving at the Coral

Swimming with whale sharks is not the only aquatic activity available on the Ningaloo Reef. With warm, clear water and diverse marine life, the Ningaloo region is a stunning diving destination. Dive trips are offered from Exmouth and Coral Bay and are likely to feature turtles, manta rays, reef sharks, varied and colourful coral species, and a plethora of fish species all-year-round. There are countless dive sites throughout the region, ranging from a stunning shore dive from the Exmouth Navy Pier to dives around the uninhabited Muir Islands 10 miles from the coast. The unique and wonderful sub-marine landscape of this area means that, regardless of the site, any dive in the Ningaloo region is guaranteed to be amazing.

Snorkelling Sites

There are plenty of snorkelling options throughout the Ningaloo region, and, as the reef exists just off the coast in many places, a great snorkelling experience can be enjoyed just a short wade or swim away. The town of Coral Bay hosts two fantastic sites within walking distance of the main street, Bills Bay and Purdy Point. The coral reef starts just 50 metres from the beach at Bills Bay, and houses various large and small fish life and the occasional manta ray. At Purdy Point, a slightly longer swim from the shore, there is amazing sea life, large coral formations, and abundant sea cucumbers, rays and fish to explore. A gentle northwards moving drift occurs at Purdy Point and Bills Bay, allowing for a leisurely and scenic snorkel when entering from the south end of the sites.

Coral Bay snorkelling
Coral Bay snorkelling image: Australia’s Coral Coast Tourism Australia

Further up the coast towards Exmouth, the pristine sands and crystal clear water of Turquoise Bay offers another fantastic snorkelling location. The bay itself has some easy snorkelling over sand and coral bommies, but for a much more rewarding experience, snorkelers can complete the Turquoise Bay Drift. This requires a short walk down the beach and a swim out from the shore, before drifting over vibrant coral gardens filled with colourful fish. Finally, a fantastic site for fish life is Oyster Stacks, a shallow site that should only be visited at high or incoming tide. This site is named for the oyster covered islets protruding from the reef.

Getting to the Ningaloo Reef

The Ningaloo Region covers the western part of a finger of land jutting out from Western Australia, approximately 1,000km north of Perth, the state’s capital city. Regular flights operate from Perth to Learmonth Airport, which is about 40km from Exmouth. Accommodation is available throughout the towns of Exmouth and Coral Bay, from resorts to caravan parks and youth hostels.

The Ningaloo Reef in far north-western Australia is one of the continents less visited treasures. With pristine beaches, endless diving and snorkelling sites, and the opportunity to get up close and personal with colossal whale sharks, there are countless reasons to visit this stunning region

Video credit: Tourism Western Australia, Produced and edited by Spektrum
Main Image Credit: Tourism Western Australia

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