More Ningaloo plez
We travelled north from Coral Bay to Exmouth to experience more of the Ningaloo Reef. Seeing turtles, dolphins, dugongs, manta rays and whales could only be topped by a swim with the largest fish in existence…the whale shark.
Whale sharks migrate through Exmouth between March and April to take advantage of the mass coral spawning and during the season the success rate for spotting them on a tour is about 98%. The majority of Exmouth’s commercial activity revolves around these big fish, who seem to tolerate the daily invasion of tourists into their waters with good humour, cruising languidly as they are stalked by a tangle of snorkelling yahoos. We’d arrived at the end of the season, when most of the whale sharks had already left but the tour operators insisted that there were still a couple around, so we crossed our fingers and booked on.
An Aussie town with an English name and American roots
Exmouth is a funny old place, if you take away the whale sharks and the reef you’re left with an old American submarine base and still functional VLF radio communication station. You can see the ruins of mini-America just outside of the town centre, with derelict bowling alleys and bars from the 1960s still standing. The Americans stationed at Exmouth even drove on the right side of the road and rented their bowling shoes with US dollars, so they wouldn’t feel too homesick. Rumour has it the Americans are set to return, but for the moment the base is overseen by the Australian Federal Police. They also control access to the Exmouth Navy Pier, which is considered by the lucky few that have done it, one of the best shore dives in the world.
We feel like chicken tonight!
Back at the caravan park we decided to put the Cobb cooker we inherited through its paces. The internet said it could roast a whole chicken in two hours from the heat of a burning coconut husk, and do potatoes at the same time, but we were quite suspicious of this claim. But sure enough, while we sat chatting to the neighbours, the Cobb did its thing, producing a very juicy chook that could only be improved with crispier skin. We’ll have to perfect that one next time.
The kids aren’t alright
We were camping next to a young family from Geelong, one of those super energetic ones that legitimately live in active wear.The kind of people that can’t live without an early morning run. They were impressive. They had two kids under three and had built their own caravan to travel the country in. They had been moving through the outback for about six weeks, 4wdriving the Gibb River Road and hiking gorges with babes slung to their shoulders. They extolled the virtues of travelling with young children. The kids weren’t in school yet so they were free to travel as long as they liked and experience the wonders of the road. They gave us a lot of great recommendations for the road ahead, but we noticed their suggestions were usually tempered with, ‘we couldn’t do this with the kids, but you should visit X,Y,Z’.
The real story came out the next day, when they were feeling a bit more fragile, admitting that it had been quite a difficult journey and they were tired of washing the kids in bathroom sinks and missed their support network of family and friends. Travel now while you’re young and carefree they said. Don’t stop till you get enough! (They didn’t say that exactly, but some MJ feels right.)
Diving to a whale song soundtrack
The following day we met Kirsten from Dive Ningaloo and jumped on her beautiful boat Keto. Keto is the Ancient Greek goddess of sea creatures, so it’s a pretty wicked name for a dive boat. After a bad experience with a diving company in Melbourne, we were relieved to find that Dive Ningaloo were perfect operators. Committed to taking out a maximum of ten divers per trip, they put the focus on the reef and were both knowledgeable and passionate. Kirsten, the skipper Dave and the dive masters in training were all incredibly friendly and helpful. As the only snorkeller on the trip, Kirsten made sure that Shelley still saw the best bits of the reef, duck diving to point out colourful nudibranch and crayfish.
The facilities aboard the small boat were brilliant, they’d corralled a BBQ into the corner to put on a great lunch of sausages, burgers and salad and had even put cordial out next to the water urn (the water in Exmouth tastes singularly horrible).
We went out to the Muiron Islands, and Gareth’s first dive on the Ningaloo Reef revealed colourful soft corals and some fun caves to swim through, as well as reef regulars such as damsels, wrasse, angels, butterflies and tangs. The second dive was a drift dive following a mild current and many changes of depth as we explored up and down the reef, spotting species like flowery cod, lion fish, rainbow runners, crown of thorns star fish, a white tipped reef shark, a huge green turtle and a glorious flatworm with pink trim all the way around its soft body. However the most amazing thing about diving the Ningaloo Reef was the whale song. We saw a dozen humpbacks throughout the day, with some quite close to the boat, and when underwater you could hear their song bouncing around the walls of the underwater chamber.
Another day, another wetsuit
The next day we did the whale shark tour with WhalesharknDive. We tried not to get our hopes up, as there was no guarantee we’d see a whale shark out of season, but we were buoyed by the news that they saw five whale sharks on the previous day’s tour. A recent change in legislation means these tour operations can now offer ‘swim with a humpback’ tours as well, and this new service is expected to fill the long gap between whale shark visits.
Having been on three tours within a fortnight, we were starting to notice some common themes. There were a few crew stereotypes that played out, much to our amusement. For example, the salty sea dog – the skipper of the boat was always a sardonic type, with leathery brown skin and a late conversion to sun cream. How else could they look that weathered while wearing Shane Warne levels of zinc on their nose and lips? The ‘photographer’ was another interesting character, tanned and pretty, with long surfer hair and a name like Jesse or Blake, they were usually a bit pretentious, a result of being the ‘arty one from Melbourne’ on a boat full of uncultured locals and horribly pale tourists. The final boat archetype was the ocean gal, a lithe creature whose wet hair never frizzed, she displayed her passion for the sea with big tattoos on brown thighs, of whale sharks, dolphins and mantas. Not a bimbo, she’s something the tourists aspire to, maybe one day they could feel that comfortable, both in the ocean and in a toe ring.
The bigger tour operators always start off with an early snorkel, to separate the wheat from the chaff. Who was lying when they ticked ‘can swim’ on the liability form, which kid is going to be the snivelly one and which goon is going to ask you to retrieve their Go Pro from the bottom of the sea? Our first snorkel was pretty cold and we had to swim gingerly through a swarm of Chinese jellyfish. This species made it to Australian waters after being dumped by the ballast tanks of huge container ships. We managed to negotiate them in our long wetsuits, Gareth only mildly stinging his finger. Unfortunately it wasn’t a bad enough sting for him to go full Jackass and pee on himself. This operator had a hot shower and a ‘real’ coffee machine on board, and we enjoyed the lux experience of warming up with both of these.
Outwitted by whale sharks
While the whale shark spotter plane circled above we gawped with ohs and aahs as large humpback whales put on macho displays. Some fin slapped, rising their huge fins and whacking them to the surface, while others leapt from the water in a ‘breach off’, creating floods of white water and exposing their huge blubbery tums as they hung in the air. Eventually the call came in of a whale shark sighting and we rushed to the site. However it wasn’t long until the roar of the engine lowered – the whale shark had dived into deeper water. Whale sharks eat plankton, filtering it out of the water much like the manta rays do. When feeding they will sit just below the surface and glide along before diving deeper once they’ve finished or if they feel threatened by other surface peeps.
We returned to whale watching while waiting for the whale shark to surface (say that three times fast). When it did, we were ready with wetsuits and snorkel gear on. Unfortunately it dived again and never resurfaced. We’d also lost our chance to swim with the humpbacks, as every sighting had been a rambunctious male or a female with calf, both no no’s in the new humpback swim guidebook.
It just wasn’t our lucky day. Oh well, time to plan a trip to the Philippines to find the big spotty creatures that eluded us. Although the day was tinged with disappointment we had a great time, and the crew was great. They put on a tasty lunch and were friendly and patient with a large group of people.
Perving on turtles
Before leaving Exmouth, we travelled a little way along the western-most road of the peninsula to the Cape Range National Park for a turtle hunt. It was mating season and we’d even heard that some confused mama turtles were laying their eggs early. We spent the day snorkelling around Lakeside Beach and Turquoise Beach, setting up camp at Yardie Homestead before catching the sunset at the lighthouse (like everyone else in Exmouth). We then crept amongst the dunes in the twilight looking for nesting turtles, like a couple of testudine perverts.
We returned to the beach in the morning just in case a turtle had come to shore to nest or order some pepperoni pizza. We spotted a pair mating just where the waves were breaking. Seemed an odd place to do the deed – the waves making it rather tricky to hold on. Gareth thought they must be kinky and fancied a bit of rough and tumble.
Goodbye West Coast
After a month on Western Australia’s coast and a red hot go at the world heritage-listed waters of Ningaloo, we turned our wheels east in search of a different kind of landscape – the famous gorges and waterholes of Karijini National Park.
Highs: Shelley saw her first nudibranch!
Lows: We might have Type 2 diabetes after drinking nothing but cordial and soft drink for two weeks