We set up base in Ningaloo at a caravan park beneath the lighthouse at Vlamingh Head, perched on an arid hilltop that marks the end of the Cape Range and the start of the Indian Ocean. Our first day was taken up with domestic chores after several days camping out in the Pilbara, which wasn’t a bad thing to be doing as a strong north-easterly wind was whipping up whitecaps on the sea and creating a big surf out on the reef’s edge. Still, it is no point being cooped up, so in the afternoon we climbed up a rough track cut into the limestone hill to get our bearings from the lighthouse.

To the east, across a long sandy beach, the massive steel towers of the US naval communications base (shhhhh – top secret) reached skywards from the flat desolation of North-West Cape. Below us lay the dunes and the wild surf, while around the corner to the west, the long line of Ningaloo Reef stretched southwards. For some the wind was a bain, for others a blessing; we were treated to a spectacular display of aerobatics from a local hang-glider who used the lighthouse cliffs as his launch point and source of updraft while we were there.

The colours of evening at Exmouth Gulf

Big surf at Vlamingh Head

Vlamingh Lighthouse

... while to the east, the masts of North West Cape naval base
rise like ships in a pyschedelic fog


The winds at Vlamingh Head provided lift for
all kinds of creatures

The wind dropped off by evening, enabling us to indulge in one of our favourite past-times - watching the sun set with a cold beer and smoked oysters as we plotted the next day’s activities, this time from a vantage point in the sand dunes as the sun melted into the Indian Ocean beneath a coppery sky.

In the west, the sun sets golden into the Indian Ocean ....

Cape Range National Park

Ningaloo Reef has been partitioned into a number of sanctuary and recreational use zones and much of it lies within the Cape Ranges National Park. Hence, early next morning we headed down to the park with our snorkeling gear at the ready. The beauty of Ningaloo is that you just swim out from the beach and there you are, amidst the coral bombies and brightly coloured reef fish. We snorkeled at three places. At Lakeside, we walked about 500m along the beach to a spot where the coral was very close to the shore. However, the water was a bit churned up by the strong winds that blew yet again, so we headed off to the famous Turquoise Bay Drift Snorkel. Here you enter the water at one end and let the (strong) current carry you over the coral formations and fish, before getting out near a sandbar at the other. The getting out here is important or else the currents carry you out through a gap in the reef and into the deep blue yonder.

The sand was white, the water brilliantly clear and the fish and formations fascinating – no wonder that, soon after, everyone else arrived to snorkel here as well.

The Turquoise Bay drift snorkel

Our fascination with gorges had obviously not been completed sated in the Kimberley and the Pilbara, for we then headed off to do a short 3km walk in Mandu Mandu Gorge, which cut deeply into the worn limestone hills of the Cape Range. The track led us up the white stony creek bed, past stunted eucalypts scattered with honey-scented blossom and mistletoe. On either side the red gorge walls (in this part of the world, even limestone is red) gradually became higher until we reached a point where we climbed up and onto the rim.

The white stony bed of Mandu Mandu Creek

One of the park's many emus

View down Mandu Mandu Gorge

As we climbed, the westerly view down the gorge towards the blue waters of the ocean and breakers on the fringing reef gradually expanded. The track back followed the arid and stony rim, crossing several rocky gullies of varying depth and steepness. All the time, we had sweeping views of ocean and reef, scrubby coastal plain and dry eroded hilltops of the ranges.

View from the Coast Range toward the ocean

Crossing a side gully at Mandu Mandu

The arid spinifex-covered hills of the Coast Range

It may have only been a short walk, but it gave us a good taste of the Cape Range, and we liked it. By the time we returned to the campervan, the wind was tailing off and it was almost high tide – time to head to The Oyster Stacks, another popular snorkeling spot, where big fish congregate around a set of semi-submerged rock outcrops, set amidst a diversity of coral formations. It was different to Turquoise Bay but just as interesting.

Shoreline at The Oyster Stacks

By the time we finished, we were feeling a bit water-logged, salted and nostalgic for the cool clear freshwater pools of the Kimberley and Pilbara. It was time to head back for a hot shower. As we watched an equally brilliant sunset from the dunes, we agreed that the day had been a great introduction to Ningaloo – “pass me another oyster, please”.

Day of the Whale Sharks

The whale shark is the largest fish in the ocean. This gentle giant can reach 18m in length in a 100-year lifespan spent filtering plankton from the waters of the warmer seas. Every March – July, whale sharks migrate to the Ningaloo Reef to feast on the zooplankton soup produced by the mass spawning of the coral. The whale shark has become the icon of Ningaloo and here you can swim with them. It isn’t cheap, but later this year I turn 60 and the fair Nello gave me an early present – today we were off to swim with the whale sharks. For the first time in the past three days, the winds had abated, and the sun shone from a cloudless sky. Apart from a residual 3m swell, it was going to be a great day to be out on the ocean.

Our boat, with 20 passengers set off from Tantabiddi moorage and, after a short stop for us to check out some coral formations near the reef fringe and for the guides to check out our snorkeling abilities, we were heading out through a break in the reef and into the deep blue beyond. We were barely out of the protected reef waters, when the call came through from a spotter plane – whale shark nearby.


For those who have not swum with whale sharks, here is how it works. A spotter plane flies up and down the ocean–side of the reef and, when it spots a shark, directs the boat to it. We shark-swimmers don wetsuits, flippers, mask and snorkel and are divided into two groups of ten. The rules are very strict to minimize stress for the shark – only 10 swimmers in at any one time, keep out of the shark’s path and keep at least 3m from its flanks and 4m from the tail, which could bat you aside in one fell swish.

The skipper positions the boat 40-50m ahead of the approaching whale shark and the first group of ten jumps in. As it approaches, the first thing you do is replace the snorkel which fell out when your jaw dropped in wonder at this huge and magnificent fish, with its wide jaw, sleek spotted body and accompaniment of large cleaner fish and schools of smaller fish that swim beneath its belly. An entire oceanic community is approaching and it weighs several tones.

Initial shock and awe over, you pick up the shark as it passes to swim alongside, finning as fast as you can to keep up, because even a slow cruise for an 8m shark is a fast swim for an out-of-element human. It is a curious sight from above; the tip of a dorsal fin just breaking the water surface with a row of snorkels and churning flippers stretched out on either side in a “V” formation.

Once the first group is swimming with the shark, the boat repositions and the second group jump in 40-50m ahead again and wait. The first group then stop and quickly get back on board, while the second take over shark watch duties – it’s a bit like a game of tag. Final rule, you cannot stay with the one shark for more than an hour, although the whale sharks themselves seem either oblivious to or completely disdainful of their company as they continue on their meandering oceanic cruise, water flowing through their mouth and out their gills where long rakers filter out the food.


"V" formation of snorkellers on either side of a whale shark

Whale shark A-564 (see footnote below) swims by ...

The shark heads on into the blue

Behold the whale shark cometh!

... and soon outpaces we humans

Swim's over

In the course of the morning, we had three swims with different whale sharks, two over 7m long and one about 5m long, as well as spotting sea-turtles, humpback whales blowing in the distance, a hammerhead shark (warning - don’t swim with these) and a sea-snake.

While waiting for the spotters, time passed quickly watching the big swell rolling in and breaking over the reef, against a backdrop of the rugged hills of the Cape Range. After a gourmet lunch on board, we found one more “baby” 4m whale shark for two more swims, in the end watching it disappear from view beneath us into the depths of the ocean – the fair Nello wondered what else was lurking down there that we couldn’t see.

A snorkeller gives some perspective to the size of the shark

Shark disappearing into the depths below us

The big surf rolls in over the outer fringe of Ningaloo Reef

Humpback blowing

Partial breach

Normal view of surfacing whale showing dorsal fin

Tail display

We had traveled about 30km down the coast and on the return, had time for a bit of whale-watching. What a bonus – we saw five pods of humpbacks as we cruised slowly back to Tantabiddi in the warm sunshine. One pair even treated us to the full range of humpback behaviour; a spectacular display of flipper-rolling, tail-posing and breaching. To see a 40 tonne living creature launch itself completely out of the water and come crashing down with an almighty splash is something very special.

We'd gone on specialised whale-watching trips before and had never seen as many as on this trip to swim with the whale sharks; some of the biggest fish and biggest mammals in the ocean at the same time - wow!!!! What a great day – thank you Nello for my early birthday present!

Pectoral fin roll

The full monty - all 40 tonnes clear of the water!!!!!

Coral Bay

The next day our southward journey continued, at least for another 160km across the featureless (apart from the termite mounds) grassy or low shrubby plains of the peninsula to reach Coral Bay and the southern end of Ningaloo Reef. Coral Bay is the pretty end of the reef, a small tourist resort set on a protected white sand beach. Every second shop in the centre seems to be selling reef tours, manta ray tours, snorkeling tours etc – Ningaloo has become an industry.

We chose lesser pursuits – the fair Nello saw the soft white sand, shady casuarinas and clear blue water of Bill’s Bay and her afternoon was already planned – lazing on the beach, reading her book and enjoying the fine weather and surrounds. Not being able to sit that still, I headed off to do a little more snorkeling around the coral bombies scattered around Bill’s Bay and a little further down the coast.

It was a pleasant afternoon for both of us and a great way to complete our time in Ningaloo.


The beach at Coral Bay is a great spot for lazing beneath a shady casuarina

Footnote: Whale sharks can be individually identified by the pattern of spots on the flank just behind their gills. An environmental organisation called Ecocean keeps a data base of whale shark encounters to help better understand their movements. People can send in photos of the whale sharks they see to add to this. I did so and a few days later received an e-mail to tell me it was a previously unidentified shark, which from henceforth would rejoice in the name A-564. A check of other photos held also showed that A-564 had visited Ningaloo in June 2008, though not named then. It will be interesting to keep track of this gentle giant of the oceans over the years to come.