Diving Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

MY NINGALOO written for the July 2013 issue of UK’s Dive Magazine.

Shallow-ReefDiving Ningaloo Reef, one of the world’s largest fringing reef systems which stretches over 280 kilometers along Western Australia’s rugged coastline provides some of the most beautiful and exciting experiences our ocean has to offer. Consisting of dense hard coral gardens, sand flats, large areas of rich sea grass and deep ocean pinnacles, ledges and walls, Ningaloo was given the prestigious title of World Heritage in 2011. With such a range of marine habitats, Ningaloo boasts an extraordinary abundance of marine life able to freely roam 5,000 square kilometers of some of the Indian Ocean’s richest waters. Wildlife rarely comes into contact with humans here with much of Western Australia’s coastline being undeveloped. This gives divers the opportunity for once in a lifetime interactions with some of the world’s rarest and most unique animals in their natural environments.

Grey-Nurse-Shark-CloseThe outer reef of Ningaloo protects the shores from large ocean swells and weather systems which could potentially damage the magnificent formations of over 250 species of hard corals growing here. Spectacular diving possibilities lie outside of the coastal waters, however, its inside the reef that Ningaloo Reef is famous for, offering calm and relaxed diving and snorkeling conditions all year round. 500 different species of fish call Ningaloo home including many endemic species such as the elusive sailfin catfish and year round populations of manta rays. Whale sharks visit in large numbers between April and June feeding on the rich food sources Ningaloo provides and one of the world’s largest humpback whale migrations occur between June and October. Significant seasonal change combined with high biodiversity and rich undeveloped coastlines offer huge variety from day-to-day providing unique experiences on every outing.

Green-Turtle-in-Sunrays-copyLocated roughly 1000km north of Perth, Ningaloo can be accessed from two main locations, Coral Bay and Exmouth. Coral Bay is small town on the doorstep of Ningaloo Reef reached either by a 1100 kilometer drive north of Perth or a 2 hour flight and a 1 hour transfer. Allowing easy access to dive sites some just 5 minutes from the marina, the reef system here is pristine and uncrowded With only one dive operator in Coral Bay, Skippers and crew are able to hand pick sites based on favorable tides, currents and visibility. Exmouth is 30 minutes north of Learmonth Airport and 1250 kilometers north of Perth and sits on the east side of the Cape Range National Park on the Gulf of Exmouth. Dive sites are further away from here but definitely worthwhile. A combination of Coral Bay and Exmouth will provide diving adventures comparable with nowhere else in the world.

Ed and Hayley’s Top 5 SCUBA Diving….

Asho’s Gap, Coral Bay

Ashos-Gap-copyNamed after the legendary Coral Bay skipper who discovered this unique site in Coral Bay, Asho’s Gap is like none other. A shallow gap in a hard coral ridge situated on the inside of an outer reef passage provides access from the mooring to a large section of cabbage coral where grey reef sharks come to have their teeth cleaned and parasites removed. Divers make their way over some of the densest sections of hard corals on the Ningaloo Reef before passing through ‘The Gap’ and dropping down to 12m on the other side. The sharks swim up and into the current positioning themselves over a large section of cabbage coral allowing them to remain stationary whilst the current pushes water through their mouth and onto their gills. Cleaner wrasse living within the cabbage coral swim to the mouth of the sharks picking out any fish left over from their last meal . Other marine life also visits the cleaning station including turtles, large groupers and even the occasional manta ray. This incredible behavior can be seen by divers by simply kneeling down on the sand in 10-12 meters of water allowing the show to go on around them. Big animal encounters are common here due to the close proximity of the passage so keep your eyes peeled for large stingrays, eagle rays, other reef sharks, turtles, wobbegongs, nurse sharks, and groupers to name of few.

Exmouth Navy Pier

Jacks-and-Sunrays-copyThis huge artificial reef structure provides shelter to some of Ningaloo’s giants but also offers a home to a vast array of critters. Fishing is prohibited allowing fish to grow extremely large, an example being the resident giant Queensland grouper weighing close to 400 kilograms. The Big Friendly Grouper, BFG for short, has eye-balls a large as your fist and will pose for photos whilst following you around on your dives. Large schools of jacks and snappers block the sunlight whilst reef fish zoom around to feed on the abundant supply of sponge’s and soft corals growing on the structures. Grey nurse sharks congregate here during the winter months competing for space with the white-tip reef sharks and wobbegongs that live here. Macro life is abundant and vibrant offering weird and wonderful discoveries of nudibranches, moray eels, octopus and cuttlefish to name a few. The Navy Pier is an active Navy facility and a permit is required to dive here. Located on the east tip of Exmouth’s North West Cape, diving is done during slack high tide due to strong tidal flow during incoming and ebbing tides of the Gulf. A giant stride entry will get you into the water and guides will give the option for self-guided dives in buddy pairs for photographers or experienced divers wishing to explore at their own pace. During certain times of the month, with favorable tides, you will have the option for double dives which is highly recommended due to the addictive nature of Exmouth’s Navy Pier. A maximum depth of only 14 meters will allow divers of all experience levels to enjoy the Pier. Visibility can vary from one dive to the next averaging around 10 -12m but with the abundance of marine life, this is truly a divers dream.

Swim With Manta Rays

Manta-CloseCoral Bay boasts a resident population of around 600 coastal manta rays (Manta alfredi) here to feed on the abundant food sources this area has to offer. Local researcher Frazer McGregor of Murdoch University and Vikki Hoff of Ningaloo Reef Dive, keep a catalogue of Manta Ray identification shots in Coral Bay. Each manta carries its own unique fingerprint of markings on its belly which can be photographed, analysed and catalogued. Some mantas carry mating scars and shark bites making identification easier but of the 600 Manta Rays identified here, 60 are seen on a regular basis. These majestic and graceful rays are found in a large area named Bateman’s Bay fed by the largest passage in Ningaloo Reef known locally as North Passage. A spotter plane, taking-off from Coral Bay airstrip, is used to locate the mantas and stay in regular contact with the boat skippers via radio, directing them to manta rays from the air. Feeding behavior such as barrel rolling and line feeding can we witnessed on a daily basis and around full-moons the manta rays can be found on the many cleaning stations having their shark bites cleaned and parasites removed. During the summer months, between November and February, they form mating chains with sometimes up to 15 males fighting for position to mate with a single female. Manta rays are no doubt one of the most graceful creatures in the ocean and Coral Bay is one of only a few locations in the world with such high success rates allowing divers and snorkelers to swim with these majestic rays in the wild, all year round.

Swim With Whale Shark

Whale-Shark-with-SwimerDuring the months of April and June, whale sharks visit the open ocean areas of Ningaloo to feed on the abundant food available close the surface. The warm Leeuwin current from the north and the Ningaloo current from the south create upwelling’s and eddies, combine this with mass coral spawning events after the full moons in March and April, and you have whale shark heaven. The University of Western Australia has recently shown that whale sharks not only come to the surface to feed but also to warm-up. Coral Bay and Exmouth average over 320 days of sunlight each year, meaning whale sharks spend plenty of time at the surface offering the unique chance to swim with these curious creatures. Much like the manta ray interactions, a spotter plane is used to locate these enormous sharks directing boats to whale shark hotspots. Strict swimming guidelines and a limited number of operators allow the sharks to swim freely and comfortably whilst small groups of swimmers are allowed to enjoy the presence of these huge but friendly animals. A Whale Shark interaction is a life changing experience and whilst there are a few places to see these amazing animals, there are few when you can spend up to one hour with them whilst unrestricted, behaving naturally. Feeding whale sharks are a common sight here as well as other marine life roaming the open ocean areas of the Indian Ocean. The coastline here comes closer to the continental shelf than anywhere else in Australia meaning it is possible to see anything on any day. Expect the unexpected on Whale Shark trips as well as a magical swim with the largest fish in the sea.

The Labyrinth, Lighthouse Bay

Nudi-Love Green-TurtleThere are so many different dive sites offering something different in the Ningaloo area from the Murion Islands to Lighthouse Bay and along this expansive coast of reef but with such interesting limestone structures, turtle cleaning stations and the potential to find the weird and wonderful The Labyrinth must be one of our favorites. Lighthouse Bay is located on the northern tip of Exmouth’s North West Cape and can be dived in all conditions. The top of the site comes up to around 10 meters and at times reaches 18 meters allowing divers to move slowly around on their search for critters. Made up of Limestone with crater formations throughout, ensure you follow your guide on this one as it’s called ‘The Labyrinth’ for a reason. Divers can descend into these sections of reef in search of the abundant marine life hiding within. Pufferfish, porcupinefish, crayfish and octopus all seek shelter from the many patrolling predators above, whilst green turtles are found sleeping inside in the various caves. Coming up occasionally to breathe, it’s clear these turtles enjoy a visit to the many cleaning stations scattered around the site where they go to have their shells and skin cleaned. Soft corals stretch out picking up the rich nutrients drifting past in the current whilst stingrays scour the seabed for mollusks and crustaceans in the sand. Keep an eye out for occasional treats such as groupers, sharks and stingrays but with a huge variety of nudibranches, olive sea snakes, moray eels, wobbegongs, and the hundreds of other fish and invertebrates, The Labyrinth will keep you occupied dive after dive.

Trip Planning

Diving conditions and weather vary throughout the year with each season offering something different. Information about visiting the area can be found on the websites for Australia’s Coral Coast http://www.australiascoralcoast.com or Tourism Western Australia www.westernaustralia.com. For accurate weather predictions and year round climate the Bureau of Meteorology website is best www.bom.gov.au.

Diving Operators

NINGALOO REEF DIVE & SNORKEL WWW.NINGALOOREEFDIVE.COM

Ningaloo Reef Dive & Snorkel is the only diving operator in Coral Bay and offer a variety of trips. Whale shark trips run daily during season and manta ray interaction trips run all year round. Outer reef dive trips can be arranged depending on weather conditions with dive trips to the inside reef running every day. They also run scenic flights over Ningaloo giving the opportunity to see marine life and the huge fringing reef system from the air.

EXMOUTH DIVE CENTRE WWW.EXMOUTHDIVING.COM.AU

Offering diving to many different dive sites including Lighthouse Bay, Murion Islands and Ningaloo Reef, Exmouth Dive Centre can also arrange diving at Exmouth Navy Pier. During whale shark season they also run trips to swim with the oceans largest fish where a huge range of marine life can be spotted.

WHALESHARK’N’DIVE WWW.NINGALOOWHALESHARKNDIVE.COM.AU

Currently holding the only permit to dive the Navy Pier, Ningaloo Whaleshark’n’Dive also offer whale shark tours, dive trips to Lighthouse Bay, West Coast, Murion Islands and also live aboard trips for 3, 5 and 7 days.

SAIL NINGALOO WWW.SAILNINGALOO.COM.AU

Between March and December, the Shorething catamaran, runs live aboard trips out od Coral Bay for divers wishing to explore Ningaloo in more detail. With luxury 3,5 and 7 day trips, the crew will show you sites not many get to see as well as giving you the opportunity for fishing, kayaking and exploring this pristine wilderness.

Food and Accommodation

Ningaloo offers a variety of accommodation options with something for every budget, however, try to avoid visits during Australian School holidays or book way in advanced for these times. Here are some good options for accommodation and also recommendations for food and entertainment.

BAY VIEW CARAVAN PARK WWW.CORALBAYWA.COM.AU

Offers a range of different accommodation options in Coral Bay from camp sites to 3 bedroom villas.

NINGALOO CLUB WWW.NINGALOOCLUB.COM

Coral Bay backpackers provide a range of accommodation options from dorm rooms to private double rooms with ensuite.

NOVOTEL NINGALOO WWW.NOVOTELNINGALOO.COM.AU

Luxurious hotel in Exmouth sitting on the Gulf of Exmouth with beautiful views.

NINGALOO BED AND BREAKFAST WWW.NINGALOOBEDANDBREAKFAST.COM.AU

Friendly and personal bed and breakfast accommodation offering fresh breakfasts catering for early diving starts.

FINS RESTAURANT

Coral Bays finest restaurant with a genuine and authentic Western Australian vibe. Choose from their extensive menu and specials board including locally caught seafood.

NINGALOO REEF RESORT

Also offering accommodation options, Ningaloo reef Resort is home to Coral Bay’s only pub with happy hour night on Tuesday and Friday, and local live music on Thursdays. Friendly vibe, relaxed dress code and beautiful views over the reef.

BLUE LIPS FISH AND CHIP SHOP

Exmouth’s only Fish and Chip shop offering a variety of different types of local fish.

WHALERS RESTAURANT

A great social restaurant with a variety of seafood and well cooked meals