It’s been over two and a half years in the planning. A trip to swim with the whale sharks of Ningaloo reef. In between planning, paying and going has been a vacuum of not doing much. We’ve been under house arrest and then a Trump like Covid wall into Western Australia. This trip has been put on endlessly on hold. Now I t’s finally going to happen. It’s a nervous week of Covid testing and staying away from crowds of people. To test positive at the airport would be heartbreaking. We drive to Tullamarine very early after reports that the airport staff are lacking in numbers and have forgotten what to do. Luckily for us it’s a smooth process. We are away.
The stand out for me after sitting at home for two years is just how vast Australia is. Four hours West to Perth then another two hours North only gets you halfway up the coast to Exmouth. I’ve gone from hazy Melbourne Autumn days to blinding blue sunshine of Ningaloo reef. You can feel the heat radiating in off the red dirt and yet it is all part of this big island I call home.
Two hundred of us mill about in the Learmonth airport building waiting for our luggage. Out on the tarmac one lonely baggage handler unloads the plane, drives the truck to the terminal then slowly loads the conveyor for the waiting throng. It’s taken an hour and few are amused. We are less amused when Kylie’s only checked bag has not made the flight here. They give us a small toiletries bag and a one size fits all tracksuit to sleep in and send us on our way.
We wash away the days travel, the sticky flies and the unrelenting heat in the small pool surrounded by swaying palms and fragrant frangipani trees.
Let the holiday begin ! A few hours at Froth brewery where the local brew is icy cold and the meals are Asian spicy, it’s a perfect match to this weather. The brewery is heaving with locals drinking fast and getting a bit messy as the two W.A football teams play the local derby. The game becomes one sided and the locals begin to put more effort into their drinking. https://www.frothcraft.com/
The following morning the lost bag arrives and we point the hire car towards the Cape Range National Park. It’s a narrow Peninsula abutting the Indian Ocean with a scattering of turquoise beaches and ancient dry creeks scouring their way towards the ocean.
The walking sign at Yardie Creek Gorge says it’s a 2 kms walk in and will take 90 min. I scoff at the suggested time until I find myself on all fours spluttering like a mountain goat over the lava flows and rough ground. It’s the perfect build up for my first beach swim.
We tick off another 3-4 beach swims. South Mandu beach is only a short swim drift from the Sal Salis tent resort. https://www.salsalis.com.au/ We do the free swim and pass on the $1500/ night accomodation. Next is the off the beach dive spot at Oyster Stack where the reef rock comes right up to the beach. Families plop into the sea like lumbering seals to be dazzled by the technicolour display of fish and coral. My favourite though is the glistening water of aptly named Turquoise Bay. Aussies love to state the bleeding obvious and this place lives up to its name. I think it is the most beautiful beach I have ever swim at gently lapping against a backdrop of never ending bleached white sand.
We head down to Coral Bay but take a side track to Bullara station. A cattle station of some 250,000 acres or simpler 20 kms in any direct from the farmhouse. We have a lovely chat with the manager as we wait for our cafe quality coffee and jam scone for morning tea. She has been there for six years and before that remote on the Gulf of Carpentaria. She and her husband are attracted to the isolation or maybe they are gun shy to throngs of people and living close to others.
There is a fine layer of red dust and flies on everything except the fresh scones. Which is why we eat them quickly… A wander around the homestead shows the camp kitchens for travelling workers, workshops and crude gadgets made from whatever is on hand. A large shed is bulging with 20-30 dirt and quad bikes, the Horse stables of the 21st century. The ingenuity in keeping things going is amazing in a disposable world. https://www.bullarastation.com.au/
Coral Bay is basically a large caravan park with a variety of cabins. Every patch of grass has a tent on it. Every car has a boat attached. Every guy is carrying a beer and a belly to match. The boat ramp is awash with fish scales and ghoulish fish heads staring at nothing. As night falls charter fishermen are left to gut the day’s catch whilst their clients stand sunburnt and bleary eyed in a beer coma watching proceedings. I order calamari from Bills bar up the road just something in batter after seeing so many fish heads.
The main reason for venturing so far from home was the chance to swim with the largest friendliest fish in the sea. Giant Whale sharks can grow up to 18m long but most range in size between 5-10m. Coral Bay is renowned as a great place to swim with these whale sharks just beyond the Ningaloo reef. The window to see them however is small as they come to feast on the reefs coral spawn from April’s full moon till June before moving on.
Our group is excited and after a short trial snorkel we are ready for the main event. A plane is sent up to locate the whale sharks. The fact that they are large enough to be viewed under water from the sky gives you an indication of their size. One is spotted and we don our wetsuits and pull on our clown size flippers before slipping into the sea. Alex, our photographer acts as our guide trying to keep pace with the whale shark and give us clear signals as to where to head. This is great in theory however our first two whale sharks swim at speed. By the time we are next to Alex we are exhausted from all the swimming. We return to the boat huffing and puffing, the wetsuits overheating our bodies in the sun. It’s about now that I notice the fumes of the engine, the steady swell of the sea. I’m beginning to feel sick. So are half of the adults on board. The thought of putting a snorkel in my mouth isn’t what I want to think about at that moment.
All is momentarily forgotten when Alex waves us back into the water. Finally we have found a whale shark that is just cruising at our speed. She is a 7m long spotty female and she is majestic as she cruises on by. Our group take it is turns to hang behind her and when brave enough to swim alongside. Small remora fish cruise along in her slipstream. My heart is racing as I try to keep my breathing steady.
I’d been told if possible to swim across onto the less crowded side of the whale shark to get a better view. All was going to plan until she slowed and I didn’t. Suddenly I was level with her face. Her mouth is over a metre wide and even though I know she only eats vegetation I’d like to see the full statistics. She turns to face me feeling I have partially trapped her in. She doesn’t read my apologetic bubbles very well and continues to face me. I go to the surface and then duck dive immediately because on the surface I can’t see her. She has come around in a complete arc. I’m getting busy with my arms and legs flaying about like Im just learning to crawl trying to the best of my ability to get out of her way. Finally she feels that I’m far enough away…and my heart slows. I am out of depth down here, this is her domain. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to swim with the biggest of fish out in the wild. I don’t think I’ll bother her again.
I’m completely spent when I get out of the water after the second snorkel and sure I’ll be sick any minute. Turns out I was right. The steady rise and fall of the swell, a few gulps of seawater mixed in with my breakfast. You do the maths. So much for enjoying the smorgasbord lunch on offer. Kylie and I get a plastic container of chicken and salad to take home as a consolation prize.
Much of the next day is recovery both from the build up and partly from the seasickness. By mid afternoon Kylie is wanting to go down to book a swim with the manta rays. Then it’s a few lazy days of swims, bbq dinners and getting lost in a holiday read. Those big slabs of time you never give yourself at home.
The manta ray tour is within the Ningaloo reef so we are quietly confident we will keep our stomach contents intact. There is plenty of time to enjoy swimming amongst drifting schools of brightly coloured fish. The smaller nervous fish dart amongst the coral in never repeated patterns, rarely showing their whole selves. Some poke their curious faces out from between branches of coral. Others drift in time to the weed or kelp, eyes darting about for possible hungry enemies.
A large turtle drifts on by its legs a Kimbo, it’s yes blinking and it’s head turning slowly from side to side. Suddenly there is a conga line of eight sets of flippers cruising in its slip stream pretending we are all family. The turtle takes no notice and cruises on looking for some tasty weed to graze on.
A spotter plane has been up in the sky searching for both the whale sharks and manta rays. Soon our captain is being given directions on where to find one of these solitary animals. Our photographer drops into the water and spots the Manta ray. We follow but it’s going at speed and we have to abort. We prepare again as another drifts by. Same problem… we cannot keep up.
Finally a slower moving manta ripples towards us. He is a 4m wide melanistic manta. All black and rarer than the traditional black on top with a white under belly. He hovers just above the sandy sea floor his wide body rippling as he cruises along. It looks like a black curtain fluttering in the breeze, graceful and effortless.
We get to enjoy our lunch in the boat today. Dolphins play nearby, there is no other way to describe the way they frolic about like it’s all a game. After lunch more diving amongst the coral with stingrays and turtles swimming about with us. I don’t know if it’s a nod to the day but dinner is salty fish tacos and crunchy calamari. I feel like I’m eating family.
Time to take it all in as we walk on the beach on our final day. The sunrises and sunsets are the magical times in places where the temperature rarely drops below 30c. If you want to exercise now is the hour. As the sunrises your skin will burn then you’ll pass out from heat exhaustion. On the horizon the reef shows itself as a frothy white cloud as the waves break and bubble. Nearer to shore fish splash about unaware that the school holidays are about to begin and they’ll have to share the water with hundreds of toddlers.
Time to go home it’s been a great short and sharp holiday but memorable that’s for sure. Under the sea is like visiting a new country.