Ningaloo Reef is the best place on Earth to swim alongside the gentle whale shark.
By Fleur Bainger
Ningaloo Marine Park is a World Heritage-listed site found half way up the West Australian coastline. The crystalline water harbours the world’s largest fringing reef, a 260 kilometre (162 mile) long coral reef swarming with turtles, tropical fish, manta rays, humpback whales and the elusive whale shark. Nowhere on earth do these majestic creatures reliably congregate in such large numbers as here, at Ningaloo Reef.
- The incomparable experience of swimming with a whale shark
- Flying above migrating whales in an Exmouth microlight flight
- Staying in a luxury campsite metres from the coral reef
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Top things to do in Ningaloo Reef
Glide alongside a whale shark
There may be 500 species of tropical fish darting around Ningaloo Marine Park, but one in particular really gets the heart racing: the giant but harmless whale shark. Swimming with one of these beautiful creatures, watching its dotted skin shimmer in the sunlight, is one of life’s most breathtaking experiences. Ninglaoo is the only place on the planet where large numbers are known to visit every year from April to July, so close to land. Strict protections are in place to care for threatened species and all charter boats collect data for scientists and conservationists to ensure Ningaloo’s aquatic visitors stay safe. Join a tour in Exmouth or Coral Bay and pick a boat with its own spotter plane for best results. The Exmouth Visitor Centre can provide you with the many tour options available.
Merge with "the humpback highway"
Thousands of humpback whales migrate up and down the West Australian coastline each year on what's sometimes referred to as the humpback highway, and from July to October, visitors to Ningaloo Reef are able to jump in and swim with them as they glide along the reef. Only five swimmers at a time are allowed to swim with the whales. Strict, protective laws state that swimmers can get no closer than 30 metres (98 feet) to the playful cetaceans, but it's a different story if they choose to approach you – which they often do. If you can’t make it during the season, don’t worry. There are also manta rays, turtles, dolphins, dugongs and tropical fish to swim with here year round.
Soar overhead marine life in a microlight
A microlight is essentially a hang-gliding sail equipped with two seats and an engine, but the one in Exmouth also comes with a fully qualified pilot called Gavin, of Birds Eye View, who has boundless enthusiasm for the Ningaloo region. He’ll take you high above whale sharks, humpbacks and dolphins as they swim on the surface of the ocean in plain sight. The microlight delivers a drone-like perspective and comes very close to the feeling that you are actually flying. Gavin is also an instructor, and if you’re keen, he’ll teach you how to fly the microlight, at first with the engine on and then with it switched off.
Drift snorkel at Turquoise Bay
If there’s only one place you jump in the waterthen it has to be Turquoise Bay. Found 63 kilometres (39 miles) from Exmouth, the glass-clear water is shallow and there’s a lovely little current that gently pushes you along the water's surface, so all you need to do is float and admire the coral scenery beneath you. Walk 300 metres (330 yards) to the left of the sandy white beach entrance and wade in equipped with your snorkelling gear. You’ll see dozens of colourful corals and fish galore. Be careful to watch when you get to the end of the beach because you’ll need to swim in before the current leads to deeper waters. If you are unsure, seek advice from local tour guides.
Luxe glamping hideaway, Sal Salis – ranked fourth in Lonely Planet’s 2017 Best Places to Stay in the World list – cuddles into the sand dunes beside the Ningaloo coast, with the reef only a few steps off the beach. Each of its 16 safari tents, coloured in natural tones, are fitted with hard floors, a real bed, eco ensuite and sun-heated shower but perhaps the best part of the experience is the chef-created canapés at sunset, followed by dinner beneath the stars (all meals are included in the tariff). The exclusive retreat, which also includes numerous guided tours in the price, can arrange transfers; airport pick-ups cost AUD$125 per person one-way, or take a magical scenic flight costing AUD$600 for two people, one-way.
Visit the town where emus rule
Exmouth sits at the northern end of Ningaloo Marine Park, and is the gateway to the gorges and canyons of Cape Range National Park (where Sal Salis is located). This beachy holiday town is a good place to stock up on groceries, drinks and fishing supplies, book into tours, find out about the region at the visitor centre and laze at a number of comfortable resorts and hotels. Here, if you see an emu on the road you have to stop – emus have right of way. It’s also free of plastic bags, so bring an eco sac or two along.
Stay in a shoe-optional hamlet
Coral Bay is Ningaloo’s other main town, 155 kilometres (96 miles) south of Exmouth. There may be less shopping and accommodation, but there’s loads of charm in this hamlet, where people tend to walk instead of drive (it’s small) and most leave their shoes at home. The town is clustered around the main beach, where you can wade in and swim to a reef that is within 50 metres (55 yards) distance. The water is calm and as flat as a pancake and here is where you are likely to see the most manta rays, so book a snorkel tour or take the glass bottom boat over the coral.
How to get there
Ningaloo’s hub town of Exmouth is a 1250 kilometre (777 mile) drive north of Perth, with plenty of worthy stops along the way. Alternatively, fly to Learmonth Airport (Qantas flies daily) and hire a car or a campervan locally. Integrity Coach Lines also travels from Perth to Exmouth.