Australia’s other reef – Ningaloo
By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose
The name Ningaloo comes from the local Aboriginal tribe, the Gnulli, and means promontory, which perfectly describes the projection of land Ningaloo Reef skirts around. However, after diving this area we feel they would have been better naming it after all the amazing marine life that gathers on this fringing reef off Western Australia.
On the Western Australian coastline. The reef has for a long time been over shadowed by Australia’s other famous reef system. Ningaloo Reef is over 250km long and hugs the rugged desert coastline of North West Cape, from the town of Coral Bay in the south to Exmouth in the north.
Unlike the Great Barrier Reef, where the best diving is a long way from any town,
Ningaloo Reef is rarely more than a few kilometres off the coast, so there are no long boat trips, however the diving on the reef is superb. A marine park, the reef is home to 200 coral species and over 500 fish species, and is famous for its annual whale shark gathering. Diving Ningaloo Reef is possible from either Coral Bay or Exmouth, we chose to stay in Exmouth, as it gave access to a wider range of accommodation, restaurants and dive sites. Our main reason for diving Ningaloo was to snorkel with whale sharks, but after a week of diving the area we were amazed at the richness of the reef and marine life.
Our first dives were at the Murion Islands, located north of Ningaloo Reef. Our two dives here were magic, masses of marine life, but the visibility was poor due to recent cyclone activity. Cyclones are common in the area from January to March, which is evident by the basic bunker style housing in Exmouth, but most have little long term effect on the diving. The visibility was around six to 10 metres, stirred up by a ground swell, but we didn’t mind, as there was still plenty to see. We first dived Fraggale Rock, a shallow rocky reef in eight to 14 metres. Lovely coral gardens were a feature, with lots of ledges home to tasselled wobbegongs, crayfish, moray eels, coral cod, shrimp and heaps of reef fish. During the dive we encountered a large black-blotched stingray, several smaller blue spotted lagoon rays and a huge groper. The fish life at Ningaloo was to be a highlight of every dive we did, not only the variety, but the sheer numbers.
Whale Bone was the next dive, with a similar depth and terrain, and just as much marine life. We spent a fair amount
of time trying to photograph a curious mantis shrimp that kept darting in and out of the coral, and an equally inquisitive leopard blenny.
Our dives on the main section of Ningaloo Reef were wonderful. We dived two sites: Three Fins and Central Station and found the visibility was much better at 12-15m. At Three Fins the reef dropped to 16m and the terrain was a mixture of gutters, ledges and caves. The coral coverage was very pretty, and the reef fish were extremely prolific, but the highlight was all the rock cod species â€“ black-tipped rock cod, coral rock cod, tomato rock cod and blue-spotted rock cod to name but a few.
At Central Station the reef dropped from eight to 15m and there were numerous bommies to explore. More fabulous reef fish, and also several white-tip reef sharks, tasselled wobbegongs and a couple of old loggerhead turtles. During the dive we also saw plenty of pelagic action, with schools of trevally, stripey snapper and a large Spanish mackerel.
After our dives on the main reef we spent the rest of the day looking for whale sharks, with the aid of a spotter plane.
There are whale shark trips from April to July, under one of the most successful eco-tourism ventures in the world. All the whale shark operators are licensed and follow strict guidelines. A maximum of 10 snorkellers, plus a guide, are allowed in the water with a shark, while you are not allowed to touch, swim over, swim under or harass the sharks in any way.
Our first day with the sharks was unsuccessful, but it was the start of the whale shark season when the sharks are a little unpredictable. (Some operators offer a free repeat trip if no sharks are seen.) Our second trip was fantastic, we snorkelled with two small whale sharks, both around 4m long, several times. The whale sharks cruise slowly along the surface feeding, but you have to fin very hard to keep up with them. Photography was quite a challenge, especially when the shark would suddenly turn towards you and you had to quickly get out of its way. It was an exciting and exhilarating, but very exhausting experience.
We were fortunate to have marine biologist Brad Norman on our whale shark trips. He has been studying whale sharks for over a decade and was collecting samples of the plankton the sharks were eating, and also trying to measure the animals.
Some of the best diving we did at Ningaloo was actually inside the reef at Lighthouse Bay. This sandy bay is riddled with limestone reefs, which form ledges and gutters in only 14m. At Blizzard Ridge we saw masses of fish and invertebrate species, including batfish, coral cod, tasselled wobbegongs, lionfish, moray eels and trevally. While at Gulliver’s we encountered schools of sweetlip, stripey snapper, white-tip reef sharks and a grey reef shark. This is generally a good spot for manta rays, we didn’t see any but enjoyed watching the antics of a pair of mating octopus.
Our best dive at Ningaloo was a shore dive at a short pier, known as the Navy Pier. Off limits to the public, this pier pulsates with marine life and is one of the best shore dives you will ever do. A steel structure sitting in 13m, the pier is home to wobbegongs, reef sharks, gropers, trevally, barracuda, stingrays, sea snakes, sweetlips, stripey snapper and a wonderful assortment of reef fish and invertebrate species, including many rare critters like leaf scorpionfish and northern frogfish.
Our week of diving Ningaloo Reef ended all too quickly, but confirmed that this reef is no poor cousin to the Great Barrier Reef, offering some of the best diving in Australia.