The wonderful thing about Western Australia’s World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef is its easy access.
The reef’s crystalline waters, breath-taking marine life and year-round glorious weather aren’t bad either.
I’d travelled from Perth to the small town of Exmouth on Western Australia’s northwest coast to explore two new sea-based activities: a multi-day kayaking trail, and the opportunity to swim with humpback whales in open water.
I’d flown one hour north from cosmopolitan Perth’s bustling city streets and crowded urban beaches to the back of beyond, where the outback meets the reef. It was August, and the air temperature was around 38 degrees when we landed in the desert-like landscape surrounding Exmouth: sand as far as the eye could see. Like a mirage, Exmouth shimmered in the heat on the horizon.
The lesser-known Ningaloo Reef has some fantastic advantages over the better-known Great Barrier Reef; the latter is geographically located on Australia’s east coast, and you must travel by boat, plane or helicopter to reach it.
My ‘Groundhog Day’ mornings all started the same. The sun’s first rays would touch the water, casting an orange glow across the reef. Then, I’d see the silhouette of a turtle surfacing, or the fine fin of a harmless reef shark cutting through the water and taking in the early-morning warmth.
My wake-up call was the sound of wallabies slowly thumping along the boardwalk leading to my tent. Dressing for the occasion, in a swimsuit, snorkel and mask, I submerged myself in the sea, with the turtles and reef sharks for company, before settling down to an exotic breakfast back at the camp.
Sal Salis consists of 16 eco-luxe wilderness tents dotted among the dunes. It is a hidden gem and one of Australia’s best-kept secrets – although it may not be a secret for much longer, as it now sits proudly at number four on Lonely Planet’s Best Places to Stay in the World list for 2017.
My afternoons were spent paddling kayaks along the reef just a short distance from Sal Salis. You can hire kayaks and paddle the reef yourself, or join a guided tour. You should be a confident sea swimmer, but you don’t need to be an expert kayaker.
New moorings placed along the reef provide kayakers with somewhere to paddle out to, tie up their kayaks and jump into the pristine, warm water to snorkel on the unique reef. There’s an added opportunity to camp at special catered sites and then continue paddling the next day.
Decked out in our snorkelling gear (all provided, including wetsuit), we slipped into the clear water. Immediately, colourful neon damselfish swam by, while boldly coloured parrotfish nibbled away at living coral. Hundreds of fish filled my view.
We paddled across the calm, clear water to a mooring 400 metres away. The moorings are obvious: large, floating black balls with ‘Kayak Mooring’ written on them in big, white letters.
The kayaking trail starts at Bundegi Reef in the Exmouth Gulf, then wraps around the tip of the peninsula and continues 155 kilometres south towards Coral Bay on the Indian Ocean.
In 10 metres of water, I watched, mesmerised, as small whitetip sharks swam before me. They had no interest in me. A big, friendly grouper fish swam past and a well-camouflaged wobbegong shark lay on the sandy seabed.
Early evening brought another turtle experience at the Jurabi Turtle Centre, 13 kilometres from the town. Run by volunteers, the centre offers an insight into the lifecycle of these ancient animals, and the challenges they face. From January to April, you can see the result of the turtles’ efforts as their unaccompanied hatchlings burrow their way out of the sand and head to the water.
The following morning, I was up with the sun as usual and soon on my way across choppy water in search of humpback whales with the Live Ningaloo expedition company. This new venture operates between 1 August and 31 October, and enables guests to swim with humpback whales while accompanied by marine experts.
A spotter plane circled above the boat and then radioed the humpbacks’ coordinates to our skipper. For safety reasons, no more than five swimmers may enter the water at one time. My group floundered about, our heads in the water, looking for a humpback. Suddenly, a whale song vibrated through the water, getting louder and louder as the whale approached. The whale swam beneath us and, as I lifted my head out of the water, it surfaced in front of me. Its huge, wet and distinguishing hump glistened in the sun. It flipped its tail in the air before submerging itself. It was a thrilling and exciting experience, and we were unbelievably close. Whales are unpredictable, and every experience is different.
There’s no shortage of fish in Exmouth’s restaurants. I dined at the popular Whalers Restaurant, a short walk from the Ningaloo Novotel, where I devoured their Shark Bay crab and local tiger prawn cakes, and Coffin Bay oysters.
Other great things to do include going on a boat trip up Yardie Creek Gorge, where the shy black-footed rock wallabies live, and visiting the Mandu Mandu Gorge, with its magnificent fossils.
But, mostly, you’ll want to slip into the sea, immersing yourself in an underwater world of wonder that gives you a sense of how special our oceans are – you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better ocean experience.