Marine Mates: Ningaloo Reef’s Big Five

Grab your flippers!

The World Heritage listed Ningaloo Reef is one of Australia’s most extraordinary marine eco-systems for snorkeling, diving and meeting giant marine life, home to 250 species of coral and more than 500 species of fish. Some of its sea life isn’t found anywhere else in Australia, so whether you love snorkeling or diving, there is plenty to see. Here are some of my favourite Ningaloo natives.

Whale Sharks

There is only a handful of places on the planet where you can encounter the world’s largest fish, and between April and July every year, Ningaloo Reef is one of them. Getting into the water with these astonishing creatures is arguably the Reef’s biggest attraction. Their size may be intimidating – they can grow to around 10m long – but swimming with these gentle giants is totally safe. During the season, sightings are all but guaranteed; still, it is worth booking your swim for early in your stay. If the whales are a no-show, you can try again the next day.

Manta Rays

There is only one downside to swimming with manta rays, they make you feel downright clumsy. When I took a swim with them, I was astonished at the balletic grace with which these elegant animals glide through the water. They even seem to enjoy showing off for humans, by doing loops around you. Ningaloo Reef has a year-round population of around 50 manta rays, and my experience swimming with these amazing creatures was a highlight of my trip. Good luck keeping up if they are in a hurry though, manta rays have been known to travel at speeds up to 40km an hour.

Giant Turtles

Coming face-to-face with a turtle in the water is a thrilling experience, but turtle tracking takes an encounter to another level. Every summer, green and loggerhead turtles head to Ningaloo Reef to lay their eggs. Between December and February, females come ashore at night when the tide is high, excavating nests in the sand with their flippers and laying eggs. Six weeks later, the hatchlings struggle to the surface and run towards the sea. Guided tours let you get close to the action without causing accidental interference. A visit to the Jurabi Turtle Centre outside Exmouth gives plenty of insights into turtle biology and behaviour.

Humpback Whales

Every year between August and October, one of the biggest whale migrations in the world passes through Ningaloo Reef, where large numbers of adults and calves take a break on their long journey back down to Antarctica. There are several popular lookout points along the shore, including Town Beach, Bendegi Beach, and the Lighthouse Lookout, from where you may see the whales performing tail slaps, spy hops, or even breeching. Want to have a closer encounter? Then sign up for a whale watching cruise, some of which even offer the opportunity to swim with these extraordinary creatures. As well as humpbacks, you may spot other whale species, such as minke, southern right and blue whales.

Potato Cod

What does a potato cod eat? Whatever it wants to! The 1.5m long fish has been known to swallow everything including small rays, squid, fish, and rock lobsters, but divers who have encountered this rare fish – named for its potato-shaped markings – say they are friendly creatures. They also have an intriguing biological quirk: all potato cods are born female, with some changing sex as they age. You can find potato cod at various diving sites at Ningaloo, most notably the Exmouth Navy Pier, a celebrated shore dive which is famous for the marine life on display, including colourful reef fish such as angel fish and Moorish idols.

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