Local Favourites: A Week Around Ningaloo Reef
Sarah Ellis has been visiting Exmouth for 15 years and moved there to live three years ago, working in tourism, on charter vessels and as a fisheries and marine officer at Ningaloo Marine Park. Two years ago, Sarah and her partner started their own ecotourism business, Ningaloo Discovery, taking people out to swim with whale sharks and other marine life on the world heritage listed Ningaloo Reef.
I’ve had a very strong connection to Ningaloo Reef and the Coral Coast since I was tiny. We used to come here for family holidays. My grandfather’s got some pretty amazing stories. 50 years ago they’d bring all the kids, towing a boat, and go fishing at Ningaloo.
When friends visit, we head straight to Vlamingh Head Lighthouse at the northern end of Ningaloo Reef, just 17 kilometres from Exmouth. It’s a great vantage point. You can see all the way down the reef. It surprises a lot of people to learn that Ningaloo is the world’s largest fringing coral reef, so you can get to it straight from the beach.
From the lighthouse you get a good idea of the weather, the swell and the best sites to visit that day. It’s also one of the few places in Australia where you can watch the sun come up and set over the water; it comes up in the Exmouth Gulf and sets over the Indian Ocean. It’s pretty special.
Cape Range National Park
Next we usually head down into the Cape Range National Park, to the iconic snorkelling spots like Oyster Stacks and Turquoise Bay. You can put your mask and snorkel on and go in straight off the beach, then just drift over the coral. Experienced free divers can also find places to challenge themselves. There’s a real mix.
If you want to relax, just pick your own stretch of sand, set up your esky and beach brolly, and take your favourite book. The colour of the water is enough to set your mind at ease, and you’ll have the whole place to yourself. The only interruption might be a couple of turtles poking their heads up and checking you out.
Sleep under the stars
You really have to go camping for a couple of nights at Ningaloo, Gnaraloo or Quobba stations. You can have your own stretch of pristine, white sand and crystal-clear water with some of the best snorkelling in the world, all right in front of you. We take the dinghy and go snorkelling, surfing and kitesurfing, catch some fish for dinner, and just hang out on the beach. It’s beautiful.
If you prefer to glamp it, Sal Salis gives you a good taste of camping, but you’ll be doing it in luxury.
More than whale sharks
People come to Ningaloo Reef to swim with the whale sharks. But in just one day, we might also see a huge variety of whales – humpbacks, minkes, blue whales, orcas. As well as dolphins, manta rays, turtles, dugongs, reef sharks and thousands of tiny blue neon fish. You never know what the reef is going to throw at you. It’s like a real-life David Attenborough documentary, but you’re in it.
This year we’ve been licensed to trial visitor interactions in the water with humpback whales. There have been some incredible experiences. We’ve had people so overwhelmed that they were in tears. I’d certainly recommend that for an adventurous visitor.
Surf the reef
If you’re into surfing, there are heaps of breaks all the way down the Ningaloo Reef. Dunes Surf Beach is fantastic. It’s only about 15 minutes from Exmouth and there are four or five different waves. It caters from beginners right through to experienced surfers, and it’s really easy to get to.
We love the Muiron Islands – nine nautical miles from Vlamingh Head. The best time to go is when the baby turtles are hatching. Another highlight is Yardie Creek, a freshwater system which flows between the cliffs of Yardie Creek Gorge, just over the peninsula from Exmouth. I like to take a stand-up paddleboard and paddle up the gorge. The red cliffs are a great contrast to the colours of Ningaloo.
There’s definitely something for everyone here. I think that’s one of the best things about Ningaloo.