The (Other) Gentle Giants of Ningaloo Reef

Whale sharks may have put WA’s Ningaloo on the tourist map, but it’s the reef’s other gentle giants – manta rays – that have cast a spell over one scientist.

With a secluded location halfway up the WA coastline, and a marine ecosystem as pristine as it is productive, cruising Ningaloo Reef is what local scientist and ecotour operator, Frazer McGregor, likens to “driving around an open plains zoo”.

Turtles, dolphins, hundreds of coral species and the area’s star attraction, its majestic whale sharks, draw in regular visitors to the reef. But it’s Ningaloo’s lesser-known attraction, its manta ray population near Coral Bay, that’s really making waves. As one of very few places on the planet where manta rays can be seen (and swum with) year-round, these magnificent creatures share a unique relationship with the reef that they inhabit.

Where in the world

Twenty years ago, McGregor was a biological sciences undergraduate, unaware that Ningaloo even existed. It wasn’t until he was driving past Coral Bay on a road trip, that a sign for a marine park caught his eye, luring him to pull over for a spot of diving.

“Back then, Ningaloo reef wasn’t even on the map – I didn’t know where I was,” Frazer reflects. “But as soon as I got in the water and saw this abundance of marine life, I realised it was a pretty special place.” His conclusion was correct: Ningaloo is now understood to be one of the largest, most biologically diverse fringing coral reefs in the world.

Manta rays (Manta birostris), in Ningaloo Marine Park
Photo: Manta rays, Ningaloo Marine Park

Back then, though, McGregor was simply intrigued by the area’s permanent manta ray population – a phenomenon he knew was unusual, thanks to his shiny new science degree. “Typically, manta rays are nomadic creatures, which migrate to different areas – but they live year round at Ningaloo,” he explains.

When he asked locals about this behaviour, however, it became apparent that nobody knew much about the jumbo residents. Eager to learn more, Frazer swiftly packed up his life, moved to Coral Bay, and began his PhD in manta ray ecology and the role they play within the local ecosystem.

Today he is manager of the Coral Bay Research Station and owner of Ningaloo Marine Interactions, a tourism experience that offers lucky guests the opportunity to see – and swim with – the graceful creatures in their natural environment. He has also gone on to become a key member of lobbyist movement that ultimately secured the area’s World Heritage listing. “I basically just fell in love with everything in Ningaloo.”

Mysterious manta rays

Having now spent 14 years cataloguing Ningaloo’s unique manta ray community, McGregor says over 1000 mantas have been identified, 30 of which are routinely seen (some even have their own names). His observations have also revealed that these gliding giants, some spanning over five metres wide, appear to have individual personalities.

“We’ve noticed our regular mature females – such as Isobel, Whoopi and Freckles – are totally relaxed and happily let us swim around them, whereas the males tend to be more flighty,” McGregor explains. “There’s one in particular called Warney, who’ll even shepherd us away from them if he feels threatened.”

Manta rays (Manta birostris), in Ningaloo Marine Park

Those who aren’t acquainted with humans sometimes show more curious behaviours like flipping upside down — a common tactic used to get a better sense of what’s approaching, McGregor says. These inquisitive displays are unsurprising, he adds, when you consider the brain size of the manta ray. “They have the largest brain-to-body ratio of any fish.”

What’s more fascinating to McGregor, though, is what keeps these traditionally seasonal creatures on the reef. “Manta rays are a predator of plankton or larvae, so they play a critical role in regulating populations lower down the food chain,” he explains. “In less prolific ecosystems, it’s often important that manta rays travel seasonally to other food sources, in order to ensure sufficient food is available. But in a prolific and healthy ecosystem such as Ningaloo, there’s little need for all of them to migrate away.

Ningaloo’s excellent condition is also evident from the appearance of special locations visited regularly by manta rays around the reef, McGregor adds. “We call these points ‘cleaning stations’, where little fish congregate and manta rays visit,” he says. “The little fish eat all the parasites and bugs that can make the manta rays sick — it’s a wonderful example of animals getting mutual benefit from each other, and a lovely demonstration of how healthy the reef is.”

Swimming with giants

In addition to gracing the reef 12 months a year, Ningaloo’s manta rays differ from those in other locations in that they inhabit the ocean’s shallows, as well as the deeper waters more typical of mantas.

For travellers, this means easier access to the beautiful creatures: simply climb aboard Utopia – McGregor’s reef-friendly vessel – and set off into the aqua waters of Coral Bay, no scuba licence required. After a gentle snorkel across some of Ningaloo’s vibrant coral gardens, the boat will steer north to deeper environs (still no more than six metres), to predetermined coordinates given by the pilots of search planes overhead. As well as manta rays, you may see dugongs and dolphins, before jumping in for a swim with the graceful giants.

Manta rays (Manta birostris), in Ningaloo Marine Park
Photo: Manta rays, Ningaloo Marine Park

“We want to show people two very different habitats within the reef and just how diverse it is in what is quite a small space,” explains McGregor. “We want to show what makes the Ningaloo Coast a UNESCO site.”

Guests can also expect to cruise through the reef’s shallow sand flats where turtles and tiger sharks are also regularly spotted.

Despite the fact that this is a tourism experience, McGregor is quick to point out that the highest priority remains the wellbeing of the rays, and the reef. “One of the great things about Ningaloo is that in WA we have strict environmental and operational restrictions,” he says. “Every visitor can expect a really high-quality wildlife experience as a result.

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