Out of the Blue
Western Australia’s 12,000km-long coastline is considered the cleanest in the world.
Fewer visitors compared to seaside locations along Australia’s east coast mean that in WA, you can find pristine wrecks and reef structures.
Dive into the clear, unpolluted (and unpopulated) Indian Ocean waters and mother nature will reward you with coral reefs and atolls free from human erosion, and historic ship wrecks teeming with colourful fish and marine life.
Whether you’re snorkeling alongside majestic whale sharks outside the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef, or diving down coral-covered walls in the Houtman Abrolhos Islands – home to the Indian Ocean’s southern-most coral reef – you’re guaranteed an unparalleled underwater adventure.
The Houtman Abrolhos Islands
Already a revered recreational fishing destination, the 122 islets of the Houtman Abrolhos Islands are also one of Western Australia’s best snorkel and dive locations.
Arranged into three groups – Pelseart in the south, Easter in the middle and Wallabi in the north with the larger North Island crowning the lot – the islands sit in the pathway of the fast flowing Leeuwin Current, which washes tropical water down from the north of the state bringing with it a precious cargo of coral spawn and fish larvae. As a result, the Abrolhos (as the islands are more commonly known) is home to the Indian Ocean’s southern-most coral reef, much of which is accessible to divers and snorkelers.
One of the best sites is the Morley Island Dive Trail in the central East Group. It starts in the shallow waters at the northern end of the islet’s turquoise bay then drops away to a seabed covered in delicate finger coral. Falling down the dramatic wall, the brilliantly coloured coral garden is home to bull-headed baldchin grouper, schools of shimmering minnow and brightly coloured wrasse.
Located off East Wallabi Island, the Turtle Bay dive trail is also easily accessed from the shore. Divers and snorkelers pass over a swaying seagrass meadow to the start of the trail the swim through crystal clear water over predominantly plate and finger coral – the perfect hideaway for lobster, shellfish and crabs.
As spectacular as they are, the reefs are also incredibly treacherous and have been the undoing of at least 18 ships over the centuries. Today, divers can explore a number of these wrecks, including state’s most infamous, the Batavia, which struck Mooring Reef off Beacon Island in 1629. The wreck sits on the Long Island Dive Trail and when visibility is good, divers can swim comfortably over it.
Perhaps the region’s greatest asset and best-kept secret is the World Heritage listed Ningaloo Reef. Stretching 260km from Coral Bay in the south to Exmouth in the north, it’s Australia’s longest fringing coral reef. Located just metres from the shore in some parts, the Reef is also the most accessible, making it a snorkeler’s playground.
While there are numerous snorkel sites, one of the best is at the aptly named Turquoise Bay, an easy 60km drive south of Exmouth. Here, visitors “drift snorkel” by walking out to the reef at the southern end of the beach and allowing the current to wash them north over the spectacular coral garden. Other popular sites include Oyster Stacks and Lakeside.
The Ningaloo Marine Park is one of the only places in the world where whale sharks appear annually in search of spawning coral. Between March and July charter companies take visitors to the back of the reef where they literally glide side by side with the gentle herbivorous giants in eerie, underwater silence, sometimes joined by manta rays, turtles, and on rare occasions, dugongs feasting on the world’s largest seagrass meadows.
Not only can visitors to Exmouth and Coral Bay dive with whale sharks, but between August and October they can swim with humpback whales too. Previously endangered, humpback whale numbers have steadily recovered since commercial fishing of the species ended in 1963 and now an estimated 30,000 migrate along the coast each year making Western Australia’s the largest population in the world.
Midway between Coral Bay and Exmouth on the inside of Ningaloo Reef, Norwegian Bay houses a twisted pile of metal – the wreck of a small Norwegian whaler, Fin. Forced aground in 1923, the remains of the metal tanker and the base of an old lighthouse tower jut out of the shallow water and although a dinghy is needed to access the site, the schools of cleaner wrasse, electric blue starfish, turtles, reef sharks and turtles make the effort well worth it.