PLACES TO GO
Once you arrive at this tiny coastal hamlet put the keys away; you can walk or swim to everything. That includes the Ningaloo Reef, which is just 50m offshore in calm waters (keep your eyes peeled for Merv the giant grouper, who lurks under the jetty and often gives snorkellers a fright). There are two caravan parks, a simple ‘resort’ and a backpackers’ hostel, plus a number of private homes that you have to book well in advance for school holidays. All the options are pretty basic but that’s the beauty of this low-key town. Make like the locals do and get around on a quad bike – it’s the best way to explore the coastline, and there are a number of dune-bashing tours that include a pitstop at Green Lagoon where you can snorkel with the resident turtles. If you walk north from the main beach for 15-20 minutes, there’s a shark nursery in Skeleton Bay where you can see the water teeming with baby reef sharks from October to May. Kids will love how the sharks follow them
as they walk along the edge of the water (while the sharks are harmless, it’s best not to disturb them by wading in).
Exmouth boasts some of the region’s best activities, including diving on the world-class Navy Pier and snorkelling in Turquoise Bay. The airport is just out of town, and amongst the campgrounds and motels there are a couple of luxury options too, like the safari camp Sal Salis and the Ningaloo Novotel. Stock up on groceries at the large IGA supermarket if you’re heading to Coral Bay because it’s a lot more reasonably priced and has a bigger range. Six of the world’s seven species of sea turtle can be found in the waters off the Ningaloo Coast, with green, loggerhead, hawksbill and flatback turtles the most common. The Jurabi Turtle Centre on Yardie Creek Road is a great stopover for turtle information, and you can regularly spot or swim with green turtles all year round in the Ningaloo Lagoon. Turtle nesting and subsequent hatching occurs on many beaches along the western side of Exmouth’s North West Cape from November to March. Visitors wishing to watch are encouraged to take a guided night tour from the Jurabi Turtle Centre. Bookings are essential – contact the Department of Parks and Wildlife on (08) 9947 8000.
Cape Range National Park
Covering almost 50,000ha, this park is home to gorges and canyons, and more than 50km of perfect white beachfront.Turquoise Bay – and its drift snorkel over colourful coral – is the park’s big drawcard, but hiking is popular, too. Mandu Mandu Gorge has a 3km trail with good views from the rim, but wear good hiking shoes because you’ll be walking across rocks. There is also a scenic trail ambling along Yardie Creek Gorge, or you can jump on a boat tour from the jetty (check times and book at the Exmouth visitor centre or online). The boat tour operators also offer a bus service between town and Turquoise Bay, which is handy if you don’t have a car. The park is most easily accessed by way of Exmouth, but those with a 4WD can tackle the bone-jarringly corrugated road up from Coral Bay (see below). There is a fee to enter the park ($12 per vehicle) which is paid at the entry station. If you’d like to camp in the park there are a number of sites and extra fees apply.
While it can make for a bumpy ride if it hasn’t been graded recently, the coastal road north from Point Maud near Coral Bay is a fun way to get into the Cape Range National Park without having to take the long way around. The 4WD track passes through Ningaloo Station, where you can camp on the beach. To get into the national park, you’ll need to cross Yardie Creek, a soft-sand river pass affected by tides – you’ll need to be an experienced 4WDer. The park ranger only offers tow outs for vehicles that get stuck in the crossing as an emergency service, and as such, there’s no guarantee help will get there in time (before the tide comes in, that is). Always check with the Milyering visitor centre for crossing conditions. At other times, the Department of Defence shuts off the coastal road (there’s a military zone nearby), so be sure to check with the DPaW for updates before setting off, (08) 9947 8000. There are no facilities along the track, so fill up your tank in Coral bay and take your own water and supplies.
THINGS TO DO
Become a Scientist
There’s plenty of exciting research that you can get involved in. The Jurabi Turtle Centre’s Turtle Tracker program sees volunteers collect data on turtle nesting beaches and assisting with animal rescues. Oceanwise Expedition offer a Scientist for the Day program, on which you can dive with the whale sharks and help the marine scientists collect data, plus get a run-down on all their current research. Murdoch University’s marine research station is based in Coral Bay, and is a centre for Manta Ray research. Anyone can contribute to this by taking a photo of a manta’s belly (which is like a fingerprint) and emailing it to [email protected] (it will be used to identify individual manta rays). Construction starts in October 2014 on the Ningaloo Centre, which will function as both a visitor centre and hub for scentific research. It is set to open in late 2015.
Luckily for divers, Exmouth and Coral Bay have plenty of tours operating straight out of town (a preferable option to self-dives). Exmouth’s Navy Pier is touted as one of Australia’s top ten dive sites and is home to more than 200 species of marine life including reef sharks, lionfish, moray eels, sea snakes and giant gropers (for an extra buzz, dive at night). The licence for diving the pier changes hands every few years; check with the Exmouth visitor centre to see which operator currently holds it. Experienced divers will also enjoy the Turtle Mound (35m depth) north of the Tantabiddi Boat Ramp in Cape Range National Park where huge turtles, pelagic fish and sponges can be spotted, but you’ll need a private boat to get there. Lighthouse Bay on the tip of the North West Cape (north of Exmouth) has a number of excellent sites for divers, like the Labyrinth (18m), a limestone maze of craters and swimthroughs where you’re likely to spot sea snakes, wobbegongs, gropers and stingrays. Near Coral Bay, head just to the southwest of Point Maud to a 14m drop-off that leads to an opening in the reef. Be sure to explore this area only when conditions are suitable (it is more exposed to strong currents). Once you dive in you’ll be rewarded with gropers, barracuda, turtles and reef sharks along the reef edge (it’s also thought to be a manta ray mating ground). You can refill your tanks and hire equipment at Ningaloo Reef in Coral Bay, or at a number of places in Exmouth.
While the drift snorkel at Turquoise Bay in the Cape Range National Park is the region’s hot-ticket site, it can get busy, and there are plenty of other excellent choices. Oyster Stacks is a convenient option, because the reef here runs hard up against the shore, so it’s literally only a matter of steps into the water before you’re looking down upon thick coral gardens and an overwhelmingly diverse and spectacular range of reef fish. Low tide periods should be avoided when snorkelling here so as to ensure there’s plenty of water to float you above the seafloor and prevent unintentional damage to the corals below. The Bateman Sanctuary Zone, 8km north of Coral Bay, has several good snorkel sites such as The Lagoon and the Oyster Bridge, but easier to access is Purdy Point, located 500m south of the main beach in town. About 200m offshore are crowds of colourful fish that make up for the muted shades of coral, but if you keep your eyes peeled you’ll spot the 50m-long ‘lavender patch’, an area of lilac coral close to the beach just north of the 5 knot sign.
With the continental shelf only kilometres offshore from the outer edge of the Ningaloo Reef, and the vast, shallow Exmouth Gulf offering protection from the open ocean, Exmouth offers a wide range of fishing environments that are home to a bewildering array of prized game and sport fish. For this reason, Exmouth is regarded by many anglers as Australia’s premier fishing destination. Exmouth is recognised as one of the finest game fishing destinations in the world. All six Australian billfish species (blue, black and striped marlin, sailfish, broadbill swordfish and shortbill spearfish) are encountered here, along with yellowfin tuna, mahi mahi (dolphinfish), wahoo, cobia, Spanish mackerel, giant trevally and many others. Every year in March, the Exmouth Game Fishing Club hosts its Gamex tournament which always produces some fantastic – often record breaking – catches, particularly in terms of tag-and-release numbers. Game Fishing charters operate out of both Exmouth and Coral Bay. For those looking to take home a feed of tasty reef fish, professional charter boats depart Exmouth and Coral Bay daily. They offer a range of tours including half- and full-day fishing trips, as well as being available for private charter. Some of the sought-after table fish include spangled emperor (nor-west snapper), coral trout, red emperor, gold band snapper and bluebone.
Visit The Murion Islands
These two islands lie just 10 nautical miles off the tip of the North West Cape, and are a popular daytrip for fishing, diving and surfing. Camping is allowed at certain times of the year on the northeastern section of South Muiron Island, but you’ll need to get a permit from the DPaW. If you take a hire boat over there, check the fine print of your contract; many won’t allow you to leave boats moored or pulled up on shore overnight. There also local operators who provide transfers to and from the islands.
- Snorkel and dive on the Ningaloo Reef
- Swim with the whale sharks and manta rays
- 4WD along remote tracks
- Fish the Exmouth Gulf
- Camp on the beach at a station
- Cruise down Yardie Creek Gorge
- Hike the Cape Range National Park
- Watch a turtle nesting
- See the whales migrating
- Surf the Muiron Islands
- Catch and release a marlin
All these and more at www.scoop.com.au/thingstodo
WHALE SHARKS, CORAL SPAWNING, AND WHALES
There’s nothing that quite compares to swimming alongside a marine animal that’s as big as a bus. The whale sharks arrive in large numbers from March until July, and there are a number of operators departing from both Exmouth and Coral Bay that will take you out to snorkel with these gentle giants (diving is not allowed). The annual congregation coincides with coral spawning, which occurs after the full moon in March or April; the coral releases millions of bright pink bundles that float to the surface – an amazing event to witness underwater. Check with the Exmouth visitor centre for spawning dates. As the whale sharks clear out, the humpback whales pass through – more than 30,000 individual whales to be exact. The whales can often be spotted from the shore but for an up-close encounter there are tours that run out of Coral Bay and Exmouth.
CAMP NEXT TO THE BEACH
With its warm nights, even in winter, the Coral Coast is a great place to sleep outdoors, and one of the few places left where you can actually camp right next to the beach. Those who like their nature with a side of luxury can glamp at Sal Salis in the Cape Range National Park; for a more traditional camping experience, there are 110 unpowered campsites in the park, many right next to the water. The grey nomads tend to settle in for months at a time up here, so sites can be hard to jag (four can be booked in advance but the rest are on a first come, first served basis). The best ones are at Mesa, Osprey Bay and Ned’s Camp (there are even some precious shady trees at the last). For availability, contact the DEC office on (08) 9947 8000. Just south of the park on the 4WD coastal road to Coral Bay, at Ningaloo Station, there are private, locked beachfront campsites, which are generously spaced out. They can also be booked online ahead of time (visit ningaloostation.com.au). You’ll need to take all the food and water needed for your stay because there are no facilities (although eco toilets and fireboxes can be hired from the homestead). 60km south of Coral Bay at Warroora Station, campers can pitch their tents right on the sand at 14 Mile Beach (it’s also the only site accessible by 2WD on the station). The campsites at Black Moon Cliff have panoramic views, and the highlights of Steven’s Surf Break site are pretty self-explanatory. You’ll need to bring your own camping toilet and wood for campfires but there are showers for a small fee at the homestead, (08) 9942 5920. And while it’s not technically camping, keen fishermen and women will be in seventh heaven at exclusive eco haven Wilderness Island in the Exmouth Gulf; it has some of the best fishing in Australia, and the simple safari cabins all have uninterrupted ocean views (wildernessisland.com.au).
From June through to October, these playful mammals migrate along the coast. The best time to observe them is at midday so jump aboard one of the many tour boats to see them up close, or head to a vantage point – Vlamingh Head Lighthouse on the tip of the North West Cape is a good one.
Various locations, Jun-Oct.
Gamex Fishing Event
This comp sees anglers fight it out over the week to land some of the region’s
40 species of gamefish, including the feisty billfish. Exmouth, Mar.
Turtles drag themselves up onto the beach and nest from December, and their hatchlings emerge six weeks later. Most hatching takes place in Feburary and March. Ningaloo Reef.
Whale Shark Festival
This festival celebrates the yearly migration of the whale shark to the reef. Take part in the fun run, family day, and the Whaleshark Gala, or enjoy live music entertainment. Exmouth, May.