We were peering into the deep water, straining to see as far as we could through the blue. The first time we had jumped off the boat had been in vain and we had not seen anything. This time we were hoping it would be different. The guide indicated we should put our masks in the water and look in her direction. At first there was nothing just the deep blue ocean with the sun shining brightly overhead. Then slowly it appeared gently, majestically swimming slowly towards us, the largest fish in the world, a beautiful spotted whale shark.
You could hear everyone gasp as the whale shark appeared and the excitement fizzed through the water. Some of it was sheer excitement but some was also apprehension as the 7.5 metre shark swam towards us. There was no need to be frightened though as the whale shark feeds almost exclusively on plankton and is really a gentle giant. Unperturbed by our presence the shark swam slowly passed us. With Lucy between Gilly and I, we quickly swam alongside admiring the beauty of nature. The shark has a massive mouth to take in the plankton and underneath its spotted body were various sucker and feeder fish coming along for the ride. We spent a couple of minutes with it before it dived deep from the surface and disappeared way beyond our sight but not from our memory. It was an amazing experience.
We had arrived in Exmouth, which is situated at the end of a peninsular on the North West tip of Australia the previous day. Exmouth is the gateway to the world heritage listed Ningaloo Reef and is famous for encounters with whale sharks and other marine life. As the boats only take 20 passengers we had booked our trip in advance and set off the next day hoping we would be lucky enough to swim with whale sharks. We need not have worried. The tour companies use spotter planes which can see the sharks on the surface of the ocean and guide the boats towards them. Only 10 people are allowed in the water at any one time and we were lucky enough to swim with 3 different whale sharks. The visibility was fantastic and it was truly magical to spend some time with these wonderful creatures. It was a great trip out and was so much more than just the whale sharks. We got to see lots of humpback whales that were migrating North to give birth from Antarctica. Perhaps we even saw one that we had seen previously in Antarctica 18 months ago! We also saw turtles, dolphins and a minke whale. There was also the opportunity to go snorkelling on the coral reef which was full of fish and we even saw a sting ray and a reef shark. The crew were excellent and very knowledgeable about the reef and the animals that lived there which helped make it such a special day out.
The next day we headed out of Exmouth around the top of the peninsular to the Cape Range National Park. The park is set right on the side of the ocean and the Ningaloo Reef is only just off the shore. Backing up onto the ocean is a small range with gorges that lead down to the sea. There is a lot of wildlife on land too with kangaroos and emus running around. One of the added bonuses is that there are some great snorkelling spots that you can swim to straight off the beach. For the first one, Oyster Stacks, we had to time it to arrive at high tide and were rewarded with fantastic snorkelling. The reef was full of fish and we spent several hours snorkelling there. Turquoise Beach was a beautiful sandy beach that you could easily spend the whole day relaxing on but a short wade and swim out led to another great snorkelling spot. There was quite a current there and if you went in at one end you could drift easily along enjoying the coral and fish below. You just had to make sure you got out before the current swept you out to the ocean over the top of the reef. Mind you Gilly got out early on one drift after seeing a 1.5 metre shark swimming near her. It was probably just a harmless reef shark but she wasn’t taking any chances!
The weather forecast for the next few days was not good so we were glad we took the most of the swimming opportunities. We camped in the National Park just back from a gorgeous beach but as we went to bed the rain started. It rained all night and we woke up to a wet and blustery day. What a change from a few days ago. The temperature struggled to reach 20 degrees and the rain was pretty constant all day. This is when we love having our truck. There may not be a lot of space in the back but there is enough for us all to be comfortable and to do our own thing. It was a day watching movies with a brisk walk along the beach to get some fresh air.
We had heard that the snorkelling at Coral Bay was exceptional so headed there down the peninsular for a few days. Coral Bay is a tiny town that is really just a shop, a pub, a hotel and a couple of caravan parks. When we arrived the weather was still miserable so we didn’t fancy going in for a swim. However on the beach every other day at 3.30 they feed the fish. The kids loved feeding the large Spangled Emperor fish that swam around their feet. We were told you had to bury your toes in the sand to avoid the fish biting them!
The next day the weather was starting to improve and it was good to see the sun again. However it wasn’t very warm and there was a cool breeze. As it was our last day though we were determined to go snorkelling so took the plunge. We were rewarded with amazing coral gardens that looked like cabbage leaves with fish swimming amongst them. The corals were rather dull in colour which we were not sure was natural to this type of coral or due to coral bleaching that is currently affecting coral reefs around the world. Every so often there were tips of coral sticking out that were bright blue and some amazing rocky coral formations. Again snorkelling was very easy, you just had to walk in off the beach. Mind you as soon as you came out the cold wind hit you so each time we dashed back to the truck to change into dry clothes.
When it comes to coral reefs in Australia it is the Great Barrier Reef that gets the headlines but we enjoyed the Ningaloo Reef more. It is more accessible and we saw much more there.
As we drove south the terrain of the peninsular reminded me of the English moors. After all this was sheep farming country. After the rain it was much greener than normal but the scenery was one of grass and short bushes. We turned off the main road south to head again to the coast. Here the ocean seemed much wilder crashing against the low cliffs. We stopped to see some blowholes where the waves washed under the shelf of a cliff before shooting out of some holes into the sky.
We camped at Quobba Station, a sheep farm and found a spot right on top of the cliffs looking down on the waves crashing below. It was great as we could even spot whales from the truck as they were swimming up the coast. Although the sun was out it was now a lot cooler as we are in the depths of winter and no longer in the tropics (we crossed back over the Tropic of Capricorn on our drive south out of Coral Bay). It was too cold and too rough to swim so we passed our day there with a long walk along the coast and enjoying the scenery. We will have to get used to this weather as we continue south to return to Perth which is now not that far away, well relatively, in Australian terms.