A whale of a time at Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia

From the beach at Turquoise Bay, it’s only a few doggy-paddle strokes before the coral appears underneath. Squadrons of damselfish zip around, colourful wrasse patrol and strangely hypnotic clams pulsate. This, in a single scene, is the major selling point of ­Australia’s lesser-known great reef. The Ningaloo Reef is, in one sense of the word, […]

From the beach at Turquoise Bay, it’s only a few doggy-paddle strokes before the coral appears underneath. Squadrons of damselfish zip around, colourful wrasse patrol and strangely hypnotic clams pulsate.

This, in a single scene, is the major selling point of ­Australia’s lesser-known great reef. The Ningaloo Reef is, in one sense of the word, staggeringly accessible. It runs along Western Australia’s North West Cape for 300 kilometres, often just 100 metres from the shore. The lagoon this creates is calm, clear and teeming with life. Snorkellers can step off a white sand beach, duck their heads into the water, and immediately immerse themselves in a marine playground of magical proportions.

While the reef is beautifully accessible from Turquoise Bay, the rest of the world is considerably less so. The remoteness of Ningaloo is part of what keeps it so pristine. Turquoise Bay is a 30-minute drive, along a road that hugs the edge of the peninsula, from Exmouth. And Exmouth is already in the middle of nowhere.

Perth, Western Australia’s state capital and only city of any size, is 1,260km to the south. There’s not an awful lot in between. One look at the red dirt and scrub surroundings shows Exmouth to be an outback town that just happens to be next to the ocean. Expected palm trees and lush green backdrops are replaced by a desert utilitarianism that brings to mind photos of Abu Dhabi just after oil was first found. That the town exists at all is thanks to the Americans, who decided to build a submarine base there in the 1960s. The infrastructure is still in place, but is run on a maintenance-only rather than fully operational basis.

Osprey Bay is farther down the road from Turquoise Bay, and that’s where Neridah Grieve of the Exmouth Adventure ­Company wants to kick off a day’s exploration. While swimming out from the shore brings spectacular coral formations into view, using a kayak to head a little bit farther opens whole new levels of aquatic eye candy.

We paddle out and tether our kayaks to a specially sited mooring buoy. It’s inside a sanctuary zone, where no fishing is allowed, and it shows. Around a coral bommie, dozens of snapper flit around, while brilliant-blue starfish cling to the rocks like discarded velvet gloves. Emperors, angelfish and clownfish show their faces, with the variety and the interactions between all parts of the underwater ecosystem making it utterly absorbing to take in. Small silvery fish that would be unexceptional on their own become a spectacle when in huge schools, interspersed by weird flute-nosed compadres.

Grieve dives down to look for something under the bommie, then starts pointing at a tail. The tail soon moves out to reveal a full reef shark, and another one comes to join it. They circle around warily, checking that we’re not a threat. Nearby, a manta ray’s eyes peer up from its sand-covered body. Puffs of sand coming from underneath show that it’s breathing.

After some ungainly clambering back into the kayaks, we get into a rhythm paddling along the coast. The target is Sandy Bay, another swoonily curving expanse of uncombed white sand. But it’s what’s on the way rather than the destination that matters.

In the water, what look initially to be small patches of coral dart away as the kayak approaches. They’re turtles, and they haven’t yet learnt that kayaks aren’t fierce predators. Closer to the shore, shovel-nosed rays (“head of a ray, tail of a shark, unwelcome characteristics of neither,” says Grieve) glide through the shallows.

We weave the kayaks through huge schools of parrotfish, zooming in all directions to get out of the way of our paddles. On top of the dunes, there’s a marvellous slice of stereotypical Australiana, as small kangaroos skip off towards the rocks where they like to hang out.

We pull up on the beach for morning tea. We’re the only ones there, apart from some silvery, ghostly crabs. “Sometimes, I’ll come here at night, and there are so many of them, it looks like the beach is moving,” says Grieve.

But weird, near-translucent crabs aren’t what most people have come to the Ningaloo Reef to see. For a few months of the year, among all the small- and medium-sized fish, is the biggest of them all – the whale shark.

After the full moon every March, the coral on ­Ningaloo spawns en masse into the ocean. This foodfest attracts plankton, which in turn bring in the whale sharks. They grow to about 12 metres long, are by far the biggest fish in the world, and are utterly harmless filter feeders with admirably placid personalities.

They have a tendency to hang out just behind the reef, and Ocean Eco Adventures has a microlight up in the air looking for one while passengers have a morning snorkel. When one is spotted, it’s everyone back on board, a quick nip through the gap in the reef, and a bit of nifty positioning.

The skipper deliberately places the boat ahead of the whale sharks, so that by the time everyone is lined up treading water, the shark will pass as if on ­parade.

The first time is revelatory. After a few seconds of confused kicking and splashing, it becomes immediately obvious why we’ve been positioned this way. A four-metre whale shark moves silently into view, its slit-like mouth open, ready for a big feed.

It’s almost certainly a juvenile male – about 80 per cent of the whale sharks that show up at Ningaloo are males, and it’s too small to be a full-grown adult. The reasons for the gender imbalance can only be guessed, although the crew think it’s because the females prefer to give birth and raise calves in the deeper water, where there are fewer potential predators.

The sheer bulk of the thing would raise heavy gasps if doing so wouldn’t lead to a mouthful of water. And the clarity of the scene – visibility is pretty much perfect – makes it look like CGI special effects.

There are strict limitations on the interactions – no touching, no getting closer than three metres, no actions that will lead to unnatural behaviour, and no more than 10 people in a group in the water with it. But being able to get this close feels like an enormous privilege. There’s no sense of danger, or conflict – just simple awe.

The shark heads past, its tail slowly waving back and forth as propulsion, and we swim back to the boat for another go. Again, we’re dropped in position, this time amid a speckled panorama of the plankton that the whale sharks have come to eat.

This time, however, it’s not just one shark that has booked into the watery restaurant. There are two of them, circling each other. They seem almost entirely uninterested in the visitors that are excitably humbled by their presence. Again they glide past, gills flaring (generally a sign that they’re feeding), and tails powering away with effortless, hypnotic rhythm.

The third plunge into the ­Indian Ocean is a more active one. Again, the whale shark passes in front of us. But this time, we go with it.

It’s swimming at nowhere near full speed – the human equivalent would be the walking pace of someone browsing in a shopping precinct – which allows us to keep up. We front crawl alongside it for 10 to 15 minutes, enveloped in the deep blue, and entranced by the white-spotted behemoth. It continues to seem remorselessly unperturbed by us. We’re not a threat, and we’re not an annoyance. And on ­Australia’s less-heralded reef, that live-and-let-live attitude is the standard way of life. The great aquatic tapestry keeps weaving with remarkably little interference from meddling humans.

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