10 years ago, when I first got to Australia I spent just one day in Exmouth and I promised myself to be back one day. Finally, the day had come! Normally once you get back to a place where you have been at a younger age you get disappointed but Exmouth did definitely not disappoint me. I felt again in love with Exmouth as I felt the first time I got there.
- The Cape Range National Park
- The Ningaloo Reef & its biologically diverse marine environment
- The Ningaloo Reef Sights & Tours
- Diving Sites
- Swimming with the humpback whale/whale shark Tour
- Coral Bay
- General Information about Exmouth & Coral Bay
- Breweries in Exmouth
- The Ningaloo Whaleshark Festival
History & Facts
Let´s start with a bit of history of this gorgeous place, which in my opinion is one of the most beautiful places of the world if not the most beautiful. The Dutch Captain Williem Janz of the Mauritius was the first documented European landing on the Ningaloo Coast in 1618 (150 years before Captain James Cook arrived on the East Coast).
The name Exmouth Gulf was given in honor of Viscount Exmouth by Australian Captain Phillip Parker King who spent 8 days exploring the region in 1818.
After the wreck of the SS Mildura in 1907, two Lighthouses were built: the Vlamingh Head in 1911 and the Point Cloates in 1912.
In 1942 the United States Navy established a submarine base under the Code name Operation Potshot. It served as a permanent submarine base for just a short period but continued to operate as a refueling facility. During World War II the Royal Australian Navy and Air Force personnel operated early warning radar and anti-aircrafts guns in support of these facilities. In 1963 due to the rapidly escalating Cold War and the need of a communication system in 1963 the Harold E-Holt Communications Station (a Very Low Frequency (VFL) transmitter which is said to be the second tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere – Tower Zero is 387,6m high, weighs around 800t and surrounded by 12 shorter towers) was established (an agreement between Australian and US governments). Exmouth was built to support these facilities and in 1967 they were officially declared opened. In 1992 after the Americans and Australian withdrew their military personnel from Exmouth the VFL station was put in the hands of civilian contractors.
Exmouth has a population of around 2200 permanent residents. Known for its dry climate with hot summers and mild winters – Exmouth can be visited all year round. However, summertime temperatures can be extreme and during this time a moderate risk of tropical cyclone exists.
Car Rental & Accommodation Options
To get the most out of this experience we´ve decided to rent a car (we did not rent a 4wheel drive – please be aware that there are some areas of the Cape Range National Park which are only accessible by a 4 wheel drive – therefore you should decide where to go before hiring a car, otherwise you are better off taking a 4 wheel drive). Please be also aware that fuel can only be obtained in Exmouth, Coral Bay and Carnavaron – these cities are not that close to each other.
In Exmouth you can find plenty of accommodation options such as Hotels, Hostels etc. but we´ve decided to camp at the Cape Range National park especially to have as many chances as possible to encounter local wildlife in its environment. In fact, we manage to see many Dingoes, kangaroos, Emus (we were there in August therefore we managed to see Emus with chicks as well – an interesting fact about these animals is that for their first-year chicks are guarded by the male emu. Please be aware that Emus can be seen wandering in the townships of Exmouth very very often) and lots of gorgeous birds (such as the Australian Bustard, Galah and Cockatoo).
The Cape Range National Park
At the Cape Range National Park there are many camping areas (around 140 throughout the park) – most of them accessible with a two-wheel drive. There are very few facilities – some camps have more than others. No pets are permitted. Please be also aware that the camp sites can only be booked via internet on “parkstay.dbca.wa.gov.au” and that the camping do fill up quickly therefore try to book in advance (during the high season you should probably book at least 6 months in advance). When booking you are asked your car license plate – simply write your driving license number and tell the car license plate at the guard at the Entrance Station when you first arrive. In this way it will be added to your booking and signed by the guard and you will be fine.
General Info & Sights
Cape Range is a biogeographic transition zone between the tropic, temperate and desert regions therefore many plants and animals’ endemic to the peninsula are found nowhere else. It is also home to a large variety of Australian wildlife such as kangaroos, rock wallabies, emus, dingoes, echidnas and a variety of reptiles and birds. Unusual flora and wildflower can be seen in late winter and spring including the Sturt’s desert pea and the green bird flower – this is due to the fact that in ancient times the Cape Range was an isolated island.
Please be aware that wildlife can be encountered on all roads therefore please drive carefully especially around dawn and night. It happened just once to us – we did see a lot of kangaroos (some of them got scared and crossed the road which is really dangerous therefore I do suggest you to avoid it if possible) but we had to drive really really slowly. Both of us had to look at the sides of the road and it definitely wasn´t a nice drive. We were happy once we arrived at the campsite. If you come across injured or orphaned wildlife, please call the local CARE group in Exmouth on 0437 118 180.
The Cape Range National Park encompasses 50,581 hectares of the Cape Range peninsula and offers magnificent panoramas, deep canyons (such as the Shothole Canyon which is accessible only via 4 wheel drive), precipitous ridges & gorges.
The Mandu Mandu Gorge is a 3km long trail leads you down into the creek bed from where you can follow the base of the gorge to get back at the car park. This trek requires a moderate to high level of fitness. If you are lucky enough, you can spot black-footed rock wallabies. Please do not forget to always let somebody know where you are going and when you will be back – this is something that you should always do whenever you are going trekking.
Another famous gorge is Yardie Creek where centuries of erosion have formed a spectacular multi-colored gorge – the only one in this area with permanent water that comes from the sea. Here you can find mangroves – long clothing and insect repellent are recommended), several bird species, many marine life and a colony of black- footed rock wallabies. A relatively easy walking trail can be found along the top of the northern walk of the gorge – in alterative you can join a boat cruise through the creek) and caves (around 535 caves up to 100m deep).
Entry & camping Fees
Please be aware that you must pay vehicle park entry fees (AUD13 per vehicle – these fees can be paid online or at the Entry Gate. Passes are available as well). Additional camping fees apply (if you camp at the Cape Range you will pay the Entry Fee just for one day/ you can then get in and out of the park as many times as you wish)
The Ningaloo Reef & its biologically diverse marine environment
The 300 km long Ningaloo Reef is one of the closest coral reefs to land in the world and amongst the most biologically diverse marine environments on the planet.
In 2011 it was declared a Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area and it is home of over 200 coral, around 500 species of tropical fish, around 650 mollusc, around 600 crustacean, 1000 marine algae, around 115 sponge and around 25 echinoderm species.
Mega marine life that can be found here include whales, dolphins (such as the Australian Humpback dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin and the spinner dolphin), manta rays (growing up to 7m from wing tip to wing tip – mantas have no barbs in their tails therefore they are harmless – manta Rays can be seen year-round and in particular in Coral Bay), dugongs (a medium-sized strictly herbivorous marine mammal – one of the four living species of the sea cows, which also includes three species of manatees), sharks (such as grey nurse sharks, reef sharks and leopard sharks – it is said that the best area to see these gorgeous creature is near Coral Bay and the best time goes from September to February), orcas and turtles (such as green, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles).
The Ningaloo Reef Sights & Tours
Swim with the whale shark or Humpback whale – when to do it
There are lots of things to do in the area such as swim with the world’s biggest fish; the whale shark growing up to 12m long (March to August) or swim with the Humpback whale (June to November – sees the highest density of humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere during their annual migration from Antarctica). More info about the swim can be found further down the article.
This area is one of the world’s major breeding areas for sea turtles, which can be seen nesting on the beaches of the Ningaloo from November to March. Adult female lay their eggs (up to 200) which they bury deep below the sand to incubate and approx. six weeks after laying the turtle hatchlings emerge (mostly during dusk or dawn) and make (what I guess pretty much everybody has seen on documentaries) their desperate run into the sea (these hatchlings have numerous predators both on land and on sea and therefore unfortunately not many will become adults). Six of the world’s seven species of sea turtle can be found here and “The Jurabi Turtle Centre” on Exmouth Yardie Creek Road offers information also on evening tours which are conducted by “The Department of Parks and Wildlife” (DPaW). Please do not touch, disturb, handle or interfere with turtle hatchlings.
Chilling & snorkeling @ Turquoise Bay, Oyster Stack & Lakeside
We spent the entire week chilling at some of the gorgeous beaches of the Park such as Turquoise Bay (from the car park only 100m left – for swimmers of moderate to high fitness and capability), Oyster Stacks (perfect for inexperienced snorkelers – to snorkel at Oyster Stacks you should always check the high tide (min. 1.2m). To do this you can go to the “Milyering Discovery Centre”.) and Lakeside (from the car park only 500m to the left – for swimmers of moderate to high fitness and capability – at the Lakeside the snorkel area is marked so please do not snorkel somewhere else) which are also the three spots well known for snorkeling (easily accessible from shore).
Please be aware that there are strong currents therefore you should be a good swimmer before jumping in the water. You should also do a drift snorkel which allows you “ride” the current instead of swimming against it. I do suggest you bring along with you some “rock shoes” – there are a lot of sharp rocks while entering and exiting the water.
Please consider that corals are fragile and that they take a long time to regenerate therefore do please not touch, sit or break them. Please do also not take any shells, corals, plants or animals in order to preserve this amazing area.
Other gorgeous beaches
Obviously, there are a lot of other beaches as well such as the Exmouth Town Beach, Bundegi Beach (located approx. 12km north of Exmouth marks the start of the Ningaloo Marine Park and World Heritage Area), Surfers Beach or Dunes Beach (17km north of Exmouth), Lighthouse Bay & the Mildura Wreck (suitable for fishing, surfing and swimming).
The Cape Rang National Park features a lot more beaches than the once I have told you about – I do suggest you stop at the “Milyering Discovery Centre” once you arrive. They provide you with a gorgeous map and a lot of interesting information about the area.
We did book a couple of dives starting with the Exmouth Navy Pier which is considered by many as one of the top ten land-based dive sites in the world. It is a relatively shallow site with a maximum depth of around 15m. Due to strong currents that run past the Navy Pier, dives are tide dependent, so dive times vary daily.
The pier is a working Australian Navy facility (reopened to scuba divers in late 2016; therefore, divers may only access the Exmouth Navy Pier via the current licensed dive tour company which operates under a strict set of conditions). Please be aware that you must carry a passport or photo identification to gain access to the Exmouth Navy Pier and that no photos can be taken while reaching the dive spot.
During our two dives we did see loads of marine life such as whitetip reef shark, lionfish, big-eye trevally; catfish, the grey nurse shark, moray eels, barracuda, giant Queensland gropers loiter, colored nudibranchs, frogfish, and soft corals. Obviously other marine life can be seen as well. We were told that during the winter months grey nurse sharks can also be seen.
The Ningaloo Reef
The second one was the Ningaloo Reef dive which offers a lot of different dive sites which range from 6-35 meters depth and therefore suitable for divers of all levels. A large variety of dive sites means in this case a large variety of marine fauna (mega fauna such as manta rays and turtles and tiny ones such as nudibranchs and crabs). We were lucky and saw a lot of marina fauna such as turtles, sea snakes, some nudibranchs and parrotfish, moray eels and shrimps.
Other Dive Sites
The Muiron Islands and the Lighthouse Bay sanctuary area are other famous Dive sites that we will definitely visit one day.
On the Muiron Islands the depth goes from 3-20meters. Here you can find from tiny marine life such as nudibranchs and shrimps to manta rays, turtles (especially from November to March) and nurse sharks.
The Lighthouse Bay area is famous for its aggregations of larger fish species such as stripey snapper and spangled emperor. White tip sharks, sea snake’s leopard sharks, wobbegong sharks and rays are common sights as well.
Swimming with the humpback whale/whale shark Tour
As said before the Ningaloo Reef is also famous for whale sharks and humpback whales. Here you can swim with these gorgeous animals – whale shark can be seen from March till July/August, while humpback from June/July till November therefore we managed to swim with the humpback whale.
General Info on whale sharks
I would like to give you some information on whale sharks as well. First, these animals are protected under the Biodiversity and Conservation Act 2016 and are threatened species declared vulnerable under the Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. It is said that most whale sharks that can be seen in this area are juvenile male which size can range from 3-12m in length. Whale shark can be well distinguished because of three prominent ridges along each side of their body and their pattern of white spots and stripes. Even though the name could mislead whale sharks are true sharks with a cartilaginous skeleton and several rows of tiny, redundant teeth. Their life span is of more than 100years, but sexual maturity may not occur until they reach a length of 8m (which can be reached at around 30years). These animals do eat plankton (including krill and copepods). There is a protocol outlined by the Biodiversity Conservation that explains how the interaction during the swim must be done. (this protocol is valid for whale sharks and humpback whales as well)
The Ningaloo Whaleshark Swim Tour Operator (Options & Packages)
Being this one of my dreams I had a look at some companies which do operate such tours and I found “Ningaloo Whaleshark Swim”. After reading some reviews, having a look at their photos/video and after having read the tour description I decided to go for it and to book our Swim with the Humpback whale.
Please be aware that they do also offer package deals as well. You have various options – such as the Humpback whale & diving packages, the Whale shark + humpback Combo and the whale shark + Diving packages. These packages give you two advantages: first, you can book a fun dive with a 50% discount (full gear included) during the Humpback or whale shark swim, second you get 20% off if you book a Dive at the following sites Muiron island, Lighthouse Bay or Ningaloo Reef.
Since I had passed my Open Water exam in April I’ve decided to book a package with two dives. To do that and because I had already booked the Humpback whale tour separately I had to get in contact with “Ningaloo Whaleshark Swim” via mail which was really easy and quick. They were really friendly and made everything go really smoothly. Booking tours while you are back home is something I am pretty sure everybody does and therefore a good and quick communication is a must.
Please be aware that they can also pick you up from Tantabiddi Boat ramp which is really close to the Cape Range (it takes around 40min to get to Exmouth town and even more depending which camp site you are staying in). Once on the boat we were given all the gear and we were introduced to all staff. Each one of the staff introduced themselves which I personally found very nice.
First Snorkel site of the tour
Before going for the humpback whale swim, we stopped at a gorgeous sight to do a snorkel. In this way we were able to check if all gear had a good fit in order to avoid having problems during the humpback whale swim (having a problem with the gear during the swim with the whales is not something you want!). The snorkel site was gorgeous – we happend to see some stingray, lots of corals and gorgeous colorful fish.
Once the snorkel was completed and everybody was happy with their gear and while their spotter plane (yes you got it right – “Ningaloo Whaleshark Swim” has their own one!) was trying to find the “right” humpback whale (explanation will follow) to swim with we got an introduction of the humpback whales and an explanation of how the interaction would work.
General Info on humpback whales
Humpback whales are the 5th largest of the whales. Adult females grow up to about 15m and can weigh up to 40t – they reach sexual maturity at around 12-15years. They usually feed only during the summer months and live off their fat while birthing and raising their calves. Till the worldwide ban on whaling they were one of the most hunted whale species.
How does the interaction work? Which whale is the right one to swim with?
What did I mean with “right whale” – first of all there is no whale swim with whales breaching, tale flapping or slapping their pectoral fins and there is also no swim with mother and calf – it could be not safe for swimmers.
Apart from that “Ningaloo Whaleshark Swim” promote swimming with the whales without disturbing them and fully respecting these giant animals in their habitat. The whale swim should be an awesome adventure for swimmers, but this does not mean that the animals should feel uncomfortable.
In fact, in order to not disturb them you do not get closer than 30 meters from that point onwards it is the whale which decides whether to come closer, dive in the ocean or simply swim past.
The Humpback whale swim Experience
The swim towards the right spot is quite fun – once you get into the water your guide is constantly in contact with the other members of the crew who tell her/him in which direction to swim in order to get to the best point and have the best view/interaction. This means that you might find yourself swimming quickly in one direction having to turn around and swim in the other and so on before stopping to enjoy this awesome experience. Each effort you may have to make is fully rewarded by this awesome experience.
I was in the first group which jumped into the water – beside the guide there is a photographer swimming with each group (max 7 swimmers per group) taking pictures (please be aware that you can also bring your cameras along).
We started swimming following the instruction of our guide and then there it was a humpback whale swimming underneath us. I can’t really describe the sensations of having such a giant swimming underneath me but believe me if I say that it is spectacular. You feel so much adrenalin – it is definitely something I would recommend to do at least once a lifetime.
We had so much fun that we will definitely be back – maybe this time for the whale shark swim! The other two groups were not that lucky on their first try therefore the “Ningaloo Whaleshark Swim” team continued to try to find another whale and they managed.
At this point I would like to point out that this is not a swim done in an enclosure – which means that there can´t be any guarantee to swim with them but I can assure you that the crew does everything they can to make this happen! In case you are not lucky enough to swim with a whale you have three options: you can go out on the next available tour for $100, you can go out on the next available whale shark tour for $100, you can get a $100 off voucher to use on every other tour (you can also use it as a gift or sell it to somebody else). A full refund is granted for bad weather or if the minimum number of passengers is not reached.
During the tour we also saw a lot of whales breaching, tale flapping and slapping their pectoral fins.
Second snorkel Site of the Tour
On the way back, we stopped at another amazing snorkel site – the Ningaloo Reef is so amazing that every time you get in the water you do see incredible animals – here is where we saw a huge stingray hiding in the sand. Stingrays are a group of sea rays – there are about 220 known stingrays species and unfortunately many of them are vulnerable to extinction due to unregulated fishing.
Stingrays are not usually aggressive and attack humans just if they feel to be in danger. Please be aware that contact with the stinger may result in infections due to the venom they inject you – the barb usually breaks off in the wound and therefore a surgery may be required to remove it. Generally the injury is not life – threatening unless it pierces a vital area.
We spent one day in the tiny township of Coral Bay – please be aware that Coral Bay is smaller than Exmouth therefore accommodations are limited, and you should book ahead.
Snorkeling @ the Bill´s Bay Beach
We did some snorkeling at the Bill´s Bay Beach. I must admit that the coral formation changes a lot from Exmouth to Coral Bay therefore I do highly recommend visiting both places.
Coral Bay History
The earliest recorded European activity is the landing of the schooner Maud in 1884. Coral Bay started its life as a holiday camp. In the late 1960s a hotel was established on the shores of Bill´s Bay by former chemist Ken Ryan. The hotel was named the Coral Bay Hotel – subsequently the township was named Coral Bay.
Coral Bay Beaches & Sights
There are loads of beaches in Coral Bay such as Purdy Beach (500m south of Bill´s Bay), Five Fingers Reef said to be the best place to swim with turtles in the area, Paradise Beach a designated beach for dogs (only on leads – please be aware that this site is not recommended for children or inexperienced swimmers due to strong currents) and the secluded beach of Skeleton Bay known to be a Black reef tip sharks nursery (from October to March) and for The Aquarium – a very shallow pool.
The black reef tip sharks are known to be almost harmless to humans even when fully grown up.
Another interesting thing that you can do is the 4-wheel coastal track which leads to other gorgeous beaches such as Oyster Bridge and The Lagoon. These beaches are famous as snorkeling spots.
General Information about Exmouth & Coral Bay
General information about Exmouth and Coral Bay: even though these are tiny townships you can find everything.
In the Exmouth´s Ross Street Shopping Mall you can find supermarkets, gift shops, a bottle shop, bakery, cafés, pub and restaurants, surfer shop and dive and tour operators, newsagents, chemist, a camping and fishing store along with some beauty salons and laundromat.
Coral Bay has a small arcade where you can find a gift shop, supermarket, café, dive and tour operators and a newsagent.
One thing that I personally found interesting is that thanks to the initiative of the Cape Conservation Group these town are plastic bag free since 2008
Breweries in Exmouth
My boyfriend and I love beer therefore we tried two breweries. We loved them both – the breweries are completely different one from the other.
Froth Craft Brewery is more like a pub with lovely food, a lovely outside area & a gorgeous terrace with stunning views.
The Whalebone Brewing Co has an unique rustic outback setting created by the usage of recycled materials and by a fire that creates warmth & atmosphere. It is famous for its “pizza”. Being Italian I´ve decided to put the word pizza in quotation marks – in my opinion the only “real” pizza can only be found in Italy. This does not mean that it wasn´t good– it just means that the pizza I am used to tastes (in my opinion) in a different way.
With its outdoor laid back atmosphere, a sandy table – free area for the kids & a good range of good beers I highly recommend you stop by.
Both Breweries organize a large range of events such as live music, comedy nights AFL/WFL on big screen, outdoor cinemas; night markets, trivia nights and theme nights
The Ningaloo Whaleshark Festival
Another thing which I personally find very interesting is the Ningaloo Whaleshark Festival (I hope that I will be participate to this event one day).
These 3 days festival celebrate the annual visit of whale sharks. During these days there are a lot of different activities (free as well), concerts and entertainments. The Festival obviously could not end without what is called “BIG DAY OUT ON NINGALOO REEF” – for further information please visit ningaloowhalesharkfestival.org.au
I am lucky enough to be able to say that I have visited a lot of places but Exmouth and Coral Bay are in my eyes really special places – places where I would love to go back, and I will be back once