For the first time since starting our WA trip, we were going to make the most of our (very) close proximity to the ocean and actually go in! It’s a bit of an understatement to say that we have acclimatized since leaving Canada and are a tad wussy with cold temperatures but nothing was going to stop us from swimming with whale sharks and manta rays!
We arrived in Coral Bay late afternoon and met up with Robin, a good friend of ours that we met in Melbourne who is also doing a bit of a goodbye tour before heading back to California. We were excited to catch up and hear some of the stories of her tour along with her highlights – since she was coming from the north. We grabbed dinner and walked her to her hotel before getting to sleep.
The next morning we were up bright and early to head to Ningaloo Reef Dive for our tour – in a few short hours we were going to be swimming with Whale Sharks! It was a chilly morning, and we were happy to see they were giving out wetsuits. Before long, we were on the bus down to the jetty and on our boat for the day to meet the crew. We headed out and stopped along Ningaloo Reef for our first snorkel of the day. The Whale Shark boats have spotter planes that don’t take off until 9am, so we had a little time to kill.
Our first snorkel site was a good one – I’ve never seen so many reef sharks! The corals may not have been as vibrant as those you see on the Great Barrier Reef (or the soft corals we saw in Fiji) but they were big and healthy with heaps of marine life.
We hopped back on the boat, shivering and looking forward to hot chocolate while our captain spoke to the spotter plane in hopes he had found a whale shark. No luck…yet. Apparently it can take several hours, and the plane will stay out until 3pm. Thankfully we didn’t have to wait that long, and within an hour and a half we were being briefed on how to swim with the whale shark. We were quickly divided into two groups and group one (which we were part of) was ordered to get all our gear on, sit on the floor of the boat and wait for the signal from Tom (the photographer who was already in the water and checking to make sure that it was, indeed, a whale shark). Then we were off! You basically jump in and wait for the whale shark to come up to your group, part ways to let him (or her) through and once their head has gone by you turn and start swimming alongside. It was SO COOL! We had a juvenile whale shark, who was a mere 4.5-5m long. We thought he was massive but apparently they can get quite a bit bigger.
We had 4 or 5 opportunities to swim with the whale shark. It was totally amazing, and he was beautiful. The crew informed us that there is much the world still has to learn about these magnificent creatures. They aren’t even entirely sure why, during this time of year, the whale sharks swim up the coast of WA or where they are going. Either way, we were pretty stoked to have the opportunity.
On our journey back to the reef we had some lunch and got ready for our second snorkel of the day. Again with the reef sharks! I think we must have seen over 20 just on that day. We were there during low tide, which allowed us to snorkel through a narrow coral passage that was pretty cool.
After a big day in the sun and with all that swimming, we were pooped and got to bed early for our manta ray tour the next day. We woke up and headed back to Ningaloo Reef Dive to get set for the manta rays.
James and I were pretty excited as we were also scuba diving that day; the tour gave an option of snorkelling or diving. We got kitted up and were at the dock in no time. Similar to the whale sharks, the manta ray tours have a spotter plane that goes up at 11am so the plan was first to find a spot to snorkel/dive.
We stopped at a site on Ningaloo Reef called ‘The Canyon’, aptly named as you dive through two large coral walls. We saw a shark on this dive too but this time it was a grey nurse shark! I have to admit, I was a little startled at first when I saw the size of it. But it was clear it had no intention to hurt us and curiously followed us around (at a distance) as we continued our dive.
Everyone met back on the boat and the plane was up in the air looking for a manta. Before we heard anything from the pilot, we were treated to something else – a humpback whale! Our boat pulled up close and we watched it for a while before the skipper informed us we better get on our way if we were going to catch a manta.
We headed into the bay where two had been spotted; a bit rare since they usually travel alone. Like with the whale shark tour, we were divided into two groups and the first group jumped in. We were in group two and ready to jump as soon as we received the signal. We got in and watched the two mantas swim toward us, one large black one and a smaller one just behind. Once they had passed we swam alongside for a while and then hopped back in the boat to give the first group another shot. On our second swim we were following them when suddenly the large one turned upside down and they started circling. Our guide, Jake, called out “everyone stay still!” (which had all of us a little concerned). After they did a few circles around each other (pretty much unaware of us), they turned and started swimming away from us. Apparently, the larger one was a male and was looking to mate! The excitement from our guide told me we had seen something pretty special, as we’d suspected.
Soon we were back on the boat and driving toward our second dive site, Asho’s Gap. It was a really shallow dive since it was low tide, but it was still really awesome to be under the surface observing everything. We saw reef sharks, chevron barracudas and blue/green chromis among other things. We were so excited for those tours, and they did not disappoint! We got back to the dive shop and hopped in our car, bound for Exmouth. The sun was starting to set but the drive was only 1.5 hours so not bad at all.
The next morning, we slept in a bit and then headed to Turquoise Bay in Cape Range National Park. We spent some time snorkelling, but the current was pretty strong so it was more just drifting along the surface trying to get a good look at things. We enjoyed laying out on the white sand for a bit before heading back to Exmouth for lunch.
That afternoon, James and I had a dive planned at Navy Pier dive site which we had heard was one of the best jetty dives in Australia, if not the world. We headed to the Dive Ningaloo shop to get our gear sorted out and meet the guides for the day. Once ready, 20 of us got onto the bus (3 guides, 16 divers and a surface spotter) and headed toward the pier. One of the coolest things about this site is that it is still an active Navy Pier, and can be used from time to time by Navy ships for servicing the Naval base and is inaccessible to the general public. Everyone had to bring government ID which was checked once we arrived. We were also told that we could not take pictures until we arrived at the site. We got a bit of background on the town of Exmouth, which we knew very little about.
The town was established in 1967 to support a US Naval Communication Station. During this time, it was like a mini-USA; cars drove on the right side of the road, and American dollars were used. In the 90’s, the Australian Navy took over the site.
The dive site is the pier itself, which I also didn’t realize until we arrived! The pier makes a large T-shape and is teeming with marine life. We were told we could do a guided tour or go off on our own since the site is easy to navigate (i.e. if you look up and you aren’t under the driveway or pier, you’ve gone too far!) but we decided to go with a guide figuring we would see a lot more.
It was the most impressive dive site I’ve seen so far! The coral structures growing off the support beams were incredible; there were even some soft corals. We had another chance at seeing a grey nurse shark, but were even more impressed by the number of eels and octopus! We saw some lionfish and had our first encounter with a wobbygong. I have to say though, I think our personal favourite was the BFG (Big Friendly Grouper) who is infamous at this site.
It was safe to say we’d had a few epic days exploring the ocean! Our next stop was inland, at Karijini National Park where we were excited to climb down into some gorges and feast our eyes on some red dirt roads!