We’d originally planned to do a roadtrip up to Ningaloo in April 2020 with 4 other friends. Covid, of course, happened. The credits we’d gotten on our whale shark snorkeling tour expired this July, so Jeff and I decided to make a trip out of it earlier this April.
A direct drive from Perth to Ningaloo would take 13 hours. A flight, 2 hours. But factor in the travel to the airport, waiting at the airport, then picking up car rental etc on the other side, we figured to do a more apples-to-apples comparison, it’d be 13 hours driving vs. 5 hours flying. In the end, we chose the road trip option, so that we could also stop along the coast to explore the different beaches.
The drives weren’t bad. We set off for Shark Bay early on a Friday. 8 hours ahead of us. Time flew by though, as we listened to podcasts and reveled in the wide open empty roads that stretched ahead of us.
The thing about small towns though, is that there are only a couple of restaurants. And during the Easter Holiday weekends, hours are reduced. Happily though, the one pub that was open did takeout, and pretty decent fare at that. We brought it back to our Airbnb to enjoy and see the sunset, as it had a large airy deck overlooking the bush and the ocean beyond.
The next morning, we awoke early, eagerly anticipating our stand up paddle up the coast of Monkey Mia, towards Frances Peron National Park. The wind forecast in the morning looked mild – little did we know, this proved to be our only paddle the whole trip, even though we’d lugged our paddle boards from Singapore. Cycle Ilsa was developing up north in Broome, and the winds and swells were building up all week further down the coast.
But that was a future problem. Today, we had an absolutely stunning paddle. We put in at the boat ramp in Monkey Mia, in between the feeding demonstrations of the wild dolphins that resided in the bay. As we paddled up the coast towards the open ocean, the waters gradually got clearer, and we enjoyed spotting the different varieties of sting rays that skittered across the sandy bottoms, some over a meter in span. We also saw plenty of guitar sharks, and baby black tip reef sharks, particularly along the shoreline where we pulled up for a bit of a stretch. Turtles too, and a sea snake that gave me a bit of a start as it started to swim after my board when I passed it. But nothing got my heart racing as much as a 3m long tiger shark that swam right up and between mine and Jeff’s boards. Super fun paddle. We would have stayed out longer, had the winds not picked up. As it was though, we did get a really satisfying 5 hours on the water. 🙂
The next morning, we continued our drive up the coast, stopping by Shell Beach, a stretch of coast filled entirely of Fragum cockles. It was stunning to see, particularly since we’ve long stripped our Singapore beaches of any sea shells.
That evening, we dined at MantaRays restaurant in Exmouth, our best meal of the entire trip. Good fresh fare and cocktails. (Aside: inflation has really hit Australia hard – our meals were super pricey. A couple of MacDonald’s meals + 10-piece nugget the night we arrived in Perth set us back AUD$38! And breakfasts at casual cafes consisting of 2 meals of smashed avo and 2 flat whites cost around AUD$70) And came out to a stunning pink and purple sunset.
Monday: The main reason for our trip – the famous Ningaloo Whaleshark swim. We started off with a snorkel in the inner reefs, so everyone could test out their gear and give the guides a chance to assess our comfort in the water before the hunt for the gentle creatures. The reef was stunning – lots of beautiful healthy looking bommies just teeming with fish. We spotted a couple of reef sharks and a turtle as well.
Then it was time to look for the whalesharks. We had a spotter plane overhead, and our pilot quickly pointed us to a couple in the vicinity. Our group of 20 were split into 2. Team A slid into the water first, quickly, after the photographer / in-water spotter directed them the direction in which to swim. They swam in a single file towards the solitary whaleshark, and then furiously kicked to change direction and keep up with it as it glided past them. Once the whaleshark had passed them, it was time for our Team B to jump into the water.
It’s sort of surreal. In the deep blue, we can’t see anything, but just blindly follow the directions of our guide. Until suddenly, a huge shadow materializes underneath or alongside us, gradually coming into focus until we can see its white spots. Then it’s an all out kick-fest, where we try to keep a minimum 3m from its sides and keep up with its graceful glide.
In seconds, it’s past us. We then bob in the huge waves, waiting for the boat to pick us back up and put us back in the water, ahead of the whaleshark for another swim past. Each team did it twice with this whaleshark, then it decided to descend into the depths.
Back on the boat, we listened to our spotter chat with the pilot overhead on the radio. He soon told us that he’d spotted a huge pod of at least 11 whalesharks in the water a bit further south, so our captain motored us over at once. We then did the same Team A B leapfrog into the water. It was super exciting. Even on the surface while waiting for the other team to have their turn in the water, we could see the large dark mass of the whalesharks on the surface.
In the water, on at least a couple of occasions, a whaleshark would cruise us by. Then, as we bobbed in the water waiting for the boat to pick us back up, a dark shape would suddenly materialize from the depths, and we’d have to kick like mad to get out of the way as a whaleshark would surface from the depths, its mouth agape to feast on the plankton.
It was a ton of fun, but the swells were getting larger, and I started to get nauseous. Haha I sat out the last swim, contending instead to run to the bow of the boat to watch a large 7m whaleshark swim right underneath us, before running to the stern of the boat to puke. Haha.
Good times nonetheless!
We’d wanted to take our SUPs out for a paddle + snorkel the next morning, but the winds had picked up even more overnight. We decided to check out the eastern side of Ningaloo Reef, by Bundegi Boat Ramp, to see if it was a bit more sheltered. No such luck. On top of that, the beach was closed, due to a sighting of a 3m long salt water crocodile in the area the day before. Lol, no thank you!
Happily though, the beach closures extended only around the headlands, up until the turtle hatchery, so we went towards the western reef to Lakeside, which was all the locals’ favorite reef (vs. the touristy famed Turquoise Bay that all the guidebooks raved about. We did to go to Turquoise Bay at the end of the day too, but as the locals had promised, this was a beach better suited to enjoy the beautiful turquoise waters than the reef, which was a 100m swim from shore and not particularly appealing in the late afternoon with a strong gusting onshore wind.)
The snorkeling at Lakeside was indeed stunning. We’d arrived early, so were one of a few couples in the water. There was a medium-strength current going northwards, so we slipped into the water on the southern end of the beach and spent a glorious 1.5 hours in the water, admiring the healthy corals, sharks, rays, and turtles.
Afterwards, we drove down to Oyster Stacks next for more snorkeling. This rocky shelf beach was crowded, but the reef was close to shore and in shallower waters. We spent another hour luxuriating in the underwater Eden. The water was a cool 24 degrees, a balm against the increasing temperatures on shore.
Next, we drove to the southern edge of the Cape Range National Park within which the Ningaloo Reef was located. There was a short 2km trail up the Yardie Creek Gorge. In the summers, temperatures can soar past 40 degrees, so there were dozens of signs along the way exhorting that we carry at least 4 litres of water per person. I think the temperatures were around 33 degrees or so for us, but the winds were cooling, and the humidity was low. Beautiful short walk, where we spotted a couple of rock wallabies and a line of trees full of bats taking shelter from the sun. Briefly toyed with the idea of taking out our paddle boards to go up the creek, but the wind was strong even in the canyon, so we contended with admiring the view before driving to cool off in Turquoise Bay.
We’d signed up for what I thought was the Navy Pier dive on our last day in Ningaloo. But I’d made a boo boo and booked a reef dive instead. Lemonade – due to swell build up, that dive would have been cancelled anyway (the dives and whaleshark swim tours the following few days were to be cancelled as well, as Cyclone Ilsa neared land further up north). The dive instructors said that the visibility at the pier was down to below 1m. I could imagine – our two dives by the Lighthouse were the murkiest I’ve ever experienced! We could barely see a few meters in front of us, and Jeff and I lost sight of our small group at the end of the first dive after we’d lingered a behind to admire an octopus we’d spotted. At least there wasn’t a current, so we just surfaced to get back to our boat.
Our trip was drawing to an end. We drove back south the next day, to Kalbarri. Even that much further south, the winds were intense gusts of up to 45 knots. So we kept the paddle boards safely stowed in the car, and did short strolls in the beautiful red rocks of Kalbarri National Park instead, and along the coast in the afternoon.
It would have been super cool to paddle down the Murchison River in the Kalbarri National Park, though I hadn’t planned for that. Looks like there are options though!
Then, last morning in Western Australia. We had a 6 hour drive back to Perth, where we’d catch our flight back to Singapore. But first, a quick pit stop by Hutt Lagoon on the way, one of the famous pink lakes in Australia. At 9 am in the morning, we could see more of the reflections of the partly cloudy skies above rather than the bright bubblegum pink of the lake, but it was still beautiful.
So there, slightly over a week up the coast of Perth to Ningaloo. It was a real treat to snorkel in such beautiful and pristine reef, and to see so many whalesharks up close.