Contrary to popular belief, Australia’s best coral reef isn’t found on the east coast, and it doesn’t need the word ‘great’ in its name to make you believe how awesome it is. Found in Western Australia, the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef is truly amazing.
Where is it?
The Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area can be found roughly 1200km north of Perth where it follows 300km of Western Australian coastline and covers over 6000 square km. You can access it from as far south as Quobba Station (just north-west of Carnarvon), up through Gnarloo & Warroora Stations, Coral Bay, Cape Range National Park & Exmouth, and as far north as the Muiron Islands just north of Exmouth.
Why is it so great?
Ningaloo Reef is unique in a number of ways but the main reason it rates so highly on our list is just how accessible it is. Unlike the Great Barrier Reef where you need to access the best areas by boat (and pay accordingly), many parts of Ningaloo are accessible to snorkellers right off the beach. Which means you can camp out for a week and snorkel all day every day for less than the cost of a day trip on the Great Barrier Reef.
The marine life in this area is truly outstanding. The coral is remarkable and home to such a huge variety of creatures. In the last week, we’ve swum with hundreds of different fish of all shapes and sizes, squid, cuttlefish, multiple sea turtles, various types of rays, and even some sharks (don’t worry, they’re too well fed on all the fish to bother with humans) right from the shore.
Plus Ningaloo is home to a couple of awesome big-ticket marine animals that are worth the extra effort and expense to visit. This is our second time in the area – the first time we did boat trips to swim with whale sharks and manta rays. This time around we decided to try something different and went in search of humpback whales.
Ningaloo Reef is unique in that it’s the only place in Australia (and one of only a few places in the world) where you can get into the water and interact with whale sharks and humpback whales. And in fact the humpback whale swims are new even to Ningaloo – a pilot program began only in 2016 and has run for the last three years. At this stage a decision has yet to be made as to whether it will continue in 2019 so if swimming with humpbacks is on your bucket list, now is the time to do it!
Not only does the Ningaloo Reef area offer amazing underwater experiences, but life is pretty good on land as well. In the Cape Range National Park, we’ve spotted dingoes, goannas, snakes, echidnas, kangaroos, emus, and huge wedge-tailed eagles.
What can I do there?
When we’re camped in the Ningaloo Reef area we wake up of a morning and say to ourselves – what shall we do today? Is today a day for swimming, snorkelling, kayaking, hiking or fishing? (Or add on surfing if that’s your thing.) As long as you like the outdoors you’ll be absolutely spoiled for choice.
Snorkelling: As mentioned above you can snorkel right off the shore at many locations including Point Quobba, Coral Bay, and multiple places in the Cape Range National Park. We recommend purchasing your own snorkelling gear as you’re going to be using it a lot, and it will likely work out cheaper and easier than hiring it. You will be able to buy gear at Carnarvon, Coral Bay & Exmouth, but you’ll probably find it cheaper in Perth or online.
We use full face snorkel masks as they’re great for the kid, but also work really well for the adults, and we ordered them online en route and had them sent to the post office in Carnarvon so they were ready & waiting for us when we arrived. Our favourite snorkelling places have been The Aquarium at Point Quobba, and Lakeside in the Cape Range National Park. But Osprey, Turquoise Bay, and the Oyster Stacks (check tides as the Oyster Stacks can only be snorkelled at high tide) in Cape Range are all also fantastic.
Kayaking: If you travel with a kayak you’ll find multiple opportunities to use it all up to the Ningaloo Coast – both in the ocean plus a handful of inland opportunities like Yardie Creek. And in Cape Range National Park you’ll find Kayak mooring points offshore at Osprey, Bundegi & Tantabiddi.
Surfing: We’re not surfers ourselves, but this stretch of coastline is a bit of a Mecca for surfers, with people coming from all over the country to surf at locations like Red Bluff (Quobba Station) & Three Mile (Gnarloo Station).
Fishing: There are great fishing locations all up to the Ningaloo Coast, particularly if you’re lucky enough to have a boat. Just check out the Sanctuary Areas to find which areas allowing fishing and which don’t. And hopefully, you have more luck in the department than we do. We have a theory that like the sharks the fish are too well fed to bother with humans so aren’t interested in taking our baits!
Hiking: There are many fantastic hiking opportunities along the Ningaloo Coast, particularly in the Cape Range National Park – it’s a beautiful area and it’s definitely worth exploring on land as well as in the water.
Camping: There are some seriously awesome camp spots all along the Ningaloo Coast. Check out below for more details.
Boat Trips & Day Tours: Many people (including us) come to Ningaloo, not just for your traditional snorkelling experience, but to see some of those awesome big marine animals you can’t see elsewhere. But in order to do that you’ll need to jump on an organised boat tour and head out to the outer reef.
There are a bunch of tour operators that run whale shark, humpback whale and manta ray swims out of both Exmouth & Coral Bay, and they’re all fantastic. But they don’t come cheap – you’ll generally be looking at about $300-$400 per adult, and they are of course seasonal so you may be limited as to what creatures are in the area at the time you visit. And if you don’t want to swim there are plenty that offers whale watching tours or glass bottom boat tours as well.
Diving: There are a number of tour operators in both Coral Bay & Exmouth that offer diving tours and certification courses.
Where should I stay?
Camping is going to be your best bet if you want to really experience the Ningaloo Coast Area, and you’ll be spoiled for choice. You can access traditional Caravan Parks at Carnarvon, Coral Bay & Exmouth. But this area also has a fantastic array of station stays, all of which have excellent reputations and each offers its own unique experience – many of which include camping right on the beach.
We’ve personally stayed at Red Bluff (Quobba Station), Warroora Station (south of Coral Bay), and Bullara Station (south of Exmouth). But others in the area that we’re sure are just as good include Gnarloo, Giralia & Ningaloo Stations.
There is also council-run camping at Point Quobba and the option of National Park Camping at Cape Range National Park. Now we highly recommend spending at least a few nights (we spent a week) in Cape Range because it’s stunning and has some of the easiest access to the reef. But it’s also a very popular place and unlike most WA national parks you must book online in advance, which can make life tricky if (like us) you’re not very good at planning ahead.
Be aware that other than a few rests stops on the main roads, free camping in this area is pretty much non-existent. And if you’re planning to visit during school holidays you’ll want to book well in advance. You should also be aware that WA has the windiest coastline in Australia so expect it to be blowing a gale more often than not! If you’re not into the camping thing then you’ll also find various accommodation options at many of the station stays and at each of the towns.
How do I get there?
The best way to get to the Ningaloo Reef area is part of a road trip (preferably with a 4×4) like we did. It will allow you complete flexibility in where you visit and stay, and you can access all of the great out of the way places like some of the station stays and more remote campsites.
But if you live on the other side of the country and don’t want to drive all the way to the Western Australian central coast you can fly into Exmouth and hire a car or even jump on one of many organised tours that cover the area.
We’ve been to The Great Barrier Reef, and we enjoyed it, don’t get me wrong. But honestly, it’s got nothing on Ningaloo!
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