My Dive | Ningaloo Reef
Ed Cardwell and Hayley Versace worked as photographers and videographers on whale shark tours in the area before setting up their own business, Migration Media. Here’s their insider guide to Western Australia’s unique diving experience
Ningaloo Reef is one of the world’s largest fringing reef systems, stretching more than 260km along Western Australia’s rugged coastline. Consisting of dense hard coral gardens, sand flats, large areas of rich sea grass and deep ocean pinnacles, ledges and walls, Ningaloo was given the prestigious title of World Heritage Site in 2011. With such a range of marine habitats, Ningaloo has an extraordinary abundance of marine life – wildlife that rarely comes into contact with humans as much of Western Australia’s coastline is undeveloped.
The outer reef of Ningaloo protects the shores from large ocean swells and weather systems creating a 5,000 sq km haven for 250 species of hard corals and 500 different species of fish, including many endemic species such as the sailfin catfish and year-round populations of manta rays. Whale sharks visit in large numbers between April and June feeding on the rich food sources Ningaloo provides and one of the world’s largest humpback whale migrations occurs between June and October.
Ningaloo can be accessed from two main locations, Coral Bay and Exmouth. Coral Bay is a small town on the doorstep of Ningaloo Reef reached either by a 1,100km drive north of Perth or a two-hour flight and a one-hour transfer. Most dive sites are just five minutes from the marina and the reef system is pristine and uncrowded. There is only one dive operator in Coral Bay. Exmouth is 30 minutes north of Learmonth Airport and 1,250km north of Perth and sits on the east side of the Cape Range National Park on the Gulf of Exmouth. Dive sites are further from port than Coral Bay. To get the best of Ningaloo visit both.
TOP 5 Dives
Asho’s Gap, Coral Bay
Named after the legendary Coral Bay skipper who discovered this unique site. A shallow gap in a hard coral ridge along an outer-reef passage provides access to a small plateau of cabbage coral where grey reef sharks come to have their teeth cleaned and parasites removed. Divers make their way over some of the densest sections of hard corals on the Ningaloo Reef before passing through the gap and dropping down to 12m on the other side. The sharks swim up and into the current remaining stationary while the water pulses through their mouth and onto their gills. Cleaner wrasse then get down to business. Other marine life stop by for a quick orthodontic brush-up, including turtles, large groupers and even the occasional manta ray. You kneel in the sand at 10-12m and enjoy the show. Keep your eyes peeled for large stingrays, eagle rays, other reef sharks, turtles, wobbegongs, nurse sharks, and groupers.
Exmouth, Navy Pier
This huge artificial reef structure provides shelter for some of Ningaloo’s giants but also offers a home to a vast array of critters. Fishing is prohibited, allowing the residents to grow extremely large – such as a 400kg Queensland grouper known as The Big Friendly Grouper, or BFG for short. The BFG has eyeballs as large as your fist and will pose for photos while following you around on your dives. Large schools of jacks and snappers block the sunlight while reef fish zoom around to feed on the abundant supply of sponges and soft corals growing on the structures. Grey nurse sharks congregate here during the winter months competing for space with the white-tip reef sharks and wobbegongs. Macro life is abundant with plenty of nudibranches, and there are moray eels, octopus and cuttlefish too.
The Navy Pier, located on the east tip of Exmouth’s North West Cape, is an active military facility and a permit is required. Diving is done during slack high tides due to the strong tidal flow. A giant stride entry will get you into the water and experienced divers can wander at their own pace in buddy pairs. During certain times of the month, with favourable tides, you will have the option for double dives at this site. Maximum depth is 14m and although visibility can vary from one dive to the next, it averages at around 10 -12m.
Coral Bay boasts a resident population of around 600 coastal manta rays (Manta alfredi). Local researcher Frazer McGregor of Murdoch University and Vikki Hoff of Ningaloo Reef Dive keep a catalogue of manta ray identification shots in Coral Bay. Each manta carries its own unique fingerprint of markings on its belly that can be photographed, analysed and catalogued. Some mantas carry mating scars and shark bites making identification easier. Of the 600 manta rays identified here, 60 are seen on a regular basis.
The mantas are found in a large area named Bateman’s Bay which is fed by the largest passage in Ningaloo Reef known locally as North Passage. A spotter plane, taking-off from Coral Bay airstrip, is used to locate the mantas. It directs the boat skippers via radio to the rays. Behaviour such as barrel rolling and line feeding can we witnessed on a daily basis and around full moons, the manta rays can
be found on the many cleaning stations having their shark bites cleaned and parasites removed. During the summer months, between November
and February, they form mating chains with sometimes up to 15 males fighting for position to mate with a single female. Coral Bay is one of only a few locations in the world with such high success rates for encounters with mantas.
During the months of April and June, whale sharks visit the open ocean areas of Ningaloo to feed on the abundant food available close to the surface. The warm Leeuwin current from the north and the Ningaloo current from the south create upwellings and eddies; combine this with mass coral spawning events after the full moons in March and April, and you have whale shark heaven. The University of Western Australia has recently shown that whale sharks not only come to the surface to feed but also to warm up. Coral Bay and Exmouth average more than 320 days of sunlight each year, meaning the sharks spend plenty of time at the surface.
Much like the manta ray interactions, a spotter plane is used to locate the sharks. Strict swimming guidelines and a limit on the number of operators are imposed. You can spend up to one hour swimming with these amazing animals. The coastline here comes closer to the continental shelf than anywhere else in Australia, so expect the unexpected – anything could wander in from the open ocean!
The Labyrinth, Lighthouse Bay
Along the coast from Murion Islands to Lighthouse Bay are stacks of great dive sites with interesting limestone structures, turtle cleaning stations and lots of fish. The Labyrinth is one of our favourites. Lighthouse Bay is located on the northern tip of Exmouth’s North West Cape and can be dived in all conditions. The top of the site comes up to around 10m and at times reaches 18m allowing divers to move slowly around searching for critters. The limestone forms a maze of craters and swim-throughs. Stay close to your guide on this one as it’s called The Labyrinth for a reason.
Pufferfish, porcupinefish, crayfish and octopus all seek shelter from the many patrolling predators above, while green turtles are found sleeping inside the caves. Soft corals stretch out picking up the rich nutrients drifting past in the current while stingrays scour the seabed for molluscs and crustaceans in the sand. Keep an eye out for occasional treats such as groupers, sharks and stingrays. The huge variety of nudibranches, olive sea snakes, moray eels, wobbegongs, and the hundreds of other fish and invertebrates will keep you occupied dive after dive.
NEED TO KNOW
Diving conditions and weather vary throughout the year with each season offering something different. Information about visiting the area can be found on the websites for Australia’s Coral Coast www.australiascoralcoast.com or Tourism Western Australia www.westernaustralia.com. For accurate weather predictions and year-round climate, the Bureau of Meteorology website is best www.bom.gov.au.
Ningaloo Reef Dive & Snorkel
The only diving operator in Coral Bay, it offers a variety of trips. Whale shark trips run daily during the season and manta ray interaction trips run all year round. Outer reef dive trips can be arranged depending on weather conditions with dive trips to the inside reef running every day. It also runs scenic flights over Ningaloo giving the opportunity to see the huge fringing reef system and from the air. www.ningalooreefdive.com
Exmouth Dive Centre
Offering diving to many sites including Lighthouse Bay, Murion Islands and Ningaloo Reef. Exmouth Dive Centre can also arrange permits to dive Exmouth Navy Pier. During whale shark season it runs trips to swim with the ocean’s largest fish. www.exmouthdiving.com.au
Ningaloo Whaleshark ’n’ Dive
Currently holding the only permit to dive the Navy Pier, Ningaloo Whaleshark ’n’ Dive also offer whale shark tours, dive trips to Lighthouse Bay, West Coast, Murion Islands and also liveaboard trips for 3, 5 and 7 days. www.ningaloowhalesharkndive.com.au
Between March and December, the Shorething catamaran runs liveaboard trips out of Coral Bay. These luxury 3, 5 and 7-day trips take you to sites off the beaten track plus there's the opportunity for fishing, kayaking and exploring this pristine wilderness. www.sailningaloo.com.au
Accommodation & FOOD
Ningaloo offers a variety of accommodation options with something for every budget; however, try to avoid visits during Australian school holidays or book well in advance.
Bay View Caravan Park | Offers a range of different accommodation options in Coral Bay from camp sites to three-bedroom villas. www.coralbaywa.com.au
Ningaloo Club | Coral Bay backpackers provide a range of accommodation options from dorm rooms to private double rooms with ensuite. www.ningalooclub.com
Novotel Ningaloo | Luxurious hotel in Exmouth sitting on the Gulf of Exmouth with beautiful views. www.novotelningaloo.com.au
Ningaloo Bed and Breakfast | Friendly and personal bed and breakfast accommodation offering fresh breakfasts catering for early diving starts. www.ningaloobedandbreakfast.com.au
Fins Restaurant | Coral Bay’s finest restaurant with an authentic Western Australian vibe. Choose from its extensive menu and specials board, including locally caught seafood.
Ningaloo Reef Resort | Home to Coral Bay’s only pub, with happy hour night on Tuesday and Friday, and local live music on Thursdays. Friendly vibe, relaxed dress code and beautiful views over the reef.
Blue Lips Fish and Chip Shop | Exmouth’s only fish and chip shop offering a variety of different types of local fish.
Whalers Restaurant, Exmouth | Great atmoshpere with a variety of seafood and well cooked meals. www.whalersrestaurant.com.au