Western Australia is often viewed as the continent’s hinterland, which in Oz, a place brimming in hinterland, says a lot. Depending on your take, it can be good or bad. If you want fine cuisine and a show at the Opera House, hinterland might not be your thing. If you desire snow-white beaches, whispering winds, emus walking down the street and a reef that, some claim, outshines the Great Barrier Reef, well then hinterland is a many splendored thing.
West Oz’s reef would be Ningaloo, officially known as Ningaloo Marine Park, a 174-mile-long fringing coral reef that runs from roughly Amherst Point south of Coral Bay north around the North West Cape to Bundegi Reef in Exmouth Gulf. Odds are, these names mean nothing to you, highlighting again the area’s remote splendor (think 745 miles north of Perth, or a two-and-a-half-hour plane flight), but this might strike a cord. Large parts of Ningaloo Reef rest just barely offshore; in some cases less than 300 feet from where you first wet your ankles. In terms of ease of access, it’s diving’s version of the drive-thru: In-N-Out — literally and figuratively. Take, for example, the Turquoise Bay drift snorkel, famous among indolent wildlife watchers who fin out from the beach: Drift idly northward with the (generally) mild current through an aquarium of life, fin into shore, walk back down the beach, plop back in and do it again.
If you’re looking for the “big stuff” and the convenience of Ningaloo, you’ll like Belize, where the Belize Barrier Reef hunkers a five-minute boat ride off Ambergris Caye, and whale sharks come to Gladden Spit around the full moons of April, May and June. Ambergris Caye Diving knows the waters;
And what dwells upon the reef? Ningaloo is famous for whale sharks, not to mention manta rays, dugongs (Ningaloo’s waters are home to one of the world’s last significant dugong populations, with an estimated 2,000 of the roly-poly and severely endangered critters), turtles (Ningaloo’s beaches are a breeding ground for loggerhead, green and hawksbill turtles) and humpback whales, as well as possible encounters with southern right whales, minke whales and blue whales. Science estimates Ningaloo is home to roughly 200 species of hard corals, 50 species of soft corals and more than 520 species of fish, an impressive diversity explained in part by a meeting of temperate and tropical marine zones. And while whale sharks continue to give divers the slip the world over — from Thailand to Utila — they won’t duck you at Ningaloo. Every year from roughly April through July, they arrive like clockwork, as dependable as Christmas commercials the day after Thanksgiving. If this is starting to sound like a Piscine Garden of Eden, you are getting the point.
Ningaloo Reef is accessed via either the small town of Exmouth (local population roughly 2,600) or, some 95 miles south, the even-smaller town of Coral Bay (roughly 120, excluding emus). Boats head for the same dive sites from both towns, so it’s up to you to decide where you want to stay. It’s important, however, to understand that though the rest of the world might not yet be on to the beauty of the place, the Aussies certainly are; in high season (April to October) Exmouth’s population triples. Accommodation is limited; neglect to book ahead and you’ll be vacationing from the back seat of your car.
But even if you were camping in the car, the diving is worth it. Don’t miss Blizzard Reef, the Labyrinth and Helga’s Tunnels in Lighthouse Bay, the two Muiron Islands and their kaleidoscopic soft corals (about six miles off the tip of the North West Cape), the sponges of, yes, Sponge Garden and Exmouth’s Navy Pier, one of Australia's premier shore dives. Fin among the pier’s rain of life — silver thunderclouds of snapper, trevally and barracuda, lovely nudibranchs and flatworms, wobbegong sharks, crocodile fish, lion fish and more — and then decide for yourself over a West Oz sunset, with a whisper of encouragement from the wind. — Ken McAlpine
Need to Know
Getting There From Perth, you’ll fly to Learmonth Airport, about 22 miles south of Exmouth. Shuttle buses run to and from Exmouth to the airport; Coral Bay resorts can arrange a taxi (75-minute drive) on request.
When to Go Winter temps hover around 77°F and summers are hot, averaging 96°F, but the area has no wet season, so humidity is low.
Dive Season Whale sharks (roughly April to July); humpback whales (roughly June to November); manta rays (roughly late May through August); and coral spawning (March and April, usually seven to 10 days after the full moon). Water temps average 75°F.
Stay In Coral Bay, Bayview Coral Bay Resort has rooms from $95 to $395 per night (www.coralbaywa.com). In Exmouth, Potshot Hotel Resort’s rooms also start at $128 (www.potshotresort.com). At the Cape’s tip, Ningaloo Lighthouse Caravan Park has cabins from $84 to $240 per night (www.ningaloolighthouse.com).