Western Australia: The Ningaloo Region and Exmouth

Ningaloo Region: Lighthouse Bay
Ningaloo Region: Lighthouse Bay

Exmouth is a young town in the Ningaloo Region in Western Australia. The region is famous for its impressive landscapes, spectacular marine life and historically significant features that make up the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area in the North West Cape.

The heritage site is roughly 6,000 square kilometers. It extends more than 300 kilometers from the Murion Islands in the north to Red Bluff in the south. The area includes Ningaloo Marine Park, Cape Range National Park, and the Bundegi and Jurabi Coastal Parks. It is most famous for “the big four” marine creatures that visit the waters along the Ningaloo Reef: whale sharks, humpback whales, marine turtles and manta rays.

Ningaloo Marine Park

The Ningaloo Marine Park is home to the Ningaloo Reef, which is the largest fringing coral reef in Australia. The marine park has several great bays for shore snorkeling, stunning dive sites and the incredible chance to swim with the big four.

Marine Life

The nearly 300 kilometer long reef in the marine park is home to an abundance of marine life, including dolphins, dugongs, more than 500 tropical fish and over 200 species of coral. But it’s the big four that really draw visitors to the reef each year.

Whale Sharks

Whale Shark

Photo by Ningaloo Whalesharks

Whale sharks arrive each year around the time of the coral spawning to feast. The giant fish are most prevalent from April to July, but some come as early as March while others have been spotted hanging around as late as October.

Join one of the many snorkeling tours offered from Exmouth to swim with a whale shark for about A$400. It’s a pricey experience, but considering it’s once in a lifetime and the high quality of the tours, I think it’s worth the steep cost!

Humpback Whales

Humpback whales are in the Ningaloo Region from August to October, with a few lingering until November. The whales bring their new born calves to the calm waters of the Ningaloo so the babies have a safe place to swim and grow. Several tour operators in Exmouth also offer the incredible chance to swim with these magnificent creatures. Humpback whale swimming tours also run about A$400, but again, totally worth it.

Turtles

Marine TurtleGreen, Loggerhead and Hawksbill turtles are the most commonly found species in the Ningaloo. Their nesting season is from November to March each year. The eggs hatch about 6 weeks after nesting, with baby turtles usually dashing to the sea between January and March.

You can visit the nesting sites to observe the turtles start their life cycle, but be sure to educate yourself on how to view the nesting or hatching turtles without disturbing them. Either visit the Jurabi Turtle Centre, the Exmouth Department of Parks & Wildlife office or the Ningaloo Visitor Centre to pick up a strict code of conduct to follow while doing a self-guided tour. Alternatively, you can pay to join a guided 3 to 4 hour tour with the Department of Parks & Wildlife from December to February. Visit the Ningaloo Visitor Centre for information on pricing, dates and availability for the tours.

Manta Rays

Manta Rays can be seen all year round, but they are more commonly sighted during the coral spawning season. They are most prevalent from May to September. However, most companies in Exmouth don’t offer a manta ray specific swim. Rather, they keep an eye out for them while focusing on finding either the whale sharks or the humpback whales. Coral Bay, which lies about a 1.5-hour drive south of Exmouth, has a resident population of manta rays and companies there offer tours focused on swimming with the gentle giants.

Cape Range National Park

The North West Cape, which was originally owned by the Yinigudura people, also has some incredible landscapes in the national and coastal parks. Cape Range National Park is located on the western side of the cape. It is home to some truly breathtaking bays and impressive canyons.

Turquoise Bay

Turquoise BayThe most famous beach in the Ningaloo Region is Turquoise Bay. The aptly named bay features truly turquoise water with soft, white sand beaches and easy snorkeling along the Ningaloo Reef, which is only 100 meters from shore. It is also a great beach for lounging, but be sure to bring an umbrella, as shade is scarce.

The beach is nice and calm for a swim, but be aware of what area is designated for swimming. The bay has two major sections. At the sand bar that breaks the two beaches, there is a strong current that can pull you out to sea. But the current along the beach can make for a relaxing drift snorkel. Start at the southern end of the beach and be pulled along toward the north side, enjoying the fish and coral along the way.

Nearby Oyster Stacks is another incredible spot to snorkel, but it can only be experienced at high tide, or you will end up scrapping your way back to shore along the reef.

Charles Knife Canyon

Charles Knife CanyonThere are also stunning landforms in the national park. Enjoy lovely views along Charles Knife Road as you make your way to the lookout, where you will be dazzled with by views of the enormous Charles Knife Canyon and glimpses of the ocean at Exmouth Gulf.

There are also several walking trails through the ranges. Be sure to have appropriate footwear, plenty of water and a walk trail guide. You can also take a boat tour on Yardie Creek, keep an eye out for wildlife or settle in a campsite to immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the national park.

Lighthouse Bay

Lighthouse Bay is another gorgeous site on the North West Cape with some interesting historical relics. The bay has yet another spectacular white sand beach with fossilized coral and shells. There are also plenty of living coral that create lots of little tide pools where you can find tiny sea creatures, including hermit crabs. Be careful of jagged edges while scrambling along the tide pools.

SS Mildura Wreck

SS Mildura WreckOut in the ocean you can see the hull of the SS Mildura, which struck the reef and wrecked just under a kilometer from shore in March 1907. The ship was carrying 500 cattle. Sadly, most of the cattle died while trying to swim the few hundred meters to shore. The people on board, however, all made it safely to land.

The wreck was used for bombing practice during World War II, so there really isn’t much left to it now. But it’s an interesting bit of history that had a large impact on the area and is part of the reason for the bay’s name.

Vlamingh Head Lighthouse

Vlamingh Head LighthouseThe Mildura wreck was a major reason why the government made it a top priority to build the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse. The lighthouse is up the hill (good thing, since it’s a lighthouse after all) from the bay. The hill offers some incredible views from the peninsular tip of the North West Cape. It would be a great place for either the sunrise or sunset, as you are essentially surrounded by ocean views.

In addition to the lighthouse, the area has some World War II relics and several informative plaques that describe how the area was used to defend the USA operated Harold E Holt Naval Base in Exmouth.

Exmouth Town

Federation Park ExmouthThe young town of Exmouth was built for the purpose of providing a place for families working at the naval base to live. Exmouth was proclaimed a town on December 6, 1963 with construction of the first building starting in February of the next year. Now, the naval base is operated by the Australian navy, and the protected navy pier is an incredible diving spot. It’s been voted one of the top shore dives in the world.

Exmouth is still a small town with a few restaurants, a couple of grocery stores and several accommodation options. There isn’t much to see or do in Exmouth itself. Rather, it is the place to base yourself for exploring the Ningaloo Region. Most tour operators are based in Exmouth and will pick up from your accommodation in town.

The town beach is walking distance from the town, but it’s no where near as impressive as the beaches on the North West Cape. Town Beach is quite safe for swimming, but just be mindful that vehicles are allowed on the beach. So be sure to keep an eye and ear out when walking along the beach, and don’t leave any of your belongings where they might get smashed by a ute.

But make sure you spend most of your time exploring the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area to really get the most out of your time in this incredible part of the world.

What part of the Ningaloo appeals most to you?

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