Exmouth - a Whale (shark) of a time

Trip Start Jul 07, 2011
Trip End Oct 10, 2011

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Where I stayed
Exmouth Cape Holiday Park
Read my review - 2/5 stars
What I did
Whale Shark Diving
Sight seeing

Flag of Australia  , Western Australia,
Friday, September 2, 2011

You know that you're getting close to the coast when the trees start getting shorter, the bushes somehow look salty and eventually the car is the tallest thing on the landscape. And so it was on the drive to Exmouth.

We said goodbye to the House Bridge Creek free camp by dusting off the dirt that had swirled around the night before and headed for the Nanutarra roadhouse where we had to refill – and where we also hoped that they had unleaded because we’d heard stories of people being stranded there because of both no fuel and no non-cash payment methods! 

Luckily, they had both fuel and EFTPOS because the caravan park (read dust bowl) next to the roadhouse (read breeze-block garage with optional windows) didn’t look like anyone was staying there – or that anyone should!  The only advantage over the free camp was power – but that was at the expense of a rattly old generator, and some toilets – but if they were the same standard as the roadhouse ones, the free camp ones would have been better.  Nevertheless, they had fuel and electronic payment, so we OK and we headed for Exmouth.

On the way, we passed RAAF Learmonth which doubles as a diversionary airfield for commercial aircraft since it’s one of the first points of land that international flights see on their journey from the Far East to Australia.  While the base is officially a 'bare base’ insomuch as it’s ready, but not currently operational, 4 Orion P3C’s were parked on the pans staging their way to/from their surveillance missions off the coast watching and waiting for the endless stream of suspected illegal entry vessels (SIEVs) that ply their boatpeople trade between Indonesia and Australia.  The Orions slightly outnumbered the stray sheep that surprised us on the side of the road before we got our first view of the azure blue ocean lapping along the ice white shore on our right and that stretched as far as we could see.  This was going to be great – sun, sea and sand!

Then we registered at the Exmouth Cape Holiday Park and had one of the rudest, most impolite and bland welcomes to anywhere we’d had on our whole trip.  We’re not being generous when we say that there was not one please or thank-you in the woman’s vocabulary, the only thing she seemed interested in doing was taking our money, and the way she shoved the "Things to do and see in Exmouth" brochure in front of us was about as welcoming as a door mat woven from cut snakes.  (Later Chris, as only Chris can, re-educated her in the art of manners.  He felt much better.  We think much better than she felt after the lesson).

But the park was OK enough, the camp kitchens were reasonably well equipped and the kids enjoyed the free movie night that evening.

Exmouth isn’t big, but it boasts not one, but two IGA supermarkets – both owned by the same people: A cartel in competition with itself!  Clearly the incestuous relationship wasn’t doing a very good job of keeping the prices down, which is what we’d expected of a seaside town, but considering the number of people visiting here to see the spectacular Ningaloo Reef and that the Harold E Holt naval communications station is 15km up the road, you’d have thought that the someone would have seen an opportunity…

We proved that not all people in Exmouth were as rude as Big4 Reception Lady by changing some cash at the bank for $1 washing machine coins and saw a sign for Whale Shark diving, so we went in to see what it was all about and how much.  Whale shark diving was one of the great attractions of Ningaloo (in addition to the coral and snorkelling) and Chris had hoped he may get a chance to do it, but from all the information that we could find, the season ended in July, so it wasn’t going to be an option.  Then Megan had been speaking to some people at Tom Price who’d said that companies were offering whale shark diving tours for half price, so we were keen to see what was possible.

The two companies running tours were continuing to regularly see the sharks and Ningaloo Reef Dreaming had their own spotter plane which scours the coastal waters just outside the reef and directs the boat to the shark’s location.  The information they gave us was that while there was no guarantee that we’d be able to swim with a shark, they hadn’t disappointed anyone for weeks and they (obviously) wished that more people knew that the whale sharks were still around.

The tour was a great opportunity to do something that is a once in a lifetime experience, but we wanted to think about how and whether Caitlyn would be able to go so we zipped across to the visitors’ centre for a think and to get some more information.

We must have got rude Big4 Reception Lady’s sister, because Exmouth Information Lady was about as helpful as a hole in the head, but the number of phone calls they were taking about whale shark diving in the 15 minutes that we were there, prompted us to go back and book for the Sunday.  Just for Chris and Matthew though, because even though Caitlyn can swim, snorkelling is something that she’s not tried and swimming (as we were to discover) in the open ocean and with a swell, is not for the inexperienced.  So, Megan reluctantly offered to babysit for the day – and was happy because she could play princesses!

So this was Chris’s Father’s Day present, and it was a bargain as well: Normally its $370 a head, but with the special, both of the boys got the day for $400 – transport, food and gear included!

Can’t wait!  We all went to bed.  Then the wind started!

On the way into Exmouth, we’d experienced something that we’d not seen for nearly two months, not since our first day of travelling out of Adelaide: Clouds and rain!  Admittedly it wasn’t much, in fact the rain hardly touched the ground, and the only effects it had were to cause us to flick the wipers on a couple of times and make splodgy marks all over the car out of the red dust film on the duco.

But what came with the rain though, was wind.  Blowy enough to start with, but that night it howled.  Nobody got much sleep – we were variously worried that the awning was going to get ripped off, the roof would shear sidewards, or windows would blow in.  Luckily, we’d tied down the awning (sometimes, we don’t bother if it’s calm), but the wind was so strong that the Velcro holding parts of the sides together parted.

The morning revealed that the only real damage was to people’s sleep – the van was fine so we breathed a sigh of relief and planned our day in the Cape Range National Park.  Before we did though, Chris had decided (during the windy night) that he needed some way of recording the whale shark experience and managed to get a good deal at the local electrical store (they have one) for the same underwater camera that Neil and Leesa have.  (Thanks for the recommendation Neil – it takes great pictures!)

Cape Range National Park

The CRNP is about 40 km from Exmouth and provides a protected gateway onto the northern end of the Ningaloo Reef.  On the way – and on the far northern tip of the Exmouth cape – is the Harold E Holt Naval Communications Facility; a very low frequency transmitter site originally built by the US, but now shared by us and them, to communicate with submarines.  While there’s a heap of information here, there is no secrecy about the size of the site and what it’s used for: The main (zero) mast holding up the transmitting antenna array is a whopping 387m high and dominates the skyline being able to be seen well into the CRNP.

Our WA Parks pass got us into the CRNP and the first stop was at the visitors centre – staffed by some people who knew what was going on (and had manners!)  They were full of information and told us about the beaches where we could snorkel and swim safely – and about the currents, tides and best places to go.  We immediately zipped off to Turquoise bay because we planned to be at the Oyster Stacks for high tide.

And what a turquoise colour Turquoise Bay was!  The ice white sand and shallow beach was simply stunning as it stretched in a curved crescent from south to north, and set off the spectrum of blues, greens and, well, turquoise colours of the ocean making it a picture postcard location.  To make it even more enjoyable (if you could), there were basically no other people on the beach to spoil the experience.

We all had a go at fining around with the fish and coral which almost came up to the beach, but the coral wasn’t as impressive as the beach.  Nevertheless, Caitlyn had a brief go with the mask in the calm and gentle waters, but couldn’t really get the hang of only breathing through her mouth, so she ended up spluttering, coughing and going back to sandcastle building.  Seeing this, we decided that her staying at ‘home’ rather than whale shark diving was definitely the right decision!

Round the corner from Turquoise Bay is the Drift Loop, where the circular current takes snorkelers in a path over the coral, but we opted to go to the Oyster Stacks for a different view of closer in coral next to the protected rocky shore, and for Chris to test out the new underwater camera before needing to use it in ‘anger’ the next day.

On the way, we had to slow for a giant monitor lizard who sauntered across the road in front of us, his thick 1.5m body twisting from side to side as he (we assume it was male!) made every attempt to cross the road as fast as possible to avoid becoming fender fodder.

There were plenty of parrot fish, clams, sea cucumbers and other sea creatures to see floating across the reef and around the stacks, even though it was a bit difficult to get into and out of the water across the slippery and pretty darn sharp rocks – so after an hour or so, we pulled up stumps for lunch and headed back to the car.

The acknowledged and advised procedure when you see a snake is to stop and to stand perfectly still allowing it to safely retreat.  This is particularly true for brown snakes that have bad eyesight and will try to bite a warm object in defence.  And stand perfectly still that’s exactly what Chris did – AFTER he jumped 3 feet into the air, pushed everyone else backwards and uttered a heap of 4 letter words straight after he nearly stepped on a 3ft brown snake on the track to the car from Oyster Stacks!

Megan says it looked exactly like something from a road-runner cartoon with Chris’s legs going round and round at a zillion miles-per-hour without going anywhere.  We laugh about it now, but at the time Chris just about needed new bathers, and there was no way Megan was going back down the path – although the snake was probably a mile away slithering in the opposite direction.

We HATE snakes!

So we skedaddled down to the end of CRNP to Yardie Creek and walked out to the point where the ocean and the creek join.  Several groups of surfies had their tinnies out and were ferrying themselves out to the inner edge of the outer reef where the massive waves from the Indian Ocean were smashing over the reef and rolling in shore.  The waves out there must have been really good because it was a heck of a long haul and the coral must have been really sharp.

And as we stood there, Daddy Emu and his chicks walked out of the bush onto the sand beside us to see what was going on.  Just us, a family of emus and the beach.  It doesn’t get more iconic than that!

After Matthew insisted on seeing if he could catch himself an emu chick – and didn’t – we headed back through the kangaroos and (dead) snakes on the road and had a quick look at Sandy Bay before the wind came up again and started blowing the sand around.  Hopefully it won’t be as windy tomorrow (Father’s Day) for whale shark diving.

A whale (shark) of a time…

The boys had to be up and ready for the Ningaloo Reef Dreaming bus to pick them up at 7:15am, so it was a case of “happy father’s day” plus cereal-and-go and they were off.  The girls on the other hand had a lay in – for another 15 minutes – before phoning Grandpa and having a ‘girl’ day.

Meanwhile, after picking up the balance of the tour (they take a maximum of 20 people) the boys wished they’d taken some jumpers as they waited on the Tantabiddi boat ramp to get transferred by zodiac to the dive boat; a typical scuba setup with a shade covered flat “wet” rear deck with benches down the sides backing out to air-tank racks and storage positions.  The dry cabin at the front was for those dry folk who weren’t seasick prone while upstairs, a small fly bridge and set of seats afforded a panoramic view of the surrounding ocean and – hopefully – a whacking big whale shark!

Luckily, it didn’t take long to warm up and by the time the dive/safety briefing was completed the sun was doing its thing and clothing of the day of regulation board shorts/bathers and bare feet was all that could be seen.

The dive-master (read dive-mistress) was an American girl from Hawaii; “Noee”, and she explained that the 19 whale shark divers would be split into two groups so that each group could dive with a shark separately rather than overcrowding the shark and that would give everyone a good viewing opportunity.  The WA Fisheries department has a set of regulations about whale shark encounters that mandate a minimum distance of 3m from the sides, 4m from the tail and no swimmers in front of the shark – for obvious reasons!  In addition, the tour asked that nobody dived away from the surface.  This is because in their experience, the sharks feel threatened from below and often descend from the surface when people swim underneath meaning that they loose the shark and other swimmers don’t get to see the shark.

Before we went out of the inner reef to the outer wall where the sharks can be found, we needed to do two things: prove that we were all competent swimmers/snorkelers, and show that we could get into the water as a group quickly.  You don’t need to explain the first, but the second is because of the way that they need to operate around a shark.  The boat lines up in front of the shark, the dive master (mistress!) calls “spotter in” – at which point one of the crew swim leaders gets into the water to establish contact (no touching) with the shark – and then 10 swimmers need to get into the water as fat as possible with the shout of “go, go, go”.  It’s all has to be a very coordinated and quick operation since the boat needs to get out of the way of the approaching whale shark and pick up the previous group of swimmers.

It was a pretty structured military operation and all we needed was a standard issue assault rifle each and some red and green lights at the back of the platform and we’d have been ready for active duty!  OK, not really, but we sure had to be ready…

The snorkel test was a piece of cake and we had great fun in swimming in circles round the other swimmers, ducking down to the bottom of the inner reef and then seeing what we could find in the way of coral and fish:  Bigger and more was the verdict, but we were here to swim with the biggest fish in the ocean and we’d better get on and find one otherwise 19 people on the back of this boat were going to be cheesed off little bunnies…!

We headed south – that’s where they’d been seeing the sharks for the past week – and into a huge swell, probably 4m from crest to trough.  The wind blew one way, the waves another and the boat went in a third direction.  The morning plate of pastries, biscuits and lollies started to feel awfully close to coming back and after a while of bobbing around, Matthew decided that the contents of his stomach were better out than in, so heave-ho and he instantly felt better.  Several of the other swimmers looked equally green which made Matthew feel slightly better but no one else had the guts (sorry, couldn’t resist) to lean out and give it a good chuck so we went up top to see if we could spot anything.

And we did: A number of hump back whales ploughing north, one a mother with its calf, another few frolicking off the reef and several breaching, but they were some way off, and a whole host of turtles.  The plane was now patrolling off the coast and reported finding a shark far to the north (wrong direction) and then came south to look ahead of us.  They reported 4 to the south and so captain Adam flattened it.  Then, the plane said there was one immediately behind us, so we reversed track and went to find it.  By this time and with all the going back and forth, some of the other divers who weren’t feeling seedy originally, were now looking a greener shade of lime.  But by some strange quirk of fate, the wind seemed to have died and the sea had abated.  The 4m swell was now a gentle 1/2m slosh as luckily, the wind had suddenly dripped to a light breeze, and neither Matthew of Chris had time or an urge to feel sick.  We just wanted to see ‘our shark’!

Then we saw it – just a big grey shadow under the surface, the dorsal fin and the tipoff the tail occasionally poking through the surface, but belying the bulk below.  No wonder you need a plane to see them.  The boat swung in front of it and the first spotter was in the water.  By this time, we (the team of wannabe commandos down on the swim deck) were all suited up and ready to go.  With fins on and snorkels at the ready the aircraft reported that this whale shark was about 6m (average size), but the crew estimated that it was at least 8m if not bigger.  It was certainly the largest shark that they’d seen in a while – and then the call for the first group of 10 went up and they were off.

Matthew was clearly a bit nervous waiting to go, and Chris now admits that he probably was as well.  Ningaloo is a “fringing reef” (as opposed to a “barrier reef”) which means that the coral starts directly from the shore until the edge of the shelf after which the ocean floor drops away rapidly.  We were going to be dropping into the ocean where the depth changes from 10m to 50m to several hundred metres.  All that water below can hold a lot of very wild life and we were about to jump into it with 5mm of neoprene wetsuit between us and anything with teeth.  That’s enough to make anyone nervous!

So Chris and Matthew had a chat, agreed that they would both be nervous together, held hands for the jump into the water and when the call “go” went up for the second group, in they went – into 50-something metres of water and right in front of 8m of whale shark.  Gee, I’m proud of Matthew!

It was a moment before we saw anything, but then it came towards us.  Effortlessly pushing ahead about 2m below the surface, the tail swishing slowly from side to side, its huge dorsal fin just below the waves and massive body in the middle, all painted with hundreds of dots and the lines of sunlight projecting through the clear water.

Any thought of what else was in the water was immediately forgotten, the whale shark in front of us was the prime focus and keeping up with it was relatively easy – a bit of swimming along side was enough to take us from tail to nose.  Floating in the water next to its mouth enabled us to watch it glide past – mouth, gills, fins and tail.  A massive tail – taller than Chris with fins and easily as wide (although some may doubt that!)

We swam with it for what seemed like ages, but in reality it was only a few minutes before we stopped and allowed the other group to swim with it again.  Bobbing around someone said that they could see a school of fish below us and as we looked we saw a huge school of snapper swim past and chasing them, 4 or 5 black tipped reef sharks.  Of course the reef sharks were more interested in the snapper, but we were glad when the boat picked us up and positioned us for our next shark nose drop.

The second swim was a lot longer and Matthew was now comfortable with jumping in and Chris was comfortable that Matthew was happy in the water.  On the first swim, it’d been a bit of a double look exercise for Chris keeping one eye on Matthew with the other on the shark, but this time they had more time to watch the shark and take both photos and video.

And this time the shark decided to have something to eat, so right in front of us, it opened up its cavernous mouth and started taking in water – and pretty much anything else in front of it.  We moved from left side to right side to hopefully get a better picture, each time having to swim to the back of the shark, behind its tailfin and ‘upstream’ to the opposite of its nose.  It was difficult to get pictures of Matthew with the shark in the background – coordinating light, swimmer and shark while underwater was challenging, but we got some, and then Mr Shark started to dive.  Slowly descending into the deep blue – followed by the spotter who was trying to determine its gender – which is why we know it’s a Mr!

The diving rules for whale sharks limit each encounter to 1 hour maximum per shark and by the 40 minute mark everyone had had two swims.  With a ‘hands-up’ for another swim, Chris said ‘hell yes’ and Matthew said he was tired, but Dad persuaded him that he had more energy to go again, so they went in again and watched as the shark continued to push north, feed and look big – very very big – and Chris got some excellent photos from all angles with less people in the water.

And then our hour was up.  We stopped and Mr Sharky (as Matthew dubbed him) swam gracefully off into the dark.  A truly memorable and once-in-a-lifetime experience!

A yummy lunch, which the boys needed after all the swimming, and another snorkel on the inner reef – where Chris found Nemo in an anemone (did you know that the clownfish in “Finding Nemo” is only found on the east coast, not the west?) – and then Matthew helped drive the boat home!

Exhilarated by the fantastic experience and the professional crew (I’d recommend Ningaloo Reef Dreaming in a flash) we arrived back exhausted – to see how the girl’s ‘girl day’ had gone.

Both boys slept like logs – but Chris says that the land continued to slosh in and out for most of the evening…  (BTW, Chris didn’t think you could get sea-sick when you were actually in the sea, but while bobbing around on the waves watching the whale shark, there were a few moments where he nearly added some additional content to the ocean!)

Don’t ring me!

Our last day in Exmouth was spent out at the CRNP.  Megan wanted some ‘me time’, so Chris took Caitlyn and Matthew to the various beaches and sights down the coast.  They went to Bundegi Beach under the ‘super secret’ transmitter base wires – which was also the most profitable part of the trip, because the boys found a $10 and $20 note washed up on the shore!; to see the SS Mildura wreck – a lump of rusting iron gathering coral; to the Lighthouse where we saw an endless train of whales blowing and moseying up the coast; to the Turtle Centre – where there was a gross headless and tail-less seal (probably a shark attack victim) rotting on the beach!; and back to Turquoise bay where the kids wanted to have another swim – and Chris took both his waterproof camera into the water in one pocket and his un-waterproof phone into the water in the other pocket!  Durrr!!!

So, if you’re thinking of trying to call Chris, don’t!  The phone looks like a salt cellar and tries to make beep-buzz noises with a bright light.  It’s buggered, but he still reckons it’s more useful that an iPhone!

We only counted 22 kangaroos; 2 emus (plus chicks) and 4 dead snakes on the way out of the park – amazing what you can see when the safest speed to travel is 50km/h.

On to Coral Bay tomorrow to see what delights that holds…
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My Review Of The Place I Stayed

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