All Creatures Great and Small

Trip Start Oct 17, 2007
Trip End Oct 16, 2008

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Flag of Australia  , Western Australia,
Sunday, August 3, 2008

One of the main reasons we changed our itinerary to take in more of Western Australia was the underwater wonderland of Ningaloo Reef, said by many to be as beautiful if not more so, than it`s Queensland cousin.

The 250km long fringing reef is unique for being formed on the West coast of a continent and one of its biggest advantages is that it is never more than 7km offshore, so no long choppy boat trips are necessary to enjoy all that Ningaloo has to offer. One of the things that helps keep Ningaloo Marine Park clean and unspoilt is the fact that it is adjacent to Cape Range National Park, so development of resorts etc is not allowed and visitors are more inclined to appreciate and look after the existing habitats and wildlife. And there`s plenty of it to appreciate as we found out on our travels around the NP.

The first thing we noticed was the abundance of kangaroos and slightly smaller Euros (walleroos) who unfortunately have no road sense whatsoever and can make driving quite hazardous.

Also wandering the spinifex bushland were several wild emus, occasionally with 2 or 3 stripy chicks, and the odd Australian bustard (looks a little like a goose) and an echidna - only the second one we`ve seen in the wild.

We did an interesting bushwalk through Mandu Gorge where we were lucky enough to spot some of the rare and mostly nocturnal black footed rock wallabies who call the rocky gorge home. It was amazing to see how agile and skillful these little fellas are on the seemingly inaccessable narrow ledges high up the cliffs.

Further along the trail, after watching adult ospreys flying backwards and forwards to feed their young, we were startled by an ominous looking orange and green snake which, until it moved we were convinced was plastic. We later discovered that it was a venomous (but not lethal to humans) yellow-faced whipsnake. As we were leaving one of the bay carparks later on in our visit we actually had to stop the car to let another whipsnake cross the road! What are the chances of that?

From here on we decided to spend our time getting as wet as possible. The crystal clear waters of the aptly named Turquoise Bay make one of the best spots in the area for snorkelling. At low tide the reef is easily accessable straight from the beach and the current tends to gently sweep parallel to the shore, so the easiest approach is to get in as far down the beach as you can, swim out to a comfortable distance and then drift on the current over the coral, swim back to shore the other end, walk back down the beach and do it all over again.

We saw some absolutely amazing coral formations and spectacularly coloured fish and on our first attempt Paul even spotted a grey reef shark in the shallows - despite their generally placid, even timid nature still quite an unnerving experience. But it didn't put us off and we did several more drifts which gave us the confidence to tackle a different bay which can only be snorkelled at high tide to avoid damaging the delicate coral structures.

This area, known as Oyster Stacks, is a bit more challenging as even getting in to the water requires a scramble over some sharp rocks and once there the more open water and the natural swell of the sea mean you get moved about a lot more than in the calm, sheltered water of the bay. It was well worth the effort for the abundant coral and familiar curious fish and here we also saw several sea stars (starfish) and many sea cucumbers - large slug like creatures who sift the sand on the sea floor and extract nutrients and tiny organisms.

Here we were also both fortunate enough to see a black tipped reef shark who hopefully managed to get far enough into the picture for you to believe it really is a shark!

Two hours South along the coast is the resort of Coral Bay where the more commercial side of Ningaloo Reef exploration is based. We once again donned our masks and fins and headed out into the very calm but reasonably deep water and almost straight away came across a 1.5m wide manta ray resting on the sandy sea bed, but he didn't hang around for long.

After exploring some more we returned to the crystal clear shallows where we almost trod on a very friendly stingray on our way to see some enormous spangled emperor fish in water barely deep enough to cover them.

On our walk back to the shore we saw a dark shape in the water which as it came towards us we assumed was another ray but when it stopped no more than 6ft away from us it still took us several moments to identify, as we just couldn't believe we were looking at an octopus! In water not even up to our knees! Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine we'd see anything like that without going SCUBA diving. Absolutely magical.

To get a better look at the larger, further out sections of the reef we hopped on a glass bottomed boat tour where we were amazed by the size and density of the different coral types and the vivid colours showed how alive and healthy this reef is. On our way back we were lucky enough to have a small turtle swim under the boat and then come up to one side for air. It really rounded off our visit to Ningaloo in style and our few days here made the detour half way across Australia totally worthwhile.
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