Remote and pristine, the 260-kilometer long fringing reef of Ningaloo is the least-visited (for now) of Australia’s coral reefs. Which is not to say that it is crowd-free: hundreds of fish and coral species call this underwater universe home, including the coast’s most famous seasonal visitor—the whale shark.
The lady behind the rental counter looked at me, a mix of concern and pity smudged across her face. Then, with a wave of her hand, she added, “Just drive that way. After 100 kilometers, turn right. There’s only the one road. You’ll be fine.”
It didn’t matter, I reflected as I accepted the keys, that such directions were alarmingly vague. Nor had I been bothered by the long journey I’d been required to undertake to get to this point: a cross-continental flight from Sydney followed by a layover in Perth and a 3 a.m. scramble to get onto another flight bound for a dusty airstrip two hours to the north. All that remained now was a 90-minute drive to the edge of the earth. It was an arrival I’d been planning for eons. Mere logistics could not dampen my mood.
The chain of events that brought me here began, perhaps ironically for an Australian, with a chance encounter with an intrepid American woman in Sydney four years ago. Having road-tripped the lonely northern edge of Western Australia, a journey of some 3,000 kilometers, she’d raved about the peach-colored cliffs and spearmint waters of the state’s Coral Coast; about laidback beach towns set on pure white sands; about impossibly luxurious accommodations in impossibly remote places; and, of course, about the reef. Later, my own research would reveal more beguiling details, mostly regarding the region’s shining centerpiece, which the American had spoken about with particular breathiness.
Like the Great Barrier Reef on the opposite side of the continent, Ningaloo Reef is so big it’s visible from space. Exquisitely beautiful and biologically unique, the 260-kilometer-long ecosystem is said to be the best place on earth to swim with whale sharks, the world’s largest fish. It’s also home to giant mantas, some 270 different types of coral, and a number of endemic marine species found nowhere else on earth. Because of all this, UNESCO added Ningaloo and its adjacent coastline to the World Heritage List in 2011. And so I, in turn, added it to my bucket list.
As the road stretched away from Learmonth Airport under a seemingly infinite sky, the rental-car lady was proven right: I was fine. A changing landscape provided an upbeat tempo to the drive, from the sunny optimism of yellow grasses to a deep vermillion soil, dotted bright green by trees, to a chalky montage of apricot and olive green shrub; a strange, smudgy palette of gentle pastels. Without fences or signs—other than those that warned of straying livestock—the landscape felt directionless, borderless. Timeless. I saw just three cars before the right turn loomed. CORAL BAY.
That brief conversation with the American had left me high expectations for this town. Mostly, I pictured a place like Byron Bay, Australia’s mecca of laidback surfing holidays, but one charmingly suspended in time due to its remoteness. With a population of just 190, that seemed a reasonable prediction. What revealed itself instead when I descended the dunes was a well-fed village resplendent in green lawns and rosy cheeks, where sand gathered in the gutters of the palm-lined main street and a group of small, athletic children clad in bright wetsuits ran parent-free between the trees. It was immediately easy to forget that I was on one of Australia’s loneliest stretches, though occasional prompts—such as the wavering availability of menu basics like avocado and tomato—would serve as subtle reminders in the coming days. But for now, I was content to gape at the scene and particularly at the water, whose alluring beauty no one could have prepared me for.
There are many differences between Ningaloo and the Great Barrier Reef, but perhaps none more immediately obvious than their levels of accessibility. A barrier reef is separated from the coast by a channel of deep water, requiring a certain level of commitment—and a boat—to get to. A fringing reef, such as Ningaloo, sits directly offshore, so that it is possible to simply cast off one’s clothes, wade into the pale topaz waters, and allow the lazy currents to drift you over its remarkable underwater universe. And that is precisely what I did.
The clouds of particolored fish that flitted about the cabbage and staghorn corals with admirable synchronicity provided a spectacular introduction to Ningaloo. It was clear, I noted as a small turtle bobbed past, what the other major difference between Australia’s two great reefs was. This one remains joyously healthy.
No secret has been made of the Great Barrier Reef’s plight. As an Australian, I have watched with despair as a slow trickle of local media reports turned into a flood of headlines, alternately damning the government’s apathy and playing down the situation’s urgency. What’s clear is that this is no natural accident. Overdevelopment and clearance on the Queensland coast has left the land unable absorb seasonal tropical rains, causing plumes of sediment-and pesticide-rich soil to stream into the ocean. The resulting pollution has choked fish and coral, creating algal blooms and a weakened biosphere, resulting in an ecosystem unable to cope with the changing climate. Indeed, some recent estimates suggest that around 50 percent of the reef’s northern and central coral is already dead or dying from increasing sea temperatures. That such a thing could happen in our lifetime is wildly concerning. That more is not being done to rectify the situation—or examine its wider implications, as a veritable canary in the global mine—is unthinkable. Yet as I drifted over Ningaloo’s prolific display of life, my thoughts on the matter, I’m ashamed to say, were rather more short-sighted. To borrow from the great Gabriel García Márquez, it was enough to be sure I existed at that moment.
I met Frazer McGregor by chance after wandering down one of Coral Bay’s two streets, where I came upon a dusty, corrugated building with a huge and compelling manta ray painted on one side. A sign announced that this was the Coral Bay Research Station. Curious, I wandered round the back and called out “hello” to the empty air, introducing myself to the fit-looking man who soon emerged from the building.
By his own account, McGregor first arrived in Coral Bay 16 years ago and, thanks to a prior degree in animal behavior, “started asking questions” about the year-round commercial success of local swim-with-manta tours.
“I knew that in a lot of other places, manta rays are seasonal, they don’t stay in one place all year,” he said, stretching comfortably in his chair as the winter sun poured down. “The consistency seemed unusual.”
Now head researcher and marine biologist at the station, McGregor went on to become a key figure in establishing vital information about Ningaloo’s unique biosphere and, as a result, an influential lobbyist in securing the reef’s World Heritage listing. Today he straddles the line between environment and economics, running an ecotourism business here as well as conducting research. He also maintains a position on the UNESCO advisory committee, where he is tasked with monitoring potential threats to the area’s continued longevity, including tourism.
When I asked him why his research is focused on mantas rather than Ningaloo’s iconic whale sharks, he said, “From an ecological perspective, resident mantas are critical to the system’s health—they help regulate the amount of plankton that settles on the reef. They’re also incredible creatures. Mantas have the largest brain-to-body ratio of any fish; they have personalities. When they’re interacting with you in a one-on-one scenario, you can see them actually trying to work out what you are. You’ll see.”
That I did, just a couple of days later, on a day trip with Coral Bay EcoTours. Despite a capacity to swim at over 70 kilometers an hour, the pair of mantas that glided alongside me was content to sedately cruise, keeping company for an easy twenty minutes before descending slowly to blurred depths below. What floored me most about the experience however was not the creatures’ personalities, as McGregor had suggested, or even the overall profundity of the encounter—although swimming with such sizeable creatures, their wingspans each an estimated four meters, offered a perspective not easily forgotten. Rather, it was the realization I had afterwards, when reflecting on the wonder of the day. That such an adventure is not more widely promoted across Australia, or indeed the world, seemed a reflection of this area’s relatively pristine condition. It was a lovely thing to contemplate, as I sipped at craft beer at the local pub, that such an intimate brush with wildlife could be considered nothing out of the ordinary. I caught myself smiling at nothing particular, as the palm trees and fairy lights swayed above.
A couple of hours’ drive north among the spinifex-freckled sand dunes of Cape Range National Park, an equally bucolic—albeit more exclusive—attraction awaits. Sal Salis was conceptualized with Africa’s safari camps in mind, and owner Stewart Cranswick—a Zimbabwean who recently bought out his business partner’s stake in the eight-year-old eco-luxe property—this year unveiled an even more ambitious offering, with 16 well-appointed guest tents instead of the previous nine, as well as a license to offer guests the rare experience of swimming with humpback whales, which visit the Coral Coast from July through November each year.
Despite its African influence, however, the main allure of Sal Salis is its intrinsic Australianness. The surrounding landscape is quintessentially outback, inhabited by wallaroos—the smaller cousins of kangaroos—that are particularly prolific at sunset, when they calmly graze around the dunes with little regard for the gawping humans nearby. One evening, a scratching sound outside the open-air bathroom of my tent prompted me to peer over the wall, and there was a lone echidna, the rare Australian version of a porcupine. Despite my happy gasp he continued to forage in the sand for some time, affording me a private moment with a notoriously private animal.
Of course, no one comes here solely for the land-based delights. The northern end of the Coral Coast also offers the best chances of swimming with whale sharks, and so it was not long before I was boarding Sal Salis’s private boat, a leather-and-teak affair called Wave Rider, and heading out to sea.
Reaching lengths of 12 meters or more, whale sharks are recognized as the biggest fish in the ocean. But like their distant relatives, the giant mantas, they remain something of an enigma. “It’s a creature that’s nearly impossible to know much about,” conceded Natalie Yeates as we motored towards open sea. The staff marine biologist on board Wave Rider (she has an additional master’s degree in shark science and several free diving championship titles to boot), Yeates has devoted much of her life to the ocean, and became observably animated when speaking about the research challenges associated with its biggest fish.
“Firstly, they’re difficult to tag,” she told me, brushing strands of sun-bleached blond hair from her face. “Secondly, for a satellite tag to give any information, it needs to leave water while the satellite is overhead. That makes it very hard to access with whale sharks, because they spend the majority of their lives between 50 and 200 meters deep.” Thirdly, she added, the body of pre-existing knowledge is severely lacking. “No one has ever seen whale sharks mating, or giving birth—never. We know they come to the reef to feed, but not much else.”
Despite general elusiveness, whale sharks congregate at Ningaloo in numbers seen either nowhere else, or rarely anywhere else on earth, depending on who’s talking. “We feel pretty lucky to have a sustainable industry based on them, particularly given that they only spend 10 percent of their lives at the surface, and that mostly at night,” Yeates said. Sustainability is a term that deserves emphasis. The Australian whale shark industry relies on spotter planes to locate nearby animals, a costly exercise that substantially increases expedition prices (from about US$40 per person, as in the Philippines, to US$450). But according to Yeates, it’s immeasurably more responsible than other methods, such as attracting sharks with food. “Feeding creates dependencies,” she explained, “so the sharks aren’t going on their normal migrations. It’s potentially disastrous for their global population.”
Once an animal is in sight, coordinates are radioed in to the boat captain, who maneuvers into position and drops his neoprene-clad passengers in the path of the oncoming creature. And so it was within a few minutes of passing outside the reef: suddenly I was plunging into the cobalt sea, preparing to greet eight tons of graceful force.
It was in Mexico where I experienced my first whale shark encounter, off the coastline of Isla Holbox in the Yucatán. There, a shroud of petrol and silt tarnished my vision and the experience; I left feeling guilty of our intrusion.
This was something else all together. Mouth wide open in an enormous O, body bathed in silky streams of sunlight, the great fish cruised past like a tanker, seemingly unperturbed by the goggling humans in close proximity. I counted the white freckles adorning his body, a length of burnished steel-gray, and watched as a puff of remora followed in his slipstream before trailing slowly behind, keeping pace with the shark’s unhurried undulations. Such an encounter could not have felt more orchestrated if we were in the filtered waters of an aquarium—though you’d never wish that on such a far-ranging creature—and I felt quite sated, though it wasn’t yet finished. Like friends making our way through the neighborhood, we dropped in on six more of the placid giants over the next two hours, spending a few minutes with a six-meter female; a quarter hour with a circling male; and a fleeting moment with another that steamed past too fast for Yeates to determine its sex.
On my return to Sydney a few days later, I would read that whale sharks’ status as a threatened species, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List, had been officially revised from vulnerable to endangered. It felt like a punch in the gut.
It is the travel journalist’s eternal dilemma, it seems, to write of precious places. Certainly, it is something I have long wrestled with. How can one promote greater visitation to areas whose isolation has been a primary mode of protection? This trip afforded me no sudden, definitive answers. But it did offer unexpected comfort.
It had been with reluctance that I had signed up to go quad biking around the sand dunes of Coral Bay, which seemed exactly the type of touristy activity that I generally try to avoid. Only later, when our group of six had climbed the hills south of town and stood scanning the rolling terrain and the ocean beyond, did I decide that this was a beautiful way to connect with nature. Thin, sandy tracks extended in both directions along the coastline like intricate lacework, threading through valleys and around humped ridges to coves of white sand and a sea of speckled blue. Despite their obvious aridity, the hills seemed to thrum with life, and the entire scene—free from the bromide of boardwalks and gift shops—struck me as breathtakingly precious. Rising tourism numbers might be inevitable here, but for each person to have the chance to stand on atop such a peak and to look around and breathe in the utterly irreplaceable beauty of that scene—well, perhaps that would not be so bad. Perhaps that would not be so bad at all.
This article originally appeared in the October/November print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Fringe Benefits”).