In April 2019, our Australia product manager Rachel Gleave headed Down Under for an experience of a lifetime on Western Australia’s Coral Coast – swimming with whale sharks. Now, she recalls her time in Australia and a moment she’ll never forget…
Swimming with sharks
A sleepy settlement, halfway up Western Australia’s west coast, Exmouth is the gateway to the Ningaloo Reef, an incredible reef that rivals the Great Barrier Reef for beauty but with a fraction of the visitors. It’s also accessible straight from the beach.
The coral here is mainly hard but with a kaleidoscope of colours, variety of shapes and structures and the marine life is outstanding. Many would be content with just this but to top it all off, this region provides the opportunity to swim with elusive whale sharks, which pass through these waters between April and August.
I was lucky enough to share the reef with these beautiful beasts but nothing can prepare you for the moment you enter the water, look down and there it is – the biggest fish in the sea, in all its spotty glory. It’s probably one of the highlights of my travel career. Straight away, you’re kicking your hardest to keep up, but for at least 10 to 15 minutes you’ll be swimming alongside the shark. Then, about 30 minutes later, another shark is spotted and you are straight back to swimming alongside another. I think we entered the water about six times in total, seeing fish varying from 13-32 feet in length.
But what’s the best way to experience this remote corner of Oz? I spent four days seeing all of the different ways to make the best of your time in this wonderful region.
One of the highlights that many are unaware of is Cape Range National Park, a UNESCO protected area of rugged outback beautifully covering much of the western part of the North West Cape peninsula and leading from the vast desert landscape of central Australia right to the pristine beaches of the coast. You can be snorkelling in the morning and hiking in the gorges of the Outback in the afternoon – a real contrast of experiences.
It’s in this national park you’ll find Sal Salis, a unique luxury tented eco-camp with just 15 tents discreetly hidden in the sand dunes behind the beach. It’s a privileged location only allowed by the Parks and Wildlife Service if they obey strict rules of conservation and therefore there’s pretty much no impact on the environment. Everything, including water, has to be brought into this remote location, so living is simple. The welcome is friendly, the food delicious and the luxe factor is the serene location. Staying here comes at a price but the experience is one of pure privilege. You’ll totally forget the outside world, as there’s no WiFi or phone signal to speak of! Another option in Exmouth is Mantarays Ningaloo Beach Resort, a great four-star resort with a lovely pool, gorgeous sea views and comfortable rooms.
Swimming with whale sharks, snorkelling trips and also swimming with humpback whales (from August to October) can be arranged from either hotel and it’s well worth hiring a car so you can spend some of your time exploring the remote bays and gorges independently, with our namesake, Turquoise Bay, being a favourite of ours!
Snorkelling from Shore Thing
About an hour’s drive south of Exmouth, Coral Bay is a picture-perfect holiday settlement with a wide, safe beach to swim from. The coral here is incredible and I managed to see so many different fish from here. There’s no luxury accommodation options found here, but this is where a luxury four-berth catamaran – Shore Thing – is located. A labour of love for Luke and Lannie, a lovely couple who host groups of up to eight guests (either private charter or by-the-cabin) on a three- or five-day cruise to different areas of the reef. The comfort and welcome I received were second to none and food was just delicious. We snorkelled in three different areas of the reef and saw 12 reef sharks at a cleaning station (where ‘cleaner’ species remove dead skin and parasites from ‘clients’ such as the sharks), manta rays, sting rays and so many turtles. I have to say this is some of the best snorkelling I have ever enjoyed. They also offer diving and have all the necessary equipment and dive masters on board.
My perfect trip to Western Australia
If I was to plan my perfect trip to Ningaloo Reef, I’d spend two nights up in Exmouth, staying at either Sal Salis or Mantarays, so I could swim with the whale sharks, before following this by three nights on Shore Thing for the best snorkelling. I’d urge anyone with an interest in the underwater world to visit this region. It’s not as far as you think and is well worth the journey to visit it.
Exmouth is a two-hour flight from Perth, which is now only a 16-hour, 45-minute, flight. This isn’t a lot longer than flying to an island in Asia (with a stopover), plus Perth is a captivating city to spend some time in first. You could even add on some time on the beaches and wineries of Margaret River (just a few hours’ drive south of Perth) on the same trip.
Here is a video of our whaleshark experience…