As we drive past yet another dead walleroo we wonder how these animals can be so stupid to jump out in front of cars when there is so much space all around. We are in the North West Cape of Western Australia which is about as far west as you can get on land before you hit Reunion Island. We are here for six days to see the marine life that passes these remote shores. The Ningaloo Reef runs for 260 km along the NW coast of Australia making it one of the longest fringing reefs in the world. It hosts a huge variety of coral and reef fish but is most sought after for the manta rays, whale sharks and humpback whales. We thought that September would be too late for whale sharks so have arranged to try to swim with humpbacks while staying at the luxury tented camp of Sal Salis near Exmouth. We then plan to do some diving further south on the reef at Coral Bay.
Sal Salis (above) turns out to be a real treat. Rows of African style tents are laid out along the dunes - we are in the furthest tent with beautiful views of the sea and reef - with a very comfortable main area where meals are served and you can chill out by the bar at any time. At breakfast we sit along the bar at the edge of the decking and watch whales breaching as we eat our bacon and eggs. The camp is in a national park and walleroos hop by as we have breakfast while parrots and other birds keep an eye out for crumbs. Zimbabwean managers Paul and Candice provide delicious snacks before dinner and the fellow guests (max 10 while we are there) are very interesting and friendly.
The day after we arrive we head out on a boat with skipper Murray, guide and marine expert Nat, and photographer Jana to see if we can get close to a humpback. These huge creatures, up to 19m long, migrate up the W Australia coast from the Southern Ocean so that their calves can develop in warmer water. Without the abundance of crill to eat they then return south a few months later. The stretch of water off the Ningaloo Reef is known as the "humpback highway" and on Sunday morning we see many pods of 3-4 whales cruising along. We are trying to find a pod without any calves and then drop in ahead of them so that they swim past us. Jacob is up in a spotter plane and soon sees likely pods so Murray manouevres us into position while we sit along the marlin board in our wetsuits and snorkelling gear waiting for the signal. When he thinks we are lined up and the whales are close Murray tells us to jump and then directs us to swim left or right to try to intercept them. On the first try they dive deep underneath us - I manage to get a picture of one below me (above) but no super close up encounter. On the next try they veer off and we miss them entirely although we do see a bronze whaler or copper shark shooting along beneath us. Next time we are sure that we are lined up but they turn again and we just catch a huge tail flipping away from us before disappearing into the blue.
We are losing hope in getting a good underwater encounter when our spotter plan sees a whale shark. It is supposed to be too late in the year to see these huge fish but maybe this guy got left behind. Unlike the humpbacks, the whale sharks are pretty steady in the water and Murray has no difficulty getting in front of it. Jana then swims closer and directs us and the boat so that we can easily drop in ahead of it. Once in the water it is not hard to swim behind the shark. We try to keep behind the tail and have a fabulous 15 minutes watching the big fish cruising along.
Back on the boat we get some more great sightings of humpbacks surfacing and breaching but fail to make anymore underwater encounters. Never mind it was a great day and a privilege to be fleetingly close to these great beasts.
Back in Sal Salis we are not so excited by the snorkelling although there is plenty to see on the house reef. Our recent dive trip to Indonesia has rather spoilt us. However there are some great walks particularly into the gorges of the limestone coastal range that runs parallel with the coast. At Yardie Creek we climb alongside a gorge filled with clear blue water and spot walleroos, ospreys and egrets as well as lots of wild plants including pretty wild rosemary, lemongrass, and rock fig. There are many morning glory bushes (poisonous to introduced species like rabbits and foxes but not to the natives) as well as big grassy clumps of spinifex which the termites use to cement their mounds. In the Pilgramunna Gorge (above) there are many black-footed rock wallabies perching on ledges looking down on us. One has come down to eat leaves from a bush but scurries out of sight as we approach.
After three nights we say goodbye to our new friends and drive south. We head around the north of the cape to Exmouth and the another 160km south until we reach Coral Bay. The road is straight, monotonous rolling scrubland and I am glad I am not driving the 11 hours back to Perth. Coral Bay (above) is a big contrast to Sal Salis. More holiday camp than 5 star camp but our self-catering apartment is comfortable and clean with a great view of the sea - just visible above and to the right of Vicky's head in the picture. The resort has a huge caravan park and we wonder where the owners disappear to as the bay itself is pretty quiet. Perhaps they are all out fishing? We head for Ningaloo Reef Dive, the only dive shop in town, to try to check out some dives on the reef. They try to cater for snorkellers and divers and offer a full day's trip with two dives and a chance to swim with mantas in between.
The trouble with this arrangement is that we are limited to diving by snorkelling sites. The first dive "Blue Maze" is a shallow swim around some pretty coral bommies with a few, small reef fish and a couple of octopus. The second is more fun - the improbably named "Big Blue to Asho's" starts with a drift into the reef where we spot a school of baracuda and explored some coral canyons. We then reach a big cabbage coral bommie which is a cleaning station. Three or more sharks are cruising round and round as cleaner fish nibble them. They even seem to clean inside their mouths! The snorkellers are disappointed as we can't find the mantas but we do get some more great sightings of humpbacks breaching - this time a mother and calf - as well as some dolphins swimming by the boat.
I highly recommend Sal Salis and have loved the friendliness of the Australians both there and in Coral Bay. I don't think I will be back to Coral Bay after all of our amazing diving in SE Asia. We now have three days' wine tasting in Margaret River to go. Check out the photos in the gallery below.