Ningaloo: The Little Sister Reef

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Western Australia, Australia
By Cat George

The main tent at the Ningaloo Reef Retreat.
The main tent at the Ningaloo Reef Retreat.
Ten yards offshore and all I can see is sand. I pop up, treading water, and a moment later my snorkeling companion, Ian Bowie, lifts his head out of the water, too.

“Nothing,” I say, frowning. “Just sand.” Off to our left a French couple has decided to turn around, swim back to shore.

There is nothing to see! one of them calls, in French.

They seem disgusted, and I am too. Even before Ian and I drove two thousand miles up the Western Australian coastline to the Ningaloo Reef, we’d heard about the pleasures of Turquoise Bay, this stretch of white sand and aqua water; when we arrived in Exmouth, the closest town to Ningaloo, all the backpackers at our hostel talked of going to “Turquoise”. The photocopied leaflets of snorkeling information drifting around town trumpeted this is as “one of the best places on the reef.” Sand, though. All we’ve seen is sand.

“Just a little further,” Ian mumbles in his Scottish brogue. Unlike me, he’s been to Australia’s bigger, more famous reef, the Great Barrier, where access to the coral requires a long boat trip or a flight out from shore. The idea that Ningaloo, the longest fringing reef in the world, might be accessible a few feet from shore seems to amuse him.

I nod and we dip back under. Right below us, whisking across the sand, is a small ray, decorated with neon blue spots. We take off after it, and perhaps the ray is the key that opens the door to the reef, because in moments we’re in a jungle of coral and fish. Stripes, spots and iridescent colors surge past and I just miss colliding with a coral structure the size of an elephant.

Kicking against the current, we enter another part of the bay and find that here, the coral does begin a few feet from shore. A couple, swimming by, waves to us: “Want to find Nemo?” The woman dives down and points into a cluster of anemones. The fish hiding within is tiny, so much smaller than I’m expecting, like a copper penny with fins and eyes. Ian has little patience with small things and shoots off, pointing into the darker depths. I glimpse the flick-flick of a dark tail and fins and decide not to pursue it. Knowing the reef sharks are harmless doesn’t stop the soundtrack from Jaws from playing in my head.

In the afternoon, tired from snorkeling, we toss our towels down on the sand for a nap. The beach, compared to those in eastern Australia, is empty. A few tourists wandering along the shore, some local families picnicking in the dunes: maybe twenty people. I imagine that the hundreds of other expanses of sand along this Indian Ocean coast are even more deserted. Ningaloo is still very much in the shadow of her bigger sister, the Great Barrier, and those who make the effort to visit the remote location (the Northwest Cape, the spit of land that Ningaloo runs along the west coast of, is two days drive north of Perth, Western Australia) are rewarded with plenty of space. The fragile environment – both coral reef and the sand-dune ecosystem on shore – is still, for the most part, unmolested. While the swarms continue to visit the east, Ningaloo, which has a diversity of marine life just as high as the Great Barrier, benefits from the underexposure.

The shores of Turquoise Bay.
The shores of Turquoise Bay.
As the sun starts to set, I wake Ian up and so we can drive back to Exmouth, where we’re staying. Driving in Australia after twilight is always a dodgy prospect, as an Aussie might say, due to the stupidity of kangaroos. I’m glad Ian is driving the rental car; I can look out at the beauty of the crimson sky over the reef and dunes and not worry as the ‘roos bound out of the sagebrush, increasingly closer to our front bumper. Sometimes it seems like a game, which one can jump closest without colliding. Australians hit them all the time. I’m reminded of a local in Exmouth who told me, nonchalantly (despite his otherwise environmental stance), “One time I hit one and I didn’t have a knife with me.” Leaving one half-dead and in pain is considered bad form, “so I beat it to death with a tire iron.”

Ian drives with his foot poised over the brake, ready for the leapers. Kangaroos certainly aren’t in any danger of extinction; there are more of them in Australia than there are people, but ecosystems like Ningaloo’s, and the Great Barrier’s, present issues almost as unavoidable as the kangaroos boinging up in front of the car. One Ningaloo tour guide tells me that he’s glad he’s here, rather than in the east, where higher population is just one of the pressures. Farming techniques, too, threaten the Great Barrier: “when the rain comes it just washes fertilizer into the ocean.” As the water quality drops, coral bleaches and the reef begins to die off.

The sand around Ningaloo is too infertile for farming, but the threat of tourism is just as strong. When a resort development with rooms for than two thousand guests was proposed for the Ningaloo coast, locals took a stand. They took their battle to the web and the streets (almost a hundred thousand “Save Ningaloo” bumper stickers were slapped onto cars) and enlisted the help of local celebrities to see that any development in the area would take into account the need for sustainable, ecologically sound growth. They won, and the proposal was scrapped in favor of a much smaller addition to an already-built hotel. But other factors may keep locals who love the environment from protecting it forever. There’s a faction in the area who are more interested in “drinking and fishing and having a bit of fun,” as one local puts it, than in making sure the reef remains pristine.

One afternoon I head north of Exmouth to the nearest beach, Bundegi, only to find that humans aren’t the only threat to the future of the reef. This eastern shoreline of the Northwest Cape, on the other side from the main reef, had its own stretch of coral reef for years; then in 1998 Cyclone Vance hit the cape. Now, when I head off Bundegi to snorkel, the coral is dead, fish gone. The cyclone took out most of Exmouth, but the town was able to rebuild, even naming a local pub “Vance’s.” But the coral probably won’t come back from the destruction, leaving thousands of years of growth dead on the sand. The thought seems to make the day grow dark, and, shivering in the wind, I leave Bundegi and hurry back to town.

Ian and I decide to visit the reef on a bus this time, heading out from Exmouth to the Ningaloo Reef Retreat, an eco-conscious safari camp in the dunes along the coast.

I chat with the bus driver, a young Aussie named Campbell Read. He tells me he puts up with living in a place like Exmouth, so far from the rest of the world and any real social life, because of the siren song of the reef. He says snorkeling here gives him a “natural high.”

When I slide into the water at the Reef Retreat – the coral here, despite receiving less hype than Turquoise Bay, is even more of a swirling mix of marine chaos – I know what he means. The retreat’s snorkeling guide, a young woman named Bec, leads us through the corals, pointing ahead – to the neon lights of parrotfish, a throbbing octopus, a school of tiny zebrafish – with a reverence that wouldn’t be out of place in an ancient cathedral. Perhaps that’s the answer, I think; start treating these places as we do our own greatest accomplishments, tiptoeing through, hands-off.

Vlamingh Head Lighthouse, which marks the tip of the Northwest Cape.
Vlamingh Head Lighthouse, which marks the tip of the Northwest Cape.
Here the water is so shallow that at points I feel myself gliding above coral with only inches to spare, holding my breath and stilling my flippers. Don’t kick the coral. That’s a mantra that guides on Ningaloo have to repeat over and over, as snorkelers forget their own power. It’s a beginning, that. If we all remember not to kick the coral, maybe the little sister reef has a fighting chance to survive.

If you go
Exmouth and Coral Bay are the only towns near the Ningaloo Reef; Exmouth is the larger of the two. SkyWest flies in; Greyhound buses go to both Exmouth and Coral Bay from Perth and Darwin. Camping at beaches along the reef is an option, but there are limited facilities; staying in town and renting a car or taking the Reef Retreat bus (it picks up daily at major accommodations in town) is another option for accessing Ningaloo.

For those on a budget who want a unique experience of the reef, the Ningaloo Reef Retreat accepts volunteers for two to three weeks at a time. In return for help with dishes, cooking, and cleaning of the camp, camp assistants eat with guests, sleep on the beach, and partake in the daily snorkeling and kayaking tours.

Scuba-divers will want to take a tour of the Navy Pier, north of Exmouth, known for its huge rock cod and sea slugs; other activities on the reef include snorkeling with whale sharks or manta rays. Two other popular activities, driving quad bikes in the dunes and charter fishing, can be hard on the environment.

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