Swimming with Humpback Whales on the Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

Swimming with Humpback Whales on the Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

Lisa Young journeyed to the small town of Exmouth on western Australia’s northwest coast to swim and kayak along the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef.

landed in a desert-like landscape, with sand as far as the eye
could see. Like a mirage, the town of Exmouth shimmered in the heat
on the horizon. I’d flown one-hour north of cosmopolitan Perth’s
bustling city streets to the small town of Exmouth on western
Australia’s northwest coast. I had come to experience some new
sea-based activities on offer: swimming with humpback whales in
open water and kayaking along the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo
Reef that stretches 300km from Red Bluff to Bundegi Reef near

Ningaloo is an incredible natural aquarium and one of the
longest fringing reefs in the world. As fringing reefs are found
very close to the shore, it is easy to walk, swim, dive or kayak
straight to them.

My accommodation was the exquisite
Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef
, a model ecotourism development camp
with a commitment to maintaining and protecting the environment,
nestled among the sand dunes of Cape Range National Park just 500
metres from the sea. Sal Salis consists of 16 eco-luxe wilderness
tents dotted among the dunes; it is a hidden gem and one of
Australia’s best-kept secrets – though it may not be for much
longer, as it’s made its way onto various travel hit lists for

Groundhog Day mornings started the same way; my wake-up call was
the sound of wallabies slowly thumping along the boardwalk leading
to my tent as the sun’s first rays touch the water, casting a
reddish glow across it. I submersed myself into the sea with
turtles, fish and reef sharks for company, before settling down to
an exotic breakfast back at camp.

On the first day, I was on my way across choppy waters in
search of humpback whales with the Live Ningaloo expedition
company. This new venture operates between 1 August and 31 October,
and enables guests to swim with humpback whales while accompanied
by marine experts. A spotter plane circles above the boat and then
radios the humpbacks’ coordinates to the skipper. We floundered
about with our heads in the deep, dark, open water looking for
humpbacks. The rough water made visibility poor, but suddenly a
high-pitched whale song vibrated through the water, getting louder
as the creature approached.

The elegant whale swam beneath us. I could just about make out
its shape in the murky water and, as I lifted my head out of the
water, it surfaced in front of me. Its huge, barnacled body and
distinguishing hump glistened in the sun as it flipped a massive
tail in the air before re-submerging itself and swimming off. More
whales came close to our boat, but the sea swell became too big and
we were unable to enter the water again.

The following day was spent paddling kayaks along the reef just
a short distance from Sal Salis. We carried snorkelling gear in the
kayaks which put on before slipping into the clear water.
Immediately, colourful neon damsel fish and pink anemone fish swam
by, as vibrant parrot fish nibbled away at the coral. There was so
much life, light and colour and thousands of fish filled my view; I
felt I was swimming through a documentary film about an unspoilt,
innocent reef.

We paddled to another mooring, where we swam with a green turtle
for 20 minutes before it got bored and swam away. A big friendly
grouper, a beautiful and harmless fish, swam past, while a
well-camouflaged wobbegong shark lay on the sandy seabed.

The following day, I joined Ningaloo Whaleshark n’ Dive to go scuba diving on
Exmouth’s Navy Pier. They also operate day snorkelling trips to see
the vast and placid whale sharks, the largest of all whales, which
come to Exmouth’s shores between mid-March and September. The
average depth of the dive was in shallow water around ten metres;
often the most interesting depth to dive in. I immediately found
myself among a beautiful swirling mass of bigeye trevally fish;
swimming in a vortex down through the pier’s barnacle-covered
structure, they resembled a silvery underwater tornado.

There’s no shortage of fish in Exmouth’s restaurants either. I
dined at the popular Whalers Restaurant – a short walk from the
Ningaloo Novotel – where we devoured their
Shark Bay crab, local tiger prawn cakes and Coffin Bay oysters.
Other activities on offer in the area include a boat trip up Yardie
Creek Gorge, where the shy, black-footed rock wallabies live, and a
visit to the Mandu Mandu Gorge with its magnificent fossils. But,
mostly, you’ll just want to slip into the sea and immerse yourself
in the underwater world.

Swimming so close to the marine life on this miraculously
unspoilt reef is really special. Exmouth’s waters give you a
feeling for how special our oceans are – and how important it is to
preserve after them.

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