Visiting Ningaloo Reef was by far the highlight of our trip to Western Australia. The days that we spent in Coral Bay and Exmouth were the happiest and most memorable days of our trip. And how could it not have been? It was three glorious days spent soaking up the sun rays, swimming in crystal clear waters, making friends with the coolest underwater animals and swimming with the biggest fish in the sea!
Ningaloo Reef stretches for 260km from Amherst Point south of Coral Bay to Bundegi Beach near Exmouth. This makes it one of the largest fringing reefs in the world, with the reef often lying as close as just 100m off the coast. The reef is home to over 200 species of hard coral, 50 soft coral and over 500 species of fish, along with manta rays, turtles, humpback whales, and whale sharks that pop by for a visit between May-June. (More on the whale sharks in another post)
Figuring out the best way to enjoy the best of the Ningaloo Reef was a challenge. Where should we stay? Should we go diving or snorkeling? Where are the best places to snorkel along the reef? Is swimming with whale sharks really worth the money? These were the questions bouncing around our minds when we were planning out trip to Australia’s Coral Coast and I’m sure there are many others out there wondering the same. So here is the low down (based on our experience).
Where to stay?
There are 2 great location for exploring the reef: Coral Bay and Exmouth. Where you stay depends entirely on what kind of traveler you are and what kind of experience you are after.
Coral Bay is a small fishing town with one beach, a supermarket complex, a resort, a campground, and a few small shops. The town is almost 100% reliant on tourism with majority of its visitors being families and bigger groups who live in and out of the water, swimming, fishing, and coral viewing. There are two cafes, a bakery, a pizza place, and one restaurant at the resort and absolutely no nightlife or any other entertainment.
At first, Coral Bay really disappointed me. I expected it to be small and intimate, but I imagined it to have a backpacker vibe, a place to connect with other travelers and live the beach life. It wasn’t that. It was a haven for families, filled with kids building sand castles on the beach, ooing and aahing at the site of crabs and fishies. If you are traveling with family and especially if you have small children, Coral Bay is a great place to base yourself for a few nights. You can enjoy the laid back lifestyle, take your time exploring the reef that is literally only 100m away from shore, spend the days kayaking, sunbathing, and relaxing.
If you are a young adventure-seeking traveler, Coral Bay is probably not the place for you. While the town does operate 3 different whale shark tours and has one dive shop, it doesn’t even come close to having the variety of activities offered in Exmouth.
Exmouth is another small town of 2,500 residents located some 150kms north of Coral Bay. Unlike Coral Bay, Exmouth isn’t set on the beach, in fact, the closest beach to Exmouth is located about 20 mins outside of town, towards North West Cape. Despite being small and easy to get around by foot, the town itself is rather spread out.
When we first arrived in Exmouth, it felt deserted, quiet, and lacking any sort of personality, but by the time we were ready to leave, it became a place that we yearned to get stuck in. There is a certain sense of community in Exmouth, that feeling you only get in small towns where everyone knows each other. Despite being very spaced out, you tend to run into the same people no matter where you go. With the wonderful people you are sure to meet in Exmouth, that’s not a bad thing!
Exmouth offers a number of accommodation options ranging from campgrounds to high-end luxury resorts. There is something here to please everyone. Having a car is extremely beneficial in Exmouth, while the tours will almost always pick you up and drop you off from your accommodation, exploring on your own without a car is practically impossible.
The third and probably least popular accommodation alternative is Ningaloo Lighthouse Caravan Park and Yardie Creek Campground. Located on the outskirts of the Cape Range National Park, campgrounds appeal mostly to those travelling in campervans. Both campgrounds offer similar accommodation facilities to the other campgrounds in Exmouth, but these are located much closer to Cape Range National Park. This means that you can escape to the beaches and enjoy the walks in the park without a 1.5 hour drive (return).
Snorkeling in Ningaloo Reef
Ningaloo Reef is one of the only places in the world where you are able to walk from the beach straight onto a coral reef and enjoy the company of coloured fish swimming and feeding in between your legs. So grab a snorkel and a mask and head straight into the water!
Coral Bay is a great spot for those new to snorkeling. The water is warm, calm, and offers great visibility, and the reef is only 100-200m away from the beach. Bill’s Bay and Purdy Point are the two most popular dive spots, easily accessed by foot from any accommodation in Coral Bay. For those looking for an off the beaten path site, there is Oyster Bridge and the Lagoon, but these areas are only accessible with a 4WD or via a tour company.
Exmouth’s snorkeling sites are all located in Cape Range National Park, located about 45 mins drive from Exmouth.
- Lakeside is a great snorkel spot for beginners, located near the Milyering Visitor Centre
- Oyster Stacks, is meant to be great for fish life and is best accessed on a high or incoming tide.
- Turquoise Bay is by far the best and most adventurous snorkeling spot Exmouth. It was our absolute favourite! Access the beach from the Drift car park, jump in the water and let the currents take you on an awesome drift snorkel. Be careful along the bend as the current can get quite strong and bring your waterproof camera as you are bound to see hundreds of fish, stingrays, and turtles at the site! Aside from offering great snorkeling, Turquoise Bay is also one of the most beautiful beaches in Australia, renowned for its white sands and turquoise waters. Plan to spend at least a few hours in the bay, trust us, you will not want to leave!
Note: there is no civilisation in Cape Range National Park and thus no shops where you can hire snorkelling gear. So come prepared and rent some flippers and a mask from one of the shops in Exmouth.
Ningaloo Reef Diving
As you would imagine, Ningaloo Reef is home to some fantastic dive sites. While it is possible to reach some smaller dive sites from Coral Bay, the majority of the famous Ningaloo Reef dive sites are located within 30-45min boat ride from Exmouth.
- Exmouth Navy Pier is rated as one of the best world famous dive sites, however at the time of our visit, it was closed due to the damage from Cyclone Olwyn. So most dive boats alternated between taking the divers out to Muiron Islands and Lighthouse Bay.
- Muiron Islands lie just 9.8 nautical miles off the tip of the North West Cape Warm, and offer warm tropical waters filled with marine life and both hard and soft coral gardens.
- Lighthouse Bay is located at the northernmost tip of the Ningaloo Reef and is home to a number of dive sites featuring coral formations and great marine life along with some special features like a turtle cleaning station at the Labyrinth and the manta ray cleaning station at Gulliver’s.
There are a number of dive companies in town offering a very similar 2-dive package with prices starting at $150 for 2 fully equipped dives. Introductory dives (dives for those who do not have a valid SSI/PADI diving certification) are also available for a slightly higher price. Introductory divers are always accompanied by a dive master who looks after them and their equipment throughout the day.
Other Activities on Ningaloo Reef
If underwater adventures are not your thing, there are other ways to experience the reef without getting wet.
Glass Boat Coral Tours – a number of companies in both Coral Bay and Exmouth offer glass bottom tours to the Ningaloo Reef. The tours start at just $40/1 hr and include a leisurely cruise with full commentary from the knowledgeable crew.
Sunset Tours – when you’ve had enough of the fishies and just want to sit back, relax, and enjoy the views, a sunset cruise could be an appealing option. 1.5-2 hr cruise would cost around $55 in Coral Bay and $85 in Exmouth.
Between catching the sun rays, snorkeling, diving, swimming with whale sharks, turtles, and manta rays, you are bound to have your Ningaloo Reef visit packed with activities! And if you crave more, there is always days that can be spent surfing, fishing, watching turtle nesting, and so much more! Our 4 days on Ningaloo Reef flew by leaving us with glowing tans, new friends, thousands of photos and a lifetime of memories.