Diving Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia
By Alan Gurevich
Ningaloo Reef fringes Western Australia's coast from Shark Bay north to the Cape Range peninsula. Diving activities centre around Exmouth (1300 km from Perth) and Coral Bay (100 km south of Exmouth). Both towns provide a range of accommodation from 2-3 star motel-style, to caravan parks, campsites, and backpacker accommodation. They also both have very helpful tourist information centres which can be found on the Internet.
In general the reef seems to never be more than 2-4 km from shore. The topography is a broad sand bottom, with coral plunked down on top of the sand. Coral Bay's dive sites are all within 20 minutes of the town. In places there are large, intricate coral gardens which I found to be quite beautiful in form, but almost totally devoid of colour. As I don't think this was because the coral was dead, it was a bit odd to see. Two hours north of Exmouth by boat are the Murion Islands, which have a large range of swim throughs and channels, some very intricate. Off both towns most of the other dive sites I went to to consisted of either fairly compact coral formations, or groups of bommies of various sizes scattered over a moderately large area. In Exmouth, most of the dive sites are 1-1.5 hours away by boat. The deepest dive I did in either location was 16m.
All in all I was disappointed with the diving: the reef itself is not very colourful, nor - with the exception of Coral Bay's coral gardens - does it provide the sweeping underwater scenery you get in other Pacific reef systems. Also, because it was quite windy during my 8 day stay, a good deal of suspended sand cut the visibility to 4-15 m. I understand this is not unusual.
The happy exception to this generally unexceptional trip was the Navy Pier in Exmouth. Extending about 300 m from shore, the T-shaped structure is 300 m wide, including two outlying "dolphins" (platforms for larger ships to tie up to). Although a very defined and somewhat compact site (the main part of the pier is about 10 0m across) I felt I could spend 5 days diving there and not be bored, particularly at night. On any given dive there were lots of nudibranchs and flatworms, eels, woebegone and white tipped sharks, octopuses, lion and scorpion fish, stargazers, and the usual smaller finned friends. A couple of times we came across absolutely huge rays dozing in the sand: One brown ray was wider than my 1.8m tall dive buddy's outstretched arms, another spotted eagle ray was just slightly smaller.
The other really noteworthy thing about this area is the size of some of the animals. They weren't anything you wouldn't see elsewhere around the Pacific, but they were huge: A green moray that was 40-45 cm across, a crayfish/lobster with a body that was 45 cm long, huge rays, a potato cod that was, and I know this will sound like an exaggeration, 1-1.2 m long - and VERY curious - all in a week's diving.
No review of the Ningaloo would be complete without mentioning what originally drew my attention to it: Whale sharks. In late March the world's biggest fish migrate up the WA coast, right past the Ningaloo Reef. Exmouth has made communing with these animals a speciality, though it's expensive. At other times of year whales migrate this coast, as do mantas, although mantas can generally be found in Coral Bay year round.
Lastly, a few not so good things based on what I'm used to or expected: First, it's cold. While the air temperature (the first week of autumn) was at least 34C daily, the water was barely 25C in Exmouth, and less in Coral Bay. My fleece backed lycra divesuit was inadequate. Second, the only night dive in either town is on the Pier, and is not run daily. Night snorkels at Coral Bay would be easy, but there is no night diving. Third, when planning this trip one of the dive shops insisted on full payment well before my arrival date, and no/marginal provision for refunds. In 25 years of diving all over the world the only time I've run into this policy was on live-aboards, which makes perfect sense to me. Never has a shore-based dive operator insisted on this. So I went with a different dive shop who only required a $50 deposit to hold my dive spaces...until they told me they also wanted full payment with no refunds, when I checked in with them my first day.
This distresses me as it allows for zero flexibility on the diver's part based on how they are recovering from jet lag if that's a factor, how tired they may be after multiple days of multiple dives, or their becoming ill. In point-of-fact, after 5 days of diving I came up with an ear block after the first dive. While it seemed to be okay once I got back on the boat, I felt it might be prudent to sit the next dive out. As on my last day in town I hadn't planned to dive, I thought I'd use this paid-for but not accomplished second dive, plus one more dive I would purchase, to spend another morning in the water. While I was able to do that, it was only out of the goodness of the heart of the person who was working the desk that day: According to dive shop policy, if I didn't do a paid for dive, that was my problem, period. This seems to be not only marginal customer service, given there was room on the boat the next day, but a potential danger as it will make economic considerations affect a diver's decision on whether or not to dive when ill, as unwise as everyone realises that to be. The dive shop in Coral Bay, even though owned by the operator I wouldn't dive with in Exmouth, had a much friendlier attitude, I feel, towards the customer.
It should be noted that the dive shops I spoke or dove with all said the reason for their pay-now-and-no-refunds policy was that their boats fill up, and the only way they will guarantee a customer a seat is if full payment is received in advance. In truth, some divers were turned away in Coral Bay because the boat was full. But until the really frantic season starts, which is usually with the Easter holidays/whale sharks, I don't think this would be a real problem for divers showing up unannounced. As I've been around for quite a while and have very often contacted a dive shop weeks prior to my arrival to set up a series of dives for a specific time period, and never been asked to pay for everything in advance, let alone with no refund possibility, it is my sincere hope that this is NOT a growing trend amongst Dive Centres. If it is, it will limit the shops I patronise to those with a friendlier outlook.
To sum up, for those who absolutely must get in the water with a whale shark and who have a fair amount of time for a vacation, the remote Ningaloo Reef would be for you. If you like really small critters like nudibranchs, or odd animals like woebegone sharks, and once again don't mind travelling to (one of) the ends of the Earth, Ningaloo is a fair choice. But if you don't have a lot of time, want lots of really flourishing, colourful coral and excellent visibility, or want to be at least somewhat spontaneous about your dive-schedule, it may not be the place to go.
By Alan Gurevich.
"I have dived the Ningaloo reef in February from Coral Bay: the dive shop was most helpful. I only booked the day before and it was incredible almost everything you could wish for even a 2 m plus leopard shark to finish off the second dive. The sea temp was 23 deg C but after diving in the UK that was a luxury. I will certainly be back to the Ningaloo before too long. It is well worth the long drive, may it long remain isolated.
David Flint, Aylesbury UK
"Ningaloo reef was spectacular. I learnt to dive on the Great Barrier Reef & Ningaloo was 10 million times better. First we snorkelled with the Manta Rays which was an amazing yet exhausting experience, and then did a further 3 dives over the next couple of days. Heaps of big turtles, bright sea snakes, wobbegong sharks, heaps and heaps of little fish ... more sharks ... and so much else to see that i couldn't possibly name it all here. Definitely would recommend it to anyone. I went with Exmouth Dive and they were really good."
"If you are after Manta Rays, Sting Rays, Sharks, Turtles, all sorts of Cod (including the occassional too inquisitive Potato Cod)and virtually everything else, then there is no better place than the Ningaloo Reef. Exmouth Dive were fantastic and took really good care of me and the rest of the divers. "
"Ningaloo Reef on australia's West Coast is pretty cool, less visited and as much to see than the GBR on the East Coast. "
Sam Seed, UK, 2007
See which Ningaloo Dive Centres are recommended and which to avoid
- Diving Australia: A Guide to the Best Diving Down Under
- by Neville Coleman, Paperback, PeriPlus Editions, 332 pages (2004)
- Atlas of Australian Dive Sites
- by Keith Kockton, Paperback, HarperCollins, 288 pages, (2003)
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