Along The Coral Coast
May 10, 2011
On our last day some of us decided to take the opportunity and spend some final time at the Cape Range NP which takes up most of the Vlaming Head peninsula. We went all the way down to Yardie Creek Gorge and were surprised to find the probably most beautiful place in the whole national park.
We saw some nice wildlife, e.g. an Australian Osprey resting on a rock ledge, as well as a black-footed rock wallaby in an almost impossible location. Only itself knows how it got there and how to get off there. After all, it is a rock wallaby.
We did the Yardie Gorge Trail which involved some nice, but easy climbing over rocks here and there. More impressive than that were the views from the cliff ledges down into the gorge and as far as to the Indian Ocean:
See the following panorama for an overall impression:
There’s a short clip, too:
Afterwards we took a few quick looks at Turqoise Bay and Sandy Bay. Very nice and pristine beaches, but we did not spend any time snorkeling or swimming. You can easily see the outer parts of the Ningaloo Reef since all the ocean waves break there:
After so much time at the Coral Coast of Western Australia we headed inwards back into the mainland for our next destination: the Karijini National Park.
May 08, 2011
We woke up very early at the Warroora Station campground at 14 Mile Beach, intending to drive back to the nearby Coral Bay.
In Coral Bay we had breakfast and were soon ready to hop into the water for some great snorkeling. Only a few meters away from the beach lies what we came here for: the Ningaloo Reef. Similar to the Great Barrier Reef it is a coral reef stretching along the Western Australian coast from below Jurien Bay all the way up to Exmouth. This means we had almost been going along the coral coast all the time since we started in Perth a week ago!
Although the Ningaloo Reef is not as big as the Great Barrier Reef, it has a lot of spectacular marine life to offer: turtles, rays, sharks, dugongs and lots of tropical fish in its beautiful coral gardens. Coral Bay‘s outstanding feature is that you can get into the water on one side of the beach, let the current take you with it and swim along the coral reef to the other side of the beach. It’s actually called “drift snorkeling”.
So we stepped into the crystal-clear water, negotiated some sandy areas, large patches of seaweed and finally arrived at the coral gardens only 100 meters or less away from the beach. Although not as diverse as the Great Barrier Reef (e.g. no swim-throughs or big coral walls) the ocean floor was covered all over with beautiful corals in all shapes and colours, without any disruptions and as far as our eyes could see. And we saw a lot of tropical fish, e.g. damsel fish, parrot fish, wrasses etc. We accompanied a lovely sea turtle for roughly 20 minutes swimming and grazing in the gardens, occasionally resurfacing for a fresh breath of air. We had no luck with rays or sharks today, however, this was a fantastic time in the water just as we had wished it to be at the Ningaloo Reef.
At noon we hit the road again to be in Exmouth in time to book a very special trip – see below. We had enough time to take a look at the Charles Knife Gorge where we drove along the rims of the gorge with some amazing views of the land- and seascape.
We took some panorama shots for you to enjoy, here’s the first one:
And the second panorama:
After arriving in Exmouth we hurried to research for the next big thing: boat trips where we could swim with whale sharks! We had already learned before that the trips would cost us much more than we had expected. On the other hand we reckoned that this was a real once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There are only a few spots in the world where you are allowed to swim with whale sharks, and we were exactly here at the best time of the year to do it.
Whale sharks aren’t really whales. In fact they are the largest fish in the world up to 18 meters long, therefore their name is derived from their unbelievable size. Although technically being sharks they pose no threat to humans: they employ a technique called filter feeding, very similar to whales, whereby microscopic food as e.g. plankton, krill or algae is extracted from the sea water via the shark’s gills.
We compared different companies, negotiated, waited for feedback and a few hours later we had booked our trip: one day on the Ningaloo Reef with a company called Ningaloo Reef Dreaming, including one scuba dive trip on the reef – and all that for the best price in town! That was after we informed them what their competitors in town had offered us before.
We stayed at the Yardie Homestead in the Cape Range National Park for the night, eagerly waiting for our trip the next day.
May 09, 2011
We were picked up at Ningaloo Reef Dreaming headquarters early in the morning. On the way to the Tantabiddi beach (where all the other companies have their boats as well) we stopped shortly at the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse.
Also on the way was the “Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station”, a very large communication grid used to communicate with submarines in the Indian Ocean. Interestingly the facility’s towers are higher than 300 meters – that is higher than e.g. the Eiffel tower!
We arrived at Tantabiddi Beach and were taken to our primary vessel in small inflatable dinghys:
The itinerary for the day was: scuba-diving first, then hunting for whale sharks. Thus we set up our scuba gear, were briefed and shortly after that arrived at the dive site:
The dive itself was really good fun: we saw not only lots of fish, but also turtles, a white-tip reef shark, a big ray with 1.5-2 meters wingspan and a tawny nurse shark. In our opinion we found scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef to be more exciting, but then we had dived only at a single spot at the Ningaloo Reef.
One key-argument to choose Ningalo Reef Dreaming was that they have an own spotter plane:
Meaning they don’t hire or share a plane with other companies. The plane’s only job is to detect sharks (big, dark, moving shades below the water surface) and notify the sea vessels. Back on the boat from the dive it took only minutes until one of the crew members shouted out: “Whale shark spotted!” This was the signal for us to get ready ASAP. The vessel’s engines roared as it gained speed to get quickly to the shark’s location. As previously announced it was a hectic atmosphere: snorkelers getting in their gear, skipper and crew rushing to get to the desired location and spot the whale shark, instructors coordinating their efforts to direct the snorkelers…
And then we were in the right position to be dropped into the water. The spotter (a crew member swimming closely to the shark all the time) jumped in, then did we. What we saw next really blew our minds .. I was later in the water as almost everyone else. Crew members shouted at me to get out of the way and pointed to the water. When I looked through my mask and below the water surface, I encountered this 10 meter male whale shark swimming almost directly towards me!
After paddling away a bit I tried to follow the other snorkelers and the shark, but soon lost sight of the shark. After being picked up by the boat again, I was once more released into the water and in front of the shark. And this time I managed to get straight to the spotter’s right side – there was this giant fish peacefully floating along, and we with it. We swam with it for almost half an hour, enough time to very carefully observe every detail: the shark itself, its white speckles, the fish schools hiding under his belly or swimming next to him to gain some extra food from the shark’s leftovers .. an incredible experience and nearly indescribable!
We were picked up by the boat after some time. The shark was given to another boat of the same company in order to share the experience. And what happened? It dived down into the deep sea! So it was gone at first, but soon rediscovered by the spotter plane. We had a second turn with the shark, and again we swam along with it for almost half an hour. This time I switched positions to observe it from its left side and its back. Again – an awesome experience!
After having spent a full hour (the maximum allowed per boat and shark) we “gave” the shark to other companies. Now we finally realized how lucky we actually had been today: we were only 10 people instead of the usual 20 on our boat, so we could all jump into the water at the same time without waiting. Furthermore we were not only the first ones, but the only ones at this day to discover a whale shark. When we had already done a full hour of swimming with this gorgeous giant all the other companies and the snorkelers aboard were still waiting for their first look at a whale shark! Simply unbelievable. We later learned that the whale shark trips in the following days were all canceled due to bad weather – double luck for us.
We went for some final snorkeling on the reef:
We returned to Tantabiddi Beach, totally happy with our experience.
To complete an extraordinary day we made a good barbecue and drank a couple of beers, again at the Yardie Homestead.
May 07, 2011
Another free night on a free campspot, more money saved! Also free were the interesting impressions you can only gain when noone is taking care of the amenities around. E.g. a full-blown bird’s nest:
Another sidenote: would you reckon it to be worth constantly cooling a few things in your esky with ice, even if that costs you a few dollars every day? Look at this and judge for yourself.
We still prefer cooling our things. It wasn’t far until Carnarvon, where we did some research, shopping, refueling and so on. In the afternoon we took a short look at one of the many banana plantations around. This gives you an idea how warm and already subtropical this particular region of Western Australia is. They actually grow on trees! Everyone is eating them, but most people don’t get to see how they actually grow:
Afterwards we contemplated some time if it was worth going to the Carnarvon Blowholes or not since it was a 75 km detour. On the other hand, according to the Australian Geographic’s list we had already seen three other of the famous six blowholes in Australia: in Kiama, Cape Bridgewater and Torndirrup NP, Albany. We finally decided to go, and that paid out well. On the way we took a shortcut over an officially closed road:
We learned sometime later that in case something bad happens you can lose insurance. And that there may be hefty fines if you get caught. We’re a bit more hesitant taking such roads now.
When we arrived at the Carnarvon Blowholes, the first thing we saw was this sign:
They are definitely called King waves for a reason. Here’s why:
Every now and then someone gets dragged into the sea after stepping too close to the water, and every year a few people get killed by them. And here’s why:
We took some time, wandered along the rocky slopes (not too close) and waited for those massive waves spraying up water 20 meters up in the air:
At this place there were not only one or two spots where there was water thrown up, but along a coastline ranging up several hundred meters:
A few dozen meters from the rugged cliffs you will find lots of rock pools where the water drys away over time, leaving behind the sea salt only. It is so pure that you could perfectly use it for cooking:
Lastly, enjoy this special picture series showing how the waves and the resulting blows develop:
After this we headed back on the road and made some kilometers up to our next destination: Coral Bay. We arrived there already in the dark and were basically expelled later from the resort when a local ranger asked us where we planned to stay for the night. Responding that it would be out of town he demanded that we leave immediately, not returning before the next morning or he would have to fine us.
Not so laid back and relaxed, these Australians, when it comes to compliance and fines, eh? Coral Bay seems to be very harsh with backpackers that misuse the beach or the nearby facilities as an overnight camping spot. Anyway, we decided not to spend any money at this unfriendly area and left for our campsite a few kilometers away.
May 06, 2011
We got up really, really early in the morning, sometime before 6 am. The reason being that we wanted to be in time for the dolphin feeding at the Monkey Mia Reserve next to the Francois Peron NP.
Not all of us wanted to go, so we left the LandCruiser and two people at the campsite and drove to Monkey Mia. We took a few pictures of Big Lagoon later on, though:
When we arrived at Monkey Mia Resort, we weren’t too surprised to see nearly 100 or more other tourists, only going there for the same purpose.We then joined at the beach for the dolphin feeding, learnt about the genealogy of the dolphin families, the history of the resort and so on. And got actually pretty close to the dolphins:
This experience left us with mixed feelings. The resort is not a national park of any kind, it was established only as a private commerce to make tourism money. Interestingly enough the local rangers emphasize all the time that only females are being fed now, and only at most a third of the dolphins’ daily intake as to ensure that the dolphins keep their natural abilities to hunt for food and survive on their own. You are not allowed to swim with or touch the dolphins any more. Good to hear – but we still wondered how the poor dolphins must have been treated 10 years ago. And there are not hundreds of them coming in every day, just a few and sometimes none at all. Still enough to build an entire tourism industry upon it. Sounds strange, eh?
Probably more interesting was the fantastic pelican close to the beach, the first one to return to Monkey Mia after spending time somewhere else on the West Coast – as birds of passage do.
After taking hundreds of pictures of dolphins in the water we returned to Big Lagoon, met with the rest of our team and went for some swimming/snorkeling at the Gregories. Not too many tropical fish around, although lots of oyster stacks with really sharp edges. From there we drove to the northern-most point of the Shark Bay peninsula, Cape Peron itself. We could watch a lot of birdlife here, e.g. many cormorants. The last thing was a quick stop at Bottle Bay.
After all that we returned to Denham, organized ourselves once more and headed up further north to reach Carnarvon the next day…
May 05, 2011
On the way to Shark Bay, one of Australia’s World Heritage sites due to its special marine wildlife and physical landscape and seascape features, we stopped only to have a quick breakfast at the Overlander Roadhouse. Pancakes, toast and coffee provided enough strength for the upcoming amazing sites and sights.
Our first stop of the day was at Hamelin Pool to take a look at some of the probably oldest living creatures on earth: the so-called stromatolites. As Wikipedia says, stromatolites are layered accretionary structures formed in shallow water by the trapping, binding and cementation of sedimentary grains by biofilms of microorganisms, especially cyanobacteria. Now what do they look like? Very unspectacular – like lumps of grey matter.
On the way to the stromatolites boardwalk we came across another most interesting thing: a shell quarry where building blocks made out of shell bricks were mined. Actually whole buildings, e.g. the local post office, were constructed by using shell bricks. How does this work, and why shells, and how do they align into bricks? They don’t by themselves, but those tiny cockle shells being one of the few lifeforms capable of living in the highly salt-enriched waters of Shark Bay they accumulated, were compacted and calcified over time, building up layers of up to 15 meters on the beaches!
Next we drove to a place called Shell Beach. And you might guess by now where that name comes from …
Let me assure you that this was a completely new beach experience for all of us. Nearby was another shell-ish beach where we stopped to gather some more impressions, walk on the shells and even try some offroading:
The following panorama of the beach could easily be mistaken for a sand beach – but you know better by now:
Afterwards we did a boardwalk at Eagle Bluff, a spot where you could spot lots of turtles, rays, sharks and even dugongs. Well, we were unlucky and none of the former fellows actually showed up. Still a nice view there:
From here we continued to Denham, the closest town to the Francois Peron National Park that covers most of the Shark Bay area. We decided to go for a quick swim in the Little Lagoon. Unfortunately we were all busy swimming, so there are no pictures of that.
Last thing of the day was driving back quickly to Denham, refuel, resupply and re-enter the Francois Peron NP. The tracks in this park were filled with such an amount of deep, soft sand that there was a special tyre deflator/inflator station right at the park entrance where we lowered the air pressure in our tyres a lot, resulting in improved tyre traction necessary for these tracks. What a luxury this was – normally you are required to buy and bring your own deflators and compressors. We then headed up to Big Lagoon in the NP and stayed there for the night on one of the park’s campgrounds.