Coral Bay, and the Ningaloo Reef

Distance Travelled: 46144 km
Date: 15th May – 26th September 2012

[Note: I’m back, after a 6 month hiatus. Not sure how long I’ll last before the blog dies again, but I hope I can keep it going for a while. There’s a lot to catch up on. Sorry for the wait, but I hope you enjoy hearing about my time in Coral Bay. I was living there for 4.5 months, so this is quite a long one – with a lot of photos! If you want to see even more, hit the ‘Pictures’ button above.

They aren’t all taken by me – the underwater ones were from Ben and Alysha, who kindly allowed me to put them up here. The others are mostly mine, but I think a couple were from Louisa and Laura. Thanks for giving them to me guys.]

After travelling across Australia for around a month, the majority of the money I’d earned in Melbourne had gone. This was down to a couple of particularly expensive side trips, which I will try to tell you about soon (ish). But fortunately I was to land on my feet in Coral Bay.

It was roughly 16 hours on the bus from Perth, but Coral Bay has the Ningaloo Reef, so I figured it was worth the trip. The Ningaloo Reef is the other reef in Australia; the one you rarely, if ever, hear about. I’d heard it mentioned by a few backpackers, but as most tend to stay on the East coast, no-one really knew much about it. It’s the longest fringing reef in the world, which meant that the coral comes right against the shore, and I’d heard that the whale sharks were regularly spotted along the coast. This was enough in itself to get me to make the trip, as I’d missed them in the Philippines, and been seriously annoyed.

Plus, the place is called Coral Bay. How could I resist? Besides, the last place I’d stayed, in Perth, was deemed “unfit for human habitation” and I was evicted, so anywhere would be a significant improvement.

Seriously. It was called the Rainbow Lodge, and if it has reopened DO NOT STAY THERE

Arriving in the dark, it wasn’t until the following morning that I could see how completely the place lived up to it’s idyllic name. I’ve been to better beaches (not many), but none that could compare to the sheer abundance of life in the water. The coral reaches up mere feet from where the Indian Ocean meets the golden sand of Australia’s West coast. Because it’s a fringing reef, the incoming waves are met and broken a couple of hundred meters from shore, leaving a sheltered bay, while still providing one of the best parts of the seaside- the sound of crashing waves.

One of the first things I did once I was there was get onto a whale shark tour. If you ever find yourself in Coral Bay (something I’d recommend very highly that you do), go out on the tour with Ningaloo Reef Dive. There are only two boats that go out to see the sharks, but the dive shop is marginally better, for three reasons.

  1. That’s who I went with, and it was an incredible trip
  2. They own the spotter plane, so you get out to the sharks a little quicker
  3. They give you a stubby cooler when you’re heading home. With a stubby in it. Sounds trivial, but I grew very attached to that cooler. I’m actually drinking with it as I type this.

The day I went out to see the whale sharks was (and I’ve thought about these words) the best day I had anywhere in Australia. It opened with a drive to the boat ramp, and a view of the sapphire blue waters of the bay, before we were off to the outer reef. I snorkelled the reef lots of times afterwards, but I’m not sure I ever had as much fun as that first visit to the outer reef. There were turtles, black-tip reef sharks, a banded seasnake, triggerfish, parrotfish, sail-fin catfish, rock cod, moorish idols, trumpetfish, lion fish, and myriad others. And with the incredible backdrop of the coral itself. I can’t remember ever experiencing an ecosystem as rich and diverse before- certainly not at such close quarters.

Cromos & Damsel fish

White-tip Reef Sharks, resting under a ledge

Golden Trevally

And then we were on to the main event: The Whale Sharks. The spotter plane was circling, and word came through on the wireless that one had been spotted. We were assembled into two groups, and jumped in to see the shark in turns. It was a pretty hectic and chaotic entry, with everyone trying to get in as quickly as possible, while avoiding jumping on each other, and keeping out of the way of the slower, older, snorkellers. Messy, but definitely worth it.

It’s difficult to describe the experience of swimming with a whale shark. They are huge – the two I swam with were seven and nine meters long. Go measure out nine meters, then imagine that there’s a fish swimming towards you that size. It’s big. The sight of an animal that size swimming a couple of meters below you is affecting enough, but when it gets curious and starts to circle and swim towards you it’s seriously awesome. In the old sense of the word.

A stunningly beautiful animal, and worth travelling thousands of miles to see.

Even the journey back into the bay was eventful, with sightings of turtles, dolphins, the elusive dugong, and a massive 3.5m tiger shark. Fortunately that was to be the only tiger shark I saw in Coral Bay. And once we were back at the jetty, I was introduced to Merv.

I spent the rest of the day with a friend I’d made on the boat- swimming in the sheltered water of the bay, watching the sunset, and stargazing up in the dunes.

The next day, I checked my bank balance.

It wasn’t pretty. After spending $375 on the boat trip, I could no longer afford the bus fare back to Perth. I was, for all intents and purposes, trapped in Coral Bay until I could get a job and afford to leave. People have found themselves stuck in worse places I suppose.

I’d paid for a week at the backpackers, so at least I wasn’t in immediate danger of becoming homeless. Besides, I had a $30 festival tent I’d picked up in Perth. Asking around, I found that pretty much nowhere was hiring, and certainly nothing was available on the boat tours. Looking around, I eventually found the resort in town may have an opening, so I applied there.

The resort

At this point I should probably dispel any suggestion I may have given that Coral Bay is a big place, with lots of places to enquire at. It’s not. There is one street (and one address- the post office), and only something like 100-200 locals. The town revolves almost exclusively around tourism, with half a dozen tour operators, a couple of caravan parks, the backpackers, and the resort. There’s slightly more to it than that, but only very slightly.

Anyway, I didn’t have to get out the tent, as I was given a job in reception of the resort. A job which, once I had seen the alternatives, was the best job I could possibly have been offered. The resort itself was a great place to work, with essentially free accommodation ($25 per week, due to an accounting error), 20% off at the bottleshop, cheap food, and an amazing set of co-workers.

The first night I was there was a bbq for a couple who were leaving, and the second was drinks for another couple that left. Fortunately it remained relatively stable after that, but there was still very high turnover. The second leaving party coincided with beer line cleaning. This meant pouring out 16-20 jugs of beer while the pipes were cleaned, and then disposing of the unneeded booze. Which in practice meant a lock-in for the staff.

That night we ended up going back to the boat ramp and going for a moonlit swim. No sign of Merv this time though. I could tell I’d get on well here.

————————————————-

The next four months were hugely fun. I was working 2-7pm every day, which gave me plenty of time to snorkel in the mornings then a leisurely lunch before work. Or a hazy morning recovering before a mad dash to get in to work. Depending on the preceding night. Then dinner and drinks with friends. This was punctuated by happy hours, band nights, birthdays, leaving parties, and my one day off per week, which usually involved watching the sunset from up in the dunes.

They were often pretty spectacular

One great benefit of working front of house in a place like Coral Bay is that you can often get free or heavily discounted tours. So on a few days off I was able to go out on some of the boats cruising the outer reef, and head outside it to see the whales come through later in the year.

Out on the kayaks with Lou and Oswin

Kayaking with Amy

Fish feeding

Aboard the ‘Coral Breeze’

Heading out on the ‘Aqua Rush’, a big 2x 225hp RIB, to look for the migrating Humpback Whales

Found some!

I was living in the staff accommodation behind the resort, first in a “Jail Cell” (that’s seriously what they were called. Metal boxes with absolutely zero soundproofing, holes in the wall, and only enough space for a single bed and a wardrobe), then moved into one of the backpacker rooms. These were much nicer, with two separate rooms, a TV, fridge, sofa, double bed, and sort-of-patio-area outside. It was the nicest place I’d stayed since leaving England. Even the jail cell was alright, as it gave you your own private space to disappear to. A luxury I hadn’t realised I’d missed.

But the second room was perfect for parties.

Outside my 2nd room

and inside

Because everyone was essentially living and working under the same roof it became a very close-nit group, with most people hanging out together outside of work, having fires on the beach and in the dunes, and ending up pretty good friends. I know I’ve made friends there which I’ll have for life- in strong contrast to most travelling I’ve done, where there’s only a rare few that I still keep in contact with semi-regularly.

I guess this is one of the virtues of living in such a small town; you are somewhat forced together and become pretty close with those sharing the months with you. I’ve always vaguely thought that I enjoy living in cities more, with the energy, anonymity and exciting atmosphere that goes along with them, but I really enjoyed the relative peace and closeness that a small place brings.

The incredible setting certainly helped too. I can’t overstate how great the reef was – I saw at least 9 different species of shark!

Wobbegong

Not that the water was the only interesting part of Coral Bay- there were plenty of interesting animals on land too.

A giant stick insect

This emu used to come and drink from a freshwater pool every day

Tiny lizards…

… and much bigger ones!

And there was also Skeleton Bay – the shark nursery – a shallow sandy area where young reef sharks congregate from September to March. You can clamber up the dunes beside the bay and watch dozens of small sharks and rays.

A great place to take a beer and good company

Living in a tiny place where everyone knows everyone else unfortunately brings with it the inevitable small-town politics and bullshit associated with it. I’m not going to go into it here, but the atmosphere was shattered about a month before I left. To quote a friend on facebook: “They were the good times until some slapper took her knickers off in the wrong bedroom”.

I had arranged to leave Coral Bay at the same time as Louisa, so we both decided to hasten our departure and get out before things got too out of hand. Tracy, another friend, had extremely generously lent us her ute, so we took it on a ten day tour of a couple of the national parks nearby. Nearby being a relative term- here meaning ‘within a 2000km round trip’.

I’ll write about that trip later, but after a few leaving parties (they just seemed to keep happening), and going jetty jumping one final time, it was time to leave, and get back on the road.

This all went into a punch for the first leaving party!

The third leaving party, I think

After four and a half months, I was off to see somewhere new!

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3 Responses to Coral Bay, and the Ningaloo Reef

  1. Amazing photos – love the sharks. Coral Bay is truly incredible, isn’t it!

  2. I loved reading your post about Coral Bay! The photos were excellent. I used to live there as well and also worked at the Resort and lived in the backpacker rooms.

  3. Dawan says:

    Wow seems fun Coral bay!

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