Visiting the Ningaloo Reef : Everything You Need to Know

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A true Western Australian gem, the Ningaloo Reef is a world heritage site spanning the Ningaloo Coast. At 260 kilometers, it’s Australia’s largest fringing coral reef and in some areas is only a few hundred meters from the beach.

Everyone knows Australia for its Great Barrier Reef, which is one of Queensland’s best adventures for sure, but the Ningaloo might actually be the true Australian gem when it comes to tropical marine life. Although the Great Barrier Reef is still worth diving, it’s currently suffering from bleaching, and despite the Ningaloo being is a similarly sensitive area needing lots of care being taken, it’s still thriving with colourful fish and other animals.

How to Get to the Ningaloo Reef

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Road is the only really feasible way of visiting the Ningaloo Reef. The west coast of Australia is not served by public buses, so in order to visit the Ningaloo Reef you should really organise your own method of transport. This could be your own car or a lift share – more often than not, a trip to the Ningaloo is part of a longer Western Australia road trip.

There’s various west coast tours that serve the Ningaloo, but you’ll be restricted to what the tour provider chooses to do if you opt for these.

There is an airport in Exmouth as well, but like most small Western Australian airports, flights are pretty extortionate.

Towns in the Ningaloo Reef

The two destinations that you’ll visit the Ningaloo from are Coral Bay and Exmouth. Coral Bay is a tiny resort, with two caravan parks, a handful of hotels, a shop, a bakery, a few dive shops and two restaurants.

Exmouth is a bit bigger – although still not large by any standards. It has two IGAs, a few more dive shops, a café, a bar and more restaurants.

Things to do in the Ningaloo Reef: Coral Bay

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 This is probably the easiest ‘things to do’ list I’ll ever write because, to be frank, there’s not much to do in Coral Bay, at all.

The beach is lovely and there’s good snorkeling straight out from the shore.

Coral Bay’s next top snorkelers right here

There’s a great Italian restaurant that’s perfect for the evenings.

There’s a few tours, including quad biking in the outback and various reef tours. Personally, I’d recommend saving them until you get to Exmouth, as there’s more variety and they’re cheaper. We didn’t even consider any of the quad biking tours – as we’re travelling on a budget and they couldn’t be all that different to four wheel driving through the outback, could they?

And that’s pretty much it. If you’re needing some R&R and want a beach day, Coral Bay’s a pretty spot to kick back for a couple of days. But you don’t need any more than that!

Things to do in the Ningaloo Reef: Exmouth

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Visiting the Ningaloo Reef gets a lot more exciting when Exmouth is thrown into the mix. As mentioned, Exmouth is a bit bigger and there’s enough to do in the surrounding area to pass a few days!

Cape Range National Park

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This park is located just south of Exmouth and is a must do when visiting the Ningaloo Reef. It’s a great destination for snorkeling, four wheel driving and is home to a few decent hikes.

Highlights of Cape Range National Park

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  • Charles Knife Canyon is a fun canyon drive just before the town sign for Exmouth
  • Shothole Canyon is recommended just for four wheel drives and is a deserted outback road
    (note= these two attractions can only be accessed by the road going into Exmouth. The route to reach the other Exmouth attractions goes round the top of the town and is about an hour’s drive from these two parts. It’s recommended to do these two drives just before going into Exmouth and accessing the rest of the national park separately).
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  • Oyster Stacks are some of the best snorkeling I had in the whole Ningaloo Reef. There’s loads of colorful fish, some funky creatures and lots of reef.
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  • Turquoise Bay
    is a beautiful beach that is really…. Well, turquoise. Under the water is ‘giant coral land’ – it’s full with huge coral formations that are amazing to swim around!

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    I saw a fish!

  • Yardie Creek
    This is a multi coloured gorge with permanent water from the ocean. You can hike along the trail, trying to spot black footed rock wallabies and many bird species – as well as marine animals in the sheltered water!

BTW, Oyster Stacks and Turquoise Bay can have a really strong current. They can still be snorkeled in, but it’s good to be aware of this!

Unique things to do in Exmouth

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Although the highlights of Exmouth are beneath the sea and in Cape Range, there’s a few things to do within the town. These include:

  • Vlamingh Head Lighthouse – while the lighthouse is extremely underwhelming, the waters from the top are incredible – they’re somem of the bluest I’ve ever seen. It’s worth the steep drive up to the lighthouse just to witness the seas!
  • SS Mildura Wreck – this shipwreck serves as an eerie reminder of how powerful the Western Australia sea can be. It is a wreck of a cattle steamer from 1907, just 80 meters from the shore.
  • The Big Prawn – Australia loves huge models of things (there’s a big banana in Coffs Harbour, a big kangaroo on the Nullarbor at the South Australia/ Western Australia border and so much more…). Exmouth’s contribution is a giant prawn. It is located just outside Exmouth visitor centre and represents a local seafood company, Exmouth Gulf Prawn Fishery, which is 40 kms out of the town.
  • Little America – during the 60s and 70s, Exmouth was used as a Cold War US Military Base – and was not known at all for its underwater life. The outskirts of the town are now littered with shells of buildings, which offers a somewhat eerie yet compelling atmosphere. If you want to experience a ‘ghost town’, a walk around the ‘Little America’ part of Exmouth is an interesting experience!
  • Potshot Memorial – The Potshot Memorial offers information and commemorates Operation Potshot, which was a submarine base established in Exmouth. It was bombed in 1943 and damaged by a cyclone in 1945, and the memorial is a great spot for any history fans to visit.

Diving in Exmouth

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One of the very best things to do when visiting the Ningaloo Reef is to dive below its waters. The Navy Pier is known as one of the best dive sites in the world. 300m long pier which is 14 kms from Exmouth. It’s a Navy Pier and is used for Navy ships for servicing the Naval base.

Dive Ningaloo hold the sole licence for scuba diving tours at The Navy Pier, and restricted access means that underwater is full of marine life. It has been called an ‘oasis in a desert’ due to the spectacle of colours there, and has vivid fish and an incredible bio diversity. The only issue is – diving at the Navy Pier is sometimes so regulated that it’s impossible to get on the tours.

Because divers can only go in specific sea conditions, dives are often postponed or cancelled. After six days in Exmouth and my dive being rescheduled three times, I had to call it quits and drive onto Karijini. So I’ll never know the true beauty of the Navy Pier…  (until I’m back in Western Australia, of course! 😉 )

Glass Bottom Boat Tours in Exmouth

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Glass Bottom Boat tours leave from Exmouth, and enable passengers to see the diverse marine life through glass panels. Guests can have the chance to snorkel amongst the plethora of colourful fish as well as enjoy the huge aquarium from without leaving the boat.

I didn’t do this tour so can’t recommend any specific companies, but there are some very highly rated on Tripadvisor and many consider it to be one of the best things to do when visiting the Ningaloo Reef.

Whale Shark Tours in Exmouth

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Photo credit Sacha Guggenheimer @sunflowerfishh

The Exmouth whale shark tour was without a doubt the best thing I did on the West Coast of Australia.

I dived with Kings, who were a legendary company. The whole day ran to perfection, from when we were picked up to the spotters finding the most amazing whale sharks to the incredible buffet lunch. I even dropped my gopro in the ocean (stupid, I know) and one of the amazing guides even tried to free dive after it – it unfortunately was long gone but the gesture was so appreciated!

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Top tip for swimming with your Go Pro – don’t do what this muppet did and just carry it loose in your hand. INVEST IN A STRAP.

Photo credit Sacha Guggenheimer @sunflowerfishh

We swam with two different whale sharks five times – seeing one of these gentle giants glide towards me was one of the most magical things I’ve ever experienced. Kings also include two snorkel trips, great guides, lots of information about whale sharks and the Ningaloo, constant snacks and drinks and a delicious buffet lunch – with options for any special dietary requirements.

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Photo credit Sacha Guggenheimer @sunflowerfishh

If you’re visiting the Ningaloo, snorkeling with whale sharks are one of the best things to do and Kings are by far the best company to go by. I can only speak highly of them and really encourage any visitor to the Ningaloo to check them out.

Whale sharks are only in the Ningaloo’s waters from March to August, and the best times to spot them are April, May and June. Outside of these months, kings offers a wildlife tour. You may still spot whale sharks on these tours but the company also makes the most out of seeing Manta Rays, Turtles and Humpback Whales as well.

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Photo credit Sacha Guggenheimer @sunflowerfishh

I think that’s pretty much all you’ll need to know about visiting the Ningaloo Reef, one of Western Australia’s best areas! Do you have any questions? Let me know in the comments or drop me a message over on Facebook

Visiting the Ningaloo Reef is no easy job - it's one of the most remote places in the world. Here's how to make the most of your time in the area!

2 responses to “Visiting the Ningaloo Reef : Everything You Need to Know”

  1. This is such a picturesque and breathtaking place! When’s the best time of the year to go there hiking?

    • Claire says:

      I know right?! Not the summer, as it can be roasting! The time I went was good (early June) or around then. Winter could be nice for hiking too but I guess it would get cold at night.

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