Home » Great Barrier what? Meet Australia’s other marine wonderland

Great Barrier what? Meet Australia’s other marine wonderland

written by James Shackell July 3, 2015

For 30,000 years the Yamatji people called it Ningaloo, which means ‘deepwater’ or ‘high land jutting out into the sea’. Pretty appropriate for Australia’s biggest fringing reef. Ningaloo sits way out on the western edge of Western Australia, just near the coastal town of Exmouth (aka the Gateway to Ningaloo).

Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef grabs most of the country’s travel headlines, but anyone wanting an alternative dive site should give Exmouth a very serious look. The town sits between the gorges of the very underrated Cape Range National Park and the white sand beaches of the Ningaloo Marine Park. This gives you two choices: grab the flippers and snorkel and take to the seas, or hop in a 4WD and explore the hinterland. Personally we like to do both.

Here’s are 6 reasons to follow the Village People’s advice, point your compass to Ningaloo and ‘Go West.’

1. Swimming with whale sharks

Man vs fish. Image Marcel Ekkel, Flickr

Man vs fish. Image Marcel Ekkel, Flickr

From mid-March to late-July each year, 300 to 500 whale sharks converge on Ningaloo, transforming a smallish coastal town into one of the country’s prime marine attractions. The population swells, dive boats take to the seas and travellers have a rare opportunity to swim with the world’s biggest fish (usually around 10m long). Apart from Zanzibar’s Mafia Archipelago and a few other select places, there’s nowhere else on earth you can do this. Definitely one for the bucket list.


2. Some of the best beaches in the country

Eat your heart out, Queensland. Image Sebastian and Tyson, Flickr

Eat your heart out, Queensland. Image Sebastian and Tyson, Flickr

It’s often thought by outsiders that Queensland is the only place to go in Australia for good beaches. But those in the know (particularly those in the know in WA) know that the West Coast is easily a match for anything Port Douglas or the Sunshine Coast can throw at it. Exmouth has range of great beaches within easy day-trip range: Coral Bay, Turqoise Bay, Bundegi Beach, they’re all worthy of a screensaver or two. The best way to explore is simply to throw the fins and towel in the car and roam along the coast.


3. World-class marine life

A sea turtle swimming over Ningaloo Reef. Image Michael Sale, Flickr

A sea turtle swimming over Ningaloo Reef. Image Michael Sale, Flickr

Even if you can’t make it during whale shark season, Exmouth and Ningaloo have a marine menagerie Dr Doolittle would be proud of. And it lasts, in one form or another, year round. In March and April, mass coral spawnings turn the sea milkshake pink. Dolphins, dugongs, manta rays, humpback whales, loggerhead turtles and over 500 species of tropical fish all call Ningaloo home; and given the reef sits so close to shore, you don’t have to paddle out to far to see them.


4. Fresh caught seafood

Exmouth mussels. Who's hungry? Image Marine Stewardship Council, Flickr

Exmouth mussels. Who’s hungry? Image Marine Stewardship Council, Flickr

It makes sense that somewhere known for its snorkelling is also known for its seafood, not that the two activities cross over much. Ningaloo is a world Heritage Site, and most of the tropical fish that call it home are protected. But Exmouth wouldn’t be a coastal Australian town without some delicious, fresh-caught tiger prawns, whiting and crocodile (they’re technically seafood, right?). In the evenings, head to the marina; it’s been redeveloped in recent years and now offers a pretty hip mix of cafes, restaurants and wine bars.


5. Red rock canyons

Kayaking through Cape Range National Park. Image Sallelee, Flickr

Kayaking through Cape Range National Park. Image Sallelee, Flickr

The real beauty of Exmouth is the variety. Yes you’ve got one of the world’s marine wonders on your doorstep, but turn 180 degrees and look inland and you’re faced with the wild red expanse of the Cape Range National Park. Hop in a 4WD for a day’s exploring. You can drive to the precipice of Shothole and Charles Knife Canyons (there are some great views of the Exmouth Gulf from the latter), spot black-footed wallaby’s at Yardie Creek or take a cruise down one of the gorges, looking up at sheer red rock cliffs that haven’t changed much in the last million years.


6. Local wildlife

In Exmouth, seniors have right of way. Thanks, emu. Image The Inverted Zoo, Flickr

In Exmouth, seniors have right of way. Thanks, emu. Image The Inverted Zoo, Flickr

Overseas visitors have this cliché-soaked image of Australia in their heads: businessmen riding kangaroos to work, kookaburras helping with the washing up and koalas falling from the skies like grey, cuddly death. It’s a funny thing to admit, but Exmouth kind of lives up to these stereotypes (apart from Drop Bears, they’re not real guys). It’s not uncommon to sea emus crossing the street here, kangaroo’s chilling out on the nature strips, corellas and galahs in the treetops and goannas sunning themselves on someone’s front porch.

All you need is the hat with the corks on it and it’s like you’ve stepped into a cartoon from the 90s.

Want to see Ningaloo for yourself? We’ve got a bunch of tours that run straight through it. Check out our range of trips in Australia for all the details.

(And check out our 10-day Perth to Broome adventure for Exmouth, Coral Bay and so much more!)

Feature image c/o Michael Sale, Flickr 

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Patrick Duffy July 21, 2019 - 4:41 pm


You missed the best part of the Ningaloo Reef. The southern end where there is no towns and still very few people. Where the red desert comes down to meet the white sands and the reef is right on the beach beside Gnaraloo Station. Then there is the amazing untouched Gnaraloo Bay

Greta March 10, 2017 - 3:51 pm

October 23, 2012 at 8:02 amDr. Bradley, Thank you again for your helpful articles about Wilson and others who revere the Old South. I hope that your writings on this will get a wide and careful reading. I appiacrete also the link to further reading; I’ve added several of those books to my Amazon wish list. Sincere thanks, Tim

Alice Genoh February 29, 2016 - 5:32 am

I am sorry if I am being rude, but the only thing I remember about the Great Barrier is that my childhood hero Steve Irwin was killed here. Do not want to swim with those whales!

James Shackell February 29, 2016 - 8:55 am

Hey Alice,

Not rude at all! It’s always important to put safety first around any marine animals. Steve Irwin actually died on Queensland’s Batt Reef though, while handling a live stingray. Obviously this is something we’d never encourage our passengers to attempt under any circumstances. If you ever go diving with us, rest assured you’ll be in safe hands. If you’ve got any questions about our safety policies, just let me know!



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