Home » Ningaloo Reef vs Great Barrier Reef: Where to go on your next coastal adventure

Ningaloo Reef vs Great Barrier Reef: Where to go on your next coastal adventure

written by Intrepid Travel November 21, 2021
A sea turtle on Ningaloo Reef

Ticking off one of the seven natural wonders of the world or swimming with whale sharks? The buzzing East Coast or the red barren lands of Western Australia on your doorstep?

Choosing your next coastal adventure isn’t easy. But let’s face it… there are definitely worse decisions to make!

Australia is lucky to have two amazing coral reefs. The Great Barrier Reef on the East Coast is the world’s largest coral reef – it’s so big you can see it from space. Ningaloo Reef on the West Coast is more of a hidden gem… well, it’s definitely not hidden as it spans 260 km, but it’s more remote, harder to get to and attracts fewer visitors. 

We don’t think it would be fair to say whether Ningaloo or Great Barrier Reef is better, because honestly, they’re both epic in their own right. Both reefs boast an abundance of marine life and activities to keep you busy above and below the water. That being said, some factors might sway your decision. 

Ningaloo ReefGreat Barrier Reef
Location: Western Australia, 1,200 km north of Perth Location: Queensland, from Torres Strait to Fraser Island
Credentials: It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site Credentials: It’s one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site 
Size: 300 kmSize: 2,300 km 
Type of reef: Fringing (you can swim to it from the shore at Coral Bay)Type of reef: Barrier (you can only access it by boat)
Fun fact: It makes up 50% of all living coral in the Indian OceanFun fact: It is the world’s largest coral reef system 

Best for marine life 

Both reefs are brimming with diverse marine life. The Great Barrier Reef is home to over 1,500 species of tropical fish, 134 species of sharks and rays, 10,000 species of sponges, and 4,000 species of molluscs. You’ll likely see sea cucumbers, sea slugs, clownfish, parrotfish, angelfish, butterflyfish, giant clams and various other species when you’re in the water. 

A humpback whale breaching in the water
A humpback whale

It’s also home to larger sea creatures including 30 species of dolphins and whales, and six types of turtles. You’re never guaranteed to see bigger animals when snorkelling or diving, but you have a good chance of seeing pods of humpbacks and dwarf minke whales (and gorgeous baby calves) between May and August when they migrate back to Antarctica. Bottlenose dolphins live in the water all year round, but you might also be lucky to see Indo-Pacific humpback, spinner and Australian snubfin dolphins. Keep a lookout for these inquisitive beings riding the waves from your boat. 

Ningaloo Reef is home to 500 species of fish and various other marine life including turtles, dolphins, dugongs and rays. You can swim with majestic manta rays all year round, but May through September is the best time as there’s more of them. Turtle nesting season runs from November through March when female turtles make the strenuous journey ashore to lay their eggs. You can see eggs hatching along the beach between February and March.

A whale shark

The biggest drawcard for Ningaloo is the opportunity to swim with whale sharks. They migrate through the waters between mid-March and July to hunt for tasty krill and plankton. These gentle giants span up to 10 metres long and seeing them up close is nothing short of magical. Ningaloo Reef also has one of the largest gatherings of humpback whales in the world. They join the whale sharks from June until November on their journey back to Antarctica. If you manage to see both species… well, you’ve hit the jackpot. 

Best for coral

Spanning a whopping 2,300 kilometres, the Great Barrier Reef isn’t a natural wonder of the world for no reason. To put this into perspective, it’s bigger than Tassie and Victoria combined! It’s also the only living organism that can be seen from space. It consists of thousands of individual reefs and about 600 species of coral that support this amazing ecosystem. 

It might not be as big as the Great Barrier Reef, but Ningaloo is still one of the world’s largest (and healthiest) fringing reefs. It’s home to roughly 200 species of hard coral and 50 species of soft coral. The Great Barrier Reef has bigger and more diverse coral gardens, but Ningaloo’s are just as spectacular. From spiky, skeletal looking formations in the shallows to soft, spongy and jelly-like coral, both reefs are a vibrant underwater world waiting to be explored. 

An aeriel view of Great Barrier Reef from a plane
An aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef

We can’t talk about coral without mentioning bleaching. Several sections of coral along the Great Barrier Reef are moderately or severely bleached. This happens when corals are stressed and expel their algae, usually due to rising water temperatures or cyclones. Ningaloo has experienced far less bleaching than the Great Barrier Reef, but the good news is bleached corals can bounce back and thrive if water conditions return to normal. There’s plenty of conservation work being done to regenerate and prevent further damage to reefs.

Best for weather

There are two seasons in Ningaloo and the Great Barrier Reef: summer (wet) and winter (dry). Shouldered by the Indian Ocean, Ningaloo Reef experiences warm weather and water temperatures all year round. It gets about 320 days of sunshine and has an average annual rainfall of less than 250mm (most of which is in February and March). We dare say the weather is almost always guaranteed to be on your side – even in the coolest months daytime highs rarely dip below 24°C and the water is a mild 22°C. November through February are the hottest months with high humidity and temperatures often exceeding 35°C. 

The Great Barrier Reef experiences a similar climate. The weather is tropical with hot, humid summers and about 2,000 mm of rainfall per year. Winter is warm, dry and sunny and the water temperature is a pleasant 23°C, making it one of the best times of the year to explore life underwater. Things heat up in summer with water temperatures sitting at a warm 29°C.

Best for activities 

Sunset in Cape Range National Park in Western Australia
Cape Range National Park

Aside from snorkelling and diving, there’s a whole bunch of activities to do above the water. The Ningaloo Coast is wild and untouched with vast sandy beaches and red, barren desert inland. It feels very isolated, but that’s what makes it so beautiful. Once you’ve had your vitamin-sea fix, there’s loads to see and do ashore. Chill out on Exmouth’s stunning beaches, watch turtle eggs hatch or explore the spectacular Cape Range National Park where you’ll find deep gorges, caves, limestone clifftops and jaw-dropping vistas.

Cedar Creek Falls near Airlie Beach
Cedar Creek Falls near Airlie Beach

The Great Barrier Reef might be a little more touristy, but you’ve gotta’ love just how much there is to see and do along the East Coast. Most tours start from Cairns or Airlie Beach where you’ll find white sandy beaches, a lively bar and restaurant scene, and tropical rainforests including the Daintree (ahem, the oldest rainforest on Earth). You’ve also got the stunning Whitsunday archipelago which is home to some of Australia’s most idyllic beaches including Whitehaven Beach.

Best for accessibility 

The Great Barrier Reef is massive, and there are multiple entry points from Cairns in far north Queensland to Hervey Bay in the south. The East Coast is well connected with air, bus and train networks and you can easily find accommodation and tourist amenities. The easiest way to get to the Great Barrier Reef is by flying into Cairns, Hamilton Island Airport (also known as the Great Barrier Reef Airport) or Whitsunday Coast Airport in Propsperine. From here you can take a boat tour to the reef. The journey can take up to 1.5 hours depending on where the tour starts. 

A beach view along Coral Bay on the Ningaloo Coast

Unlike the Great Barrier Reef, Ningaloo Reef is located just off the shore of Coral Bay and you can simply pop on your snorkel and swim out to it. The other starting point for tours is Exmouth which has more tourist amenities and attractions. Getting to Coral Bay or Exmouth is a bit of a trek if you’re travelling from outside of WA. The closest airport is in Learmonth (36 km south of Exmouth), and you can only fly direct from a few destinations in Australia including Perth, Rockhampton and Paraburdoo. It might be easier to fly into Perth and transfer to Learmonth by car. There are various accommodation options along the Ningaloo Coast, but they’re more limited than the Great Barrier Reef.

We hope this guide has given you a better idea of where to go for your next coastal adventure. No matter which reef you choose, we have no doubt you’ll have a flippin’ amazing exploring these underwater worlds. 


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