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Part 2 – Ningaloo Reef Escape

Part 2 – Ningaloo Reef Escape

August 2020

Unfortunately, due to coronavirus many people’s travel plans have currently being put on hold. As a silver-lining this has provided us with the opportunity to get out and explore what is in our own backyard. We are so fortunate to live in W.A. and to have so many great places to visit, but none can rival with the magnificence of the Ningaloo reef and its coastline.

The Ningaloo reef is one of the largest fringing coral reefs in the world stretching an incredible 260kms along the Western Australian coastline. It is home to a plethora of life including over 500 species of fish, 300 species of coral, 600 species of mollusks, along with many other marine invertebrates including different species of dolphins and whales.

Although some of the reef is easily accessible from shore, due to the remoteness of its location the best way to get out and really explore the reef is on a liveaboard. Introducing Shore Thing, currently the only liveaboard on the Ningaloo reef. Shore Thing is a beautiful 51ft, purpose built liveaboard sailing catamaran with enough room for up to ten guests. As it is a catamaran, she is extremely comfortable and stable on the water.

 Our trip consisted of eight people, and we were all welcomed aboard by our lovely hosts on the first day of our adventure in the early afternoon. For the next six days we would be looked after by Luke, our skipper, Dave, our dive guide, and Sophie, our amazing hostess. The crew were very welcoming and immediately made us feel at home by showing us to our cabins, giving us a boat orientation, going over the all-important safety brief, and before we knew it we were on our way sailing over the crystal waters of the Ningaloo reef.

Our first dive of the trip was at a site called Lottie’s Lagoon. It is a nice easy site, which helped everyone get accustomed to their gear and to get a feel for how the rest of the trip’s dives would be executed from the boat. As expected, the site was teeming with fish and was just the dive to whet our appetites for what was to come.

After our dive, we watched our very first Ningaloo sunset for the trip, which was very closely followed by a beautiful full moon rise. We then showered up, settled in for the evening, and then we were treated to the first of many amazing meals to come. Quite fittingly it was Gold band snapper, a delicious, much sought-after fish which inhabits the Ningaloo reef. All feeling both full of food and anticipation for what lay ahead, we all retired for an early night ready for our next amazing day on the reef.

The morning format for the next five days was to get up at 7am for breakfast, tea, and coffee, with the boat pushing on to our next dive site by about 7.30am. If you were not up by 7.30am then the boat’s engines were enough to give those still in bed a gentle nudge to come up and greet the day. It was now our first full day on the boat and we really did get a taste of all things to come. 

By 8.30am we were kitted up and ready to go explore our next dive site. The name of the site was Coral Castles, and as the name might suggest it was strewn with beautiful towering coral formations throughout. Once out of the water, out of our gear, and a nice warm shower on the back deck of the boat we were treated to some delicious homemade cookies for our morning tea. 

After a bit of R&R, we had arrived at our next dive site for the day, Asho’s Gap. Asho’s is a popular dive site in Coral Bay as it is home to a shark cleaning station. There have been reports of more than thirty grey reef sharks being there at the same time, however on this occasion we only saw the one. This is likely due to the time of year as the sharks tend to favor the warmer months, but nevertheless we were still excited to see the shark coming through, mouth open, allowing the little cleaner wrasses to get in between its teeth and through its gills for a clean.

Once again back on the boat, gear down, dry off and warm up and get ready for some lunch. Luke was tipped off about a manta ray cruising the inside of the reef just near by as we were getting dry so we had the option of a manta swim or to settle down for some lunch. A bit of a no brainer decision amongst all was made, and lunch went on hold. Unfortunately, on this occasion the manta was extremely fast and difficult to keep up with, but we did all manage to have a quick look. Now the prospect of lunch seemed even better after burning a few extra calories.

After a very tasty lunch, we made our way to our third dive site of the day, The Aquarium. A very appropriate name as this site had fish everywhere you looked. A big highlight of this dive was getting completely enveloped by massive schools of Gold spot trevally. We decided to stay here for a night dive as it was already getting late, so after some snacks and another beautiful sunset, we were kitted up and back in the water.

The site took on a whole new appearance by night and was still a haven of activity. Almost everywhere you shone your torch the glow of shrimp eyes would bounce back at you. There were lots of sleeping parrot fish finding refuge in their mucus bubble for the night, moray eels, turtles, a cuttlefish and even a huge Spanish dancer.

Up from the dive, we all got showered and had our delicious dinner, a couple of bevvies, and recalled the excitement from the day’s dives. We were well and truly shattered from such a great day on the water so off to bed it was for a well-deserved sleep.

The wind picked up a bit overnight and so had the swell, so in the morning after breakfast Luke made the call to stay on the inside of the reef for our first dive. No one was disappointed when the call was made to head back to Asho’s Gap. We took a different route this time which was nice to see the site from a different angle. Once again, there was one shark on the cleaning station but there were also some big schools of trevally hanging around. We even found a solitude baby great barracuda hanging out on the reef.

After morning tea, the wind and swell had dropped enough for us to get to the outer reef. On the way out we saw some humpback whales, and in no time we were at our next dive site, The Elbow. Wow, what a dive. As soon as we descended we were greeted by a huge oceanic manta ray, followed shortly by two more. We found a large turtle having a rest in a corner of the reef right next to a massive moray eel, saw a wobbegong shark, a grey reef shark, some huge mackerel, and some of the divers saw a bull shark. All whilst listening to the distant songs of humpback whales. Ningaloo really was putting on the goods.

Once up from the dive, the wind and swell had come up again, so we made our way back to the inside of the reef, had some lunch and went for our next dive on a site named Lannie’s Lumps. This site was a nice shallow site with lots of species of reef fish, nudibranchs, and some big painted crayfish.

In the late afternoon we went for a snorkel at a spot called North reef nursery. This was a spectacular site that had an abundance of life everywhere. We saw white tip reef sharks, a tassled wobbegong, some big schools of trevally, and a big resident marble ray called Wally. This was all complemented by the golden glow of the late afternoon sun.

After dinner, we spent some time on the bow stargazing before watching the moon rise over the horizon. Another beautiful day in paradise.

The following morning, we made our way to the outer reef for another dive. Unfortunately, due to the swell, the conditions weren’t favourable and the vis looked pretty poor so we decided to make our way back to the shelter of the inside of the reef. We opted for a slow steam in which gave everyone ample opportunity to laze around and soak up some sun.

Once back on the inside, we anchored up at a dive site called Porites. Porites are a type of coral and this site was strewn with them, some huge in size. There were lots of anemones on this site providing refuge to an abundance of anemone fish, octopus hiding in their holes, and a curious cuttlefish not bothered by our presence.

After the dive we took in a bit of whale watching whilst on our way to the next site. We were lucky enough to have a female humpback and her young calf come very close to the boat and hang around for some time allowing everyone to marvel at their huge size but gentle nature.

Before we knew it, we were at our next site, so it was time to kit up and get back in the water. We were back at Lannie’s lumps. Again, there was plenty to see, and taking a slightly different route this time we were treated to bannerfish, scorpionfish, a wobbegong shark, some lionfish, moray eels, nudibranch, and a wall covered in Christmas tree worms. 

After the dive, we had another delicious lunch, hoisted the sails, shut off the engines and everyone got some much deserved rest and relaxation whilst taking in the peacefulness and serenity of our surroundings.

At this point Dave was finding it a little difficult to get us back on our feet and ready for the next dive as everyone was so relaxed and a little sleepy. We were grateful for the little shove as our next site we were diving on was called Holey Moley, and this was to be one of our favourite sites of the trip. Just like a giant piece of swiss cheese, this site was littered with holes and swim throughs which one could easily find themselves lost. One swim through led to the next and it really was a diver’s playground. There was plenty of life on this site too including big schools of trevally, coral trout, sweetlips, a very shy giant grouper, moray eels and a batfish that decided to join us for our whole adventurous dive.

Back on the surface and after some afternoon tea, we were asked if we wanted to stay at this site for a night dive. We had such a good dive previously, the vote was a unanimous yes!

Kitted up and striding from the back of the vessel, we had no idea what lay in store for us. The dive started off beautifully with plenty to see. Octopus, shrimp, lionfish, heaps of sleeping parrotfish, morays, fusiliers, and plenty of other fish. At one stage we came to a bit of a clearing where we saw a big loggerhead turtle. We were always very vigilant on our night dives to not shine our torches directly onto the turtles so as to not disturb their sleep, however on this occasion something had managed to wake this turtle from its slumber. From this point in, not aware whether it was something we had done or perhaps something else was lurking around the reef that evening, all the turtles seemed to be wide awake and very active. There were literally turtles shooting around everywhere at breakneck speeds, we had never seen anything like it. At one point I looked ahead to see a commotion of bubbles and jostling coming from the divers in front, only to realise that a turtle had swam straight into them. For the rest of the dive everyone was in hysterics, dodging turtles, and constantly clearing flooded masks from all the laughter. Upon surfacing, the crew on the boat were greeted with our fits of laughter, not knowing what we had just encountered. Sophie had also found herself taking an unexpected late-night swim after leaning overboard to admire the turtles under the boats lights and getting a bit of a shove from our friendly skipper, Luke.

We all had a brilliant night talking and laughing over dinner reminiscing on such a great day. A few games of backgammon and a couple of drinks, it was time to call it a night in preparation for our next day on the reef.

After a good night’s rest, we awoke to another delicious breakfast, and conditions that were looking favourable for a dive on the outside of the reef. We could not wait to see what would be in store for us today.

After a short drive out, we arrived out our first site of the day called The Lost City. Once again, we were thrilled with everything that we saw. The site itself is a rock wall that drops down to about 30 metres. Although this site did not have a huge amount of coral, there was still plenty to look at. We saw turtles, mangrove jacks, banner fish, lots of reef fish species, we had six curious grey reef sharks come in close to inspect us from the blue, and some absolutely massive schools of buff bream, big eye trevally, and gold spot trevally. It truly was a magnificent dive.

Once back on the surface, conditions had taken a turn for the worse so back to the inside of the reef it was for our next dive.

Our second dive was back at Poirites, however we started our dive from the other end of the site. Our day had begun a little sharky on our first dive, and this continued on our second dive of the day. We saw three different species of shark on this dive which were white tip, tawny nurse, and wobbegong shark. As well of the sharks we saw nudibranch, a very cute baby spotted sweetlips, three big cowries with jet black mantles, a big cowtail ray, and heaps of painted crays.

After the dive we had a delicious BBQ fish lunch and started to make our way to our next dive site. On the way we spotted some manta rays so decided to try our luck at swimming with them. This time we got to have a much better look. The first manta we got in the water with was slowly cruising along and was hugging the bottom about 6-7 metres below us. We stayed with this ray for some time until it stopped over the top of a cleaning station for a bit of a clean. Whilst we were watching this ray, another ray joined it, then another, then another. It was great having the four mantas casually taking it in turns swimming over the cleaning station. They were very relaxed and were not in the slightest bothered by us. We would have spent over an hour in the water marveling at there gracious movements and could have spent longer but decided to head back to the boat to move on to our final anchorage of the day.

Once anchored, we jumped into the tender and took a short ride to a very nice snorkel site called Coral Gullies. As the name suggests, the site comprised of lots of gullies in between the reef. It was a beautiful site to snorkel in the late afternoon with heaps of fish, the odd turtle, and a couple of white tip sharks to keep us captivated.

Back on the boat, and after a little snack, we got kitted up for our final dive, a night dive at a site called Black Douglas Rocks. There were a few onboard a little apprehensive after the previous night’s misadventures, but everyone decided to get in for another spectacular dive. We saw some big sleeping loggerhead turtles, white eyed morays, various species of shrimp, lionfish, hermit crabs, a wobbegong, and a big tesselate moray eel.

After another great day on the Ningaloo reef, it was time to freshen up, have some dinner, and catch some much-needed z’s.

The following day we woke up early to get a dive in before breakfast. As exciting as this was, we could not help but feel a little disappointed too. Today was the day that we would say goodbye to the boat that we had made our home for just under a week, and the crew that had made us feel so welcome. 

We managed to push through and kitted up before arriving back at the dive site, The Aquarium. It was nice to get in the water so early. There was a feeling that the reefs residents were just going about the start of their day and we were there to witness it. There was plenty of activity with the parrotfish going about munching on the reef, a couple of morays peeking out of their holes, wrasses cleaning fish swimming past, schools of trevally, and the odd nudibranch here and there. A beautiful way to start the day.

Once back on the boat, we had some breakfast and made our way to our final dive of the trip… Asho’s gap.

Once again, Asho’s was a very enjoyable dive with all the usual reef creatures we had encountered on previous dives. This time the cleaning station had two grey reef sharks passing through, and this is where we spent most of our dive. Before we knew it, it was time to end our dive. We reluctantly made our way back to the boat knowing that this would be the last time we would be looking up at ‘Shore Thing’ from the water level.

Back on the boat we packed up our dive kits and then sat down for another beautiful lunch. Once lunch was over we all went to our cabins and packed our bags and got ready to head back to dry land.

It was mid afternoon when we arrived back to the boat ramp in Coral Bay, and even though we had only been on the boat for six days, it felt like it was much longer. Looking back on all the great experiences we had shared together, the almost non stop laughter, the beautiful silences with just the wind at our sails, the meals we had shared, sunsets, sunrises, and lifelong friendships forged… this trip had given us so much more than just a heap of great dives. 

A special thanks to all the crew on ‘Shore thing’ and all the Sail Ningaloo team for our incredible trip, we will be back. 

written by PADI Divemaster Wesley Sutcliffe

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