Ningaloo Reef, Exmouth.
Ningaloo Reef, Exmouth. Anson Smart/Tourism Australia

Swim with the whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef

EXMOUTH, Western Australia. It's the land that time forgot, a place where clocks are optional, shorts and t-shirts mandatory, snorkelling gear obligatory and the word "hurry” banned from common use.

Seafood is fresh, meals hearty, fast food chains non-existent and the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef is so close to the coast you can walk off the beach in most places and touch it.

Exmouth is also one of the few populated places on the entire planet that intersects the whale shark travel route and anyone with a dive mask, snorkel, fins and the ability to swim a bit can commune with the big critters.

Did I say big? Think massive because there is apparently no such thing as a small whale shark. We saw five on our day in the water and the smallest measured four metres.

It's a good thing then that whale sharks lack serious choppers and live by sucking plankton through their sieve-like mouths, rendering them completely harmless to humans. Unless you happen to swim across their path and get bumped by one because whale sharks apparently do not like changing course.

Communing with whale sharks is relatively simple. You book with one of the 10 or 11 tour companies, it sends a bus to your accommodation, takes you to the Tantabiddi boat ramp, puts you on a comfortable cruiser which takes you out beyond the reef, finds a collection of whale sharks and drops you in the ocean to play "spot the fish”. Not hard when the fish is as big as a bus.

Boat crews are experienced "whalers” and great swimmers so whale watchers who find the going a bit tough can get a helpful tow to where the big critters are wandering in the briny.

The biggest whale shark we saw during our day on the water? About nine metres. Very impressive, especially when you consider it is still classed as a juvenile.

North West Cape, that finger of land of which Exmouth is the nominal capital, has more to offer should swimming with the world's biggest fish become too much like hard work.

A day in the Cape Range National Park requires nothing more than a picnic lunch, your snorkel gear, swimmers, towel and sunblock.

There are loads of beautiful ocean beaches between Lighthouse Bay in the north and Yardie Creek in the south with most giving instant entry to Ningaloo Reef.

Yardie Creek, about 90km from Exmouth, has a gorge tour that is essentially a nature walk on steroids. Turtles and stingrays live near the creek's mouth and colonies of rock wallabies populate the cliff faces either side of the creek further up the gorge.

Cape Range National Park. Mandatory credit: Australia's Coral Coast
Cape Range National Park. Mandatory credit: Australia's Coral Coast Australia's Coral Coast

Heading back off the coast into the mountains that form the cape's spine takes you instantly from the sand of the beach to the sand of the desert and gives amazing views west to the ocean and east to the inland.

All that snorkelling, adventuring, swimming and sightseeing can work up an appetite and Exmouth caters for such eventualities. Funny thing, no restaurant or cafe in the wild west knows the meaning of the word "small” when it comes to meal sizes but they do know what "hearty” means.

Quite surprisingly, this wild west town caters for all food tastes from the humble fisho all the way through to five-star dining.

Exmouth accommodation also caters for all tastes and ranges from bare-bones camp grounds to five star and, at the top of the tree, the $1500-a-night Sal Salis resort for those who like glamping in the peace and quiet of the national park.

Visiting Exmouth also means a sidebar visit to the amazing Coral Bay, about 150km away, which exist entirely for tourists.

Two huge caravan parks, a resort, a modest shopping centre, at least two surprisingly good restaurants and a couple of eateries, some tour booking agencies and a backpackers' hostel is pretty much the extent of Coral Bay but what it offers is impressive. Town beach is a mere 100 metres away from anywhere and not only has good swimming and snorkelling but also three manta ray spotting tour operators.

Keep in mind though that, unlike the big fish, mantas are amazingly quick and acrobatic so chasing them can be tiring. Good thing then the boats have coffee, soft drinks and food aboard. If you want to stay dry for a while there are beach buggies for hire but if you want to be more Steve McQueen than Lightning McQueen another company rents quad bikes.

All of them have a range of tours into the desert or along the coast to secluded beaches with reef snorkelling included.

And this year, for the first time, Exmouth is experimenting with humpback whale tours, not just watching the majestic creatures as they travel the reef but actually giving everyone a chance to get in the water with them and get up close. Really close. The worst part of all this swimming, drinking, eating and having fun? Leaving.

Funny how most people on the flight back to Perth seem to have the matching whale shark and manta ray stuffed toys and the almost-obligatory tourist t-shirt.

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