I feel like a fish, and I think most of the creatures I am sharing the water with would agree that I am, because they couldn’t be less troubled by my presence. They slope up from my left and shimmer in from my right, beady eyes trained towards me, heads turned ever so slightly in interest feigned as disinterest.
It was a shoal of parrotfish first, their electric blues and pinks catching my eye as they darted this way and that, munching the algae off the coral and excreting it back out as fine white sand.
In fact, what I started out standing on this morning is ‘parrotfish poo’, my guide EJ gleefully informed me. I am staying at Sal Salis, an eco camp right on the beach at World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef. From here no boat is necessary to reach the coral; we simply strap on a snorkel and mask, stride out across the sands (or parrotfish poo) and stick our faces in the water.
The instant we do, we are transported into an underwater world that is better than any fantasyland I could have dreamed up. After that shoal of parrotfish came the bright yellow angelfish, then the sharp orange of a clown fish (yes, I found Nemo!).
And then – underwater squeal of delight – a turtle, turning its wrinkly little head ever so slightly towards me before almost shrugging with indifference and slowly swimming off across the coral tops.
Coral of all varieties can be seen here on this fringing reef, the world’s largest, from dark bulbous stacks several metres high to delicate white fingers that look like finest lace.
Ningaloo Reef never runs more than four miles offshore, and mostly far closer, for 160 miles up the Western Australian coast from Shark Bay to Exmouth.
It is extraordinary – and it is there for the viewing by anyone who can swim, and get hold of a snorkel.
But this is not all the marine adventure Western Australia has to offer. From spotting little penguins on Penguin Island off Rockingham, to swimming with whale sharks off the coast of Exmouth, there is always a new creature to encounter along the 12,500 miles of coastline. Here’s your marine life tick-list.
Marine safari in Western Australia: the big five
1. Whale sharks
Imagine a fish the size of a bus. Now imagine swimming alongside it, just a few metres of warm water between you and a giant tail, methodically swishing from side to side.
Few experiences in life are more magical that swimming with the ocean’s largest fish, and Ningaloo Reef is one of the few places worldwide that this graceful creature appears with any regularity. The coral spawning in March or April brings them here, and sightings are more or less guaranteed on trips out from Exmouth until July. Get out there with Ocean Eco Adventures.
Everyone loves dolphins – and the wild dolphins at Monkey Mia attract quite the crowd. It’s worth jostling for position on the sands here to see the daily feeding, when between five and ten adult females plus their calves come in to shore to share a bucket of fish.
You’ll want to get here by 7.30am for the 8am feeding to avoid the worst of the crowds, but even better is an overnight stay – which means swimming in those same waters whenever you please, and a very good chance of finding yourself sharing them with an inquisitive bottlenose or two.
3. Humpback whales
Watch where you’re flapping that flipper, you’re in the middle of a very busy highway here. That is, you are if you’re swimming off the WA coast between May and November, when humpback whales by the thousand migrate from the food-rich Southern Ocean to breeding grounds in the warm northern waters.
In the far south head out to Albany’s ex-whaling station, the waters off which are ironically one of the best places in Australia to see whales breaching.
Another hotspot is the country’s south-western-most point, at Cape Leeuwin, where the Southern and Indian oceans meet and those humpbacks round the corner close enough to shore to be seen with the naked eye.
4. Manta rays
Not whale shark season? It’s still worth the trip to Ningaloo Reef, where Coral Bay has manta rays all year round. Get into the water with them and prepare to be swept away, following their effortlessly graceful movements through the water.
You may not be able to keep up, though: that large wingspan of up to seven metres powers them through the ocean in search of shoals of plankton and krill, aka dinner. You might even be lucky enough to see the males showing off to the females, leaping from the water and landing again with a slap. These are acrobatic creatures, but don’t worry, they don’t have a barb like the stingray.
5. Dugongs (the endangered sea cow)
You can’t fail to love the dugong, a lolloping marine mammal that chomps its way across the sea grass and has an unfortunate habit of getting caught in fishing nets and crashing into boats. As a result this beautiful sea cow is endangered, and rarely seen.
In Western Australia, though, chances are high, with Ningaloo and Shark Bay supporting ten per cent of the world’s population. Take a cruise out from Denham or Monkey Mia in Shark Bay or from Coral Bay or Exmouth at Ningaloo for the best chance of a sighting.
Produced in association with Western Australia.
For further information visit the Western Australia website.