It’s 6 o’clock in the morning and we are sitting in a safari car in the Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan. Another jeep parks alongside just before we spot a beautiful tiger. We start talking to two photographers in the car next to us about remote locations to travel to. They are from Australia and seem to be the type of people who know where the wild things are. So we share our experiences. They mention their favourite wildlife places in Australia, and that’s how I hear about Ningaloo Coast for the first time, two years ago, while tracking tigers in India. It’s all about remoteness and big fish, you see…
I have been aware of the vastness of Western Australia’s landscape ever since I visited the region some time ago. But I have also been curious about Ningaloo for a while. A place almost unvisited compared with the Great Barrier Reef on the other side of the continent—the former with 19,000 visitors per year, the latter with two million—will always be irresistible to me.
Ningaloo is empty. The northwest coast of Western Australia is one of the most isolated places on Earth. This fact alone is already a motive to make me wonder and is a reason in itself to visit the remote reef. It’s far and the difficult logistics to get there (you can only fly in from Perth) mean that there are plenty of locales where you can still chase that feeling of euphoria that belongs to the travelling pioneer.
My primary purpose when travelling to Ningaloo, though, was the search for whale sharks. In fact, if my only concern during this trip had been swimming with these majestic creatures, I could have travelled to other locations in the Philippines, Indonesia or even Mexico. But I also care about the conservation of the wildlife I visit. And when it comes to looking after ecosystems, Australia is very often a champion.
Only 15 commercial operators have the license to conduct whale shark tours in Western Australia. It is the most-regulated whale shark industry in the world. In addition, dive instructors, skippers and shark mermaids in this part of the world have excellent knowledge about the marine world and are, of course, convinced that the wildlife is worth protecting. Regulation and education play important roles in the conservation crisis.
Unfortunately, it’s not only good news. While Australia is a worldwide benchmark for whale shark operations, in some other parts of the world protecting this endangered species is not a primary concern. In recent years, whale sharks have started to turn up in numbers in places like Cebu and Yucatan in the Philippines and Mexico, respectively. Locals learn to feed the animals in order to keep them around for a longer time and to thus generate more income with tours.
This behavioural modification might have inherent risks for the sharks. The main one is related to their migratory patterns: whale sharks are a highly migratory species and they usually follow the path of nutrient-rich seasonal aggregations of plankton. They migrate for thousands of kilometres across various countries and feeding them means changing this natural pattern. We can’t have wild animals becoming dependent on humans for food. Surprisingly, most of the regions where this disrespect takes place have legislation in place to protect the sharks. However, unlike in Australia, most of the operators don’t pay much attention to it.
OUTBACK MEETS REEF
The Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area is located in the very northwestern tip of Australia, which includes the areas of the Ningaloo Marine Park and the Cape Range National Park. It reaches almost 20 kilometers offshore and is where the cool ocean currents from the south meet the warmer currents from the north: the reason why this region supports a unique mix of tropical and subtropical species.
In Ningaloo Reef, you find one of the planet’s largest coral reefs and they can be accessed straight from the beach, something very few other coral reefs offer. It’s pretty much pristine and beyond them are the pelagic megafauna. Swimming with whale sharks (April to July) and humpback whales (August to October) are the highlights, but spotting other kinds of visitors, including dolphins, turtles, manta rays (June to July) and reef sharks, is also popular.
Yet the Ningaloo Coast is not only about the sea life. In contrast to the bright blue waters of Ningaloo Marine Park lie the rugged red gorges and canyons of Cape Range National Park. The deep canyons and precipitous ridges provide a dramatic contrast to the scenery of the adjacent coral reef. It’s where the red Outback flows straight into the Indian Ocean—a breathtaking encounter found nowhere else on earth.
The trick to navigating and enjoying these areas is finding the right balance between comfort and wilderness. Luckily, I didn’t have to rough it to enjoy the bush. I found my bed in the wild with Sal Salis. This camp is hidden in the white sand dunes of the Cape Range National Park. And from my tent, I was just a few metres away from the world’s greatest coastal coral reef. The low-impact tents provide a wilderness experience without compromising comfort. All power is solar-generated and the lodge asks guests to respect the strict environmental and sustainability principles. It’s the way we love it: charming and wild.
We first explored the Cape Range by joining a gorge walk excursion lead by Paul, Camp Manager at Sal Salis. The Cape Range National Park is of a high conservation value and home to a large variety of wildlife, including kangaroos. We walked through Mandu Mandu Gorge, 2 kilometres behind the camp, with fossil limestone formations and spectacular views back to the coast and over the Ningaloo Reef.
I travelled far to swim with a whale shark, the ocean’s largest fish. So as it turns out the next morning we joined a tour with Ningaloo Live, the exclusive operator of Sal Salis. They take a maximum of 10 guests on the boat while all the other operators take 20. During the season, every early morning, a small spotter plane flies over Exmouth looking for the sharks, which means the skippers have the exact information about their location.
I jumped in the water. As the curtain of bubbles cleared from in front of my mask, I opened my eyes. I couldn’t think properly and didn’t really know what to do. I was face to face with a giant. We were so close to each other that I got a bit scared, but soon I realised there was no danger. Time stopped. The shark started to swim fast and I followed his speed alongside. For almost 30 minutes we swam side by side.
After the intimate encounter, suddenly he was gone, submerging on a deep dive into the ocean. I got back to the boat with the wonderful feeling of being out of this world. It’s the nature. And I wanted to do it again and again. Luckily the same whale shark returned to the surface and we had two more turns swimming together. It never failed to amaze.
So enamoured were we of the marine wildlife that we also joined a guided kayak snorkel as well as a dive excursion. We snorkelled on the reef further offshore of Sal Salis at the Blue Lagoon, the best spot I have ever done this in my life. For diving, we went to the Lighthouse Bay area. Watching thelife cycle of the reef with its corals, turtles, rays, reef sharks and hundreds of fishes was even more spectacular when seen through the crystal blue water.
For me, the Ningaloo Coast is wild Australia as its very best. Here I got the buzz of new frontiers: the nature is pristine and untouched. I wish I could thank the photographers I met in India for sharing one of Australia’s best-kept natural secrets. I went to Ningaloo on a journey to find whale sharks in their natural habitat and I ended up with that feeling of being stripped away to something bare. The sharks and the entire marine world made me remember that all that really matters is our ability to survive. Getting down to the essentials of our being is always a powerfully attractive idea.
(Text by Nanda Haensel, Photo by Nanda and Max Haensel)
Source: Indonesia Tatler August 2016 Issue