Most likely Aborigines were the first to discover this 260km (161mi) long reef surrounding the western coast of Australia naming it “high land jutting into the sea”. Ningaloo Reef is the only enormous reef in the world which is situated so close to the mainland that it provides endless snorkeling opportunities while divers of any level of experience can turn into peers of the Realm of Whale Shark, Manta Ray, and Turtle.
The Ningaloo Marine Park in East Indian Ocean covers the area from Exmouth in the north up to Coral Bay in the south. In order to get there, you need to arrive either at the airport in Perth or Learmonth.
If you are travelling from Perth, then you should be ready for a 12-14 hour drive to get to Ningaloo Coast. Learmonth airport is located much closer, within a 30-minute drive from Exmouth. Qantas offers a daily connection between Perth and Learmonth. It might be useful to know that Virgin Australia ceased servicing former Skywest flights from Perth to Carnarvon airport near Coral Bay as of the end of 2015.
In order to travel to Coray Bay from Exmouth, you will need either to rent a car or to take a coach line travelling from Perth. The latter usually have several stops at Exmouth Visitor Centre, Carnarvon Visitor Centre, and Ningaloo Club at Coray Bay. It might be a good idea to rent a 4WD vehicle to enjoy the coastal route along Cardabia Ningaloo Road. You will have a chance to see Yardie Creek. It is recommended to check at Exmouth Visitor Centre the tide times in order to cross the river at Yardie Creek as well as general road conditions before leaving.
Main dive sites of Ningaloo Reef are concentrated around 2 areas: Coray Bay and Exmouth. You can also travel to North and South Muiron Islands which are located within 45-minute boat transfer to the north-east from Exmouth.
Most of the dive sites can be found in shallow waters which make them accessible for all levels of divers. Such dive sites as Blizzard Range, The Labyrinth, the Fish Pit, and Gullivers are especially recommended for beginners. Advanced divers can explore Sponge Garden Drift, Helga’s Tunnels, Helby Bank and many other destinations especially on the western side of Ningaloo Reef. Here you will find most of the walls and hard coral formations. The area features deeper dive sites and here you have a chance to spot a Whale Shark or a Humpback Whale during the dive.
Whale Shark, Humpback Whale, Manta Ray, and Turtles are the main attraction of this area. Each of these marine creatures has its own season. Nevertheless, if you arrive between June and August you have the best chance of seeing all of them.
The reefs are not that much colorful and diversified as at the Great Barrier Reef. But still they offer a great variety of soft and hard corals, fish, and other reef inhabitants. Ningaloo Reef provides great opportunities for macro photography.
Best Dive Sites Overview
Navy Pier is the most famous dive spot in this area. It is included in the top 10 dive sites in Australia especially for night diving due to the largest biodiversity concentrated on a small area. The dive site is a T-shaped structure about 300m (984ft.) off the shore which is used by Australian Navy in Exmouth. The maximum depth is 15m (49ft.) which gives a chance for all divers to enjoy this aquarium-style dive spot. Among the smallest reef inhabitants, you can find Crabs, Shrimps, Nudibranchs, Flatworms, and Anemones with Clownfish. The larger reef fish is presented by Eels, Lionfish, Stonefish, Scorpionfish, Angelfish, Octopus, and Crayfish. Among pelagic and predators you can expect to see Whitetip Reef Shark, Wobbegong Shark, Grey Nurse Shark, Eagle Ray, Potato Cod, Barracuda, and Trevally.
A special permit is needed to dive at this spot as it is an active military service. Navy Pier was temporarily closed for diving as of January 2016 due to the Defense lease renewal process. Before planning your dive here it is recommended to check with Exmouth Visitor Centre whether the site is re-opened for visits.
This dive site is located in Coral Bay. It is famous for its cleaning station. In order to reach the station, you need to pass through the gap between the hard corals into the outer-reef passage. Behind you will find a plateau at 12m (39ft.) covered with Cabbage Coral. It is possible to kneel on sandy spots to enjoy how Cleaner Wrasse provide their cleaning services for Grey Reef Shark, Grouper, Turtle, and occasional Manta. Do not forget to look around as it is common to see Eagle Ray, Whitetip Reef Shark, Wobbegong Shark, Nurse Shark, and Stingrays here.
The Labyrinth is one of several great dive sites which can be found in the area of Lighthouse Bay in the northern part of North West Cape. The average depth here is 10-18m (32-59ft.). The limestone has various underwater shapes here with caves, crevices, labyrinths of tunnels, underwater passages, and swim-throughs. Navigation is highly important at this dive spot in order not to get lost that is why it is recommended to stay near the local dive guide. The area is full of Crustaceans, Invertebrates, and Molluscs. You can spot Wobbegong Shark, Stingray, Grouper, Moray, Pufferfish, Porcupinefish, Octopus, Crayfish, Green Turtle, and Olive Sea Snake here.
This is one of the dive sites on the western side of the Ningaloo Reef. Here you can try deep dives with a maximum depth of 30m (98ft.). The place is full of tunnels and crevices; you can pass through some of them. It is possible to see schools of Batfish, Lionfish, and Leopard Shark here. If you are lucky you might see a Whale Shark.
These are the islands located at the northern edge of the Ningaloo Marine Park. North Muiron and South Muiron are the 2 main islands separated by a channel. They offer a wide range of dive spots for daily boat trips. Such a trip usually includes 2 dives as it takes about 1 hour to get here from Exmouth. Reefs differ here from other parts of Ningaloo Reef as there are much more soft corals, Sponges, and Gorgonia.
The islands are famous for Stingray, Batfish, Anemones, Clownfish, Yellowstriped Cardinalfish, Turtle, and occasional Dugong. There are several areas with tunnels and swim-throughs where it is typical to find giant Potato Cod and GlassFish. During the boat transfer, you can have a chance to see Humpback Whales and Dolphins. The depth here ranges between 3-20m (9-65ft.). Current is usually light or medium, however, there are few spots with a strong current.
Best Dive Season
Diving is possible on the year-round basis at Ningaloo Reef. If you are interested to see as much of marine representatives as possible then it might be best to arrive between June and August. This period will allow you to spot Whale Shark, Manta Ray, Humpback Whale, Turtles, Dolphins, Dugong, and occasional Grey Nurse Shark. However, this is not the time of the best visibility, which is usually experienced between September and November.
Water temperature varies between 18-24 ºC (64-75ºF) in June-August which is winter in this area and 26-31 ºC (78-87ºF) in December-March. There is a possibility of tropical cyclones in February and March and they are stronger in the northern part of the Reef. It might be a good idea to wear a wetsuit, even when the water is warm. This might protect you from the coral cuts as well as from jellyfish stings. Irukandji Jellyfish is spotted from time to time in this area.
Most of the dives sites are located between 8-18m (26-59ft.). It is rare to face strong currents at Ningaloo Reef that is why diving conditions are usually very comfortable.
The visibility stays between 5-15m (16-49ft.) in average while 25m (82ft.) is supposed to be the best visibility in this area. It is usually influenced by the winds which can bring sand dust as well as the presence of plankton in the water and coral spawning.
Ningaloo Marine Park shelters about 500 species of fish, 600 molluscs, 50 types of soft corals and sponges, and 200 types of hard corals. Though corals have suffered from coral bleaching in 2011 and there are signs of the world spread bleaching in the Park at the beginning of 2016, it is not as severe as in some other regions of Australia.
There are several marine creatures which bring most of divers and snorkelers into this area. Whale Shark is one of the main attractions. Around 300-500 of them visit this area each year. Usually, these magnificent creatures arrive between April and June. It corresponds to the coral spawn as well as to the Ningaloo current from the south and Leeuwin current from the north bringing nutritious waters.
Manta Ray is another highlight of Ningaloo Reef. The largest number of Mantas is usually seen between May and September, though they can be spotted all the year round in this area. The local researchers estimate the number of rays residing in the area as 600. The best place to spot Manta is Coral Bay, especially in Bateman’s Bay. There are many cleaning stations around the area where these beautiful rays can be seen. November-February is a mating season for Manta Rays, and they can be seen in large chains around the Coral Bay.
Humpback Whales are also often seen at Ningaloo Reef. Their high season takes place between June and August. Among other marine representatives, you can meet Dolphins, Dugongs, Potato Cod, Leopard Shark, Wobbegong Shark, Grey Nurse Shark, and Whitetip Reef Shark. It is not common to see Tiger Shark in this area, though there were few cases when this predator was seen at Ningaloo Reef. Another rare encounter is a Short-nosed Sea Snake. It was supposed to be extinct for some time, nevertheless, in was found at the end of 2015 on Ningaloo Reef.
Loggerhead Turtle can be found at Ningaloo Reef all the year round. Their nesting period takes place between November and January while February and March are the time of Turtle hatching.
The most common fish of Ningaloo Reef is Butterflyfish, Angelfish, Damselfish, Wrasse, Cardinalfish, and Parrotfish.
If you want to witness a 3-day coral spawning performance, then you need to arrive 7-10 days after the full moon in March or April.
All types of land accommodation are present along the Ningaloo Coast. You can find some budget options as well as luxury apartments and tents.
This is a luxury tent accommodation which is located 50m away from the coast of Ningaloo Reef with sand dunes of Western Australia’s Cape Range National Park behind. You can get there within 1-hour drive from Exmouth. All spacious tents are naturally integrated into the environment and they can accommodate up to 3 persons. They feature an eco en-suite bathroom, handmade jarrah beds, and deluxe swag. Meals are provided by the resident chef and they are serviced on the deck or at the lodge. Packages usually include accommodation, all meals, and beverages to select from the bar, snorkeling equipment, kayaks, National park fees and permits. The Internet or mobile coverage is not available at the Camp. Children as of 5 years are welcomed at the Camp. You should take into consideration that Sal Salis cease its operation between November and middle of March.
Novotel Ningaloo Resort
The Resort is located in Exmouth next to Sunrise Beach. You can stay at Standard or Superior Room as well as in Bungalows or Apartments. Each Room features a double Spa bathroom and a terrace. Bungalows can accommodate up to 7 persons and they feature a fully-equipped kitchen and a laundry. There is a pool, a gym, and a restaurant on the territory of the Resort. The golf course is located 3km (1.8mi) away.
Sea Breeze Resort
This 4-star Resort is situated within 5km (3.1mi) from Exmouth next to an active Naval Base. Guests can be accommodated in Executive Studio, Standard Studio, and 2 Bedroom Apartment. Each of the rooms has a private bathroom, kitchen facilities, and a refrigerator. There is no restaurant on the territory of the Resort; however, it offers free shuttle service to the nearby restaurants. Free shuttle service is also provided for pick-ups from the airport.
Osprey Holiday Village
This deluxe accommodation is located in Exmouth. It offers holiday apartments consisting of Single King Spa Room, 2 Bedroom Apartments, and 3 Bedroom Apartments. Apartments feature private bathrooms, a fully-equipped kitchen, a laundry area, and a private BBQ. King Spa Room has an en-suite bathroom with Spa. The guests of the Village can use a pool and a restaurant located in the nearby Hotel of the same Group.
Ningaloo Reef Resort
Ningaloo Reef Resort is located in Coral Bay. You can choose accommodation in One Bedroom, Two Bedroom Rooms or Studio Style Room. Each room features a private bathroom, a veranda, a dining or lounge area. It is also possible to book The Penthouse which features a King bed, a kitchen with a fridge, Spa bath, and dining settings. Facilities of the Resort include a café, a pool, a laundry, and BBQ area.
Currently, there is only 1 liveaboard which offers itinerary around Ningaloo Reef. The vessel ceases operation during January and February when the weather is not suitable.
Sale Ningaloo (Shore Thing)
Shore Thing is a custom designed 15m (51ft.) long catamaran belonging to Sale Ningaloo. The yacht departs from Coral Bay and she can access both shallow and deep dive sites. Up to 10 guests can be accommodated in King Stateroom, Stateroom Twin, Deluxe Double Cabin, and Stateroom Triple. All rooms except Deluxe Double Cabin feature en-suite toilet and shower. There are also shared facilities for other guests. The trips are usually organized for 3 or 5 nights.
Other Activities For Non-Divers
Ningaloo is a snorkeling paradise. The reef is located so close that you can either take some specialized trips or daily excursion or you can just travel along the coastline by yourself. Most of the local dive operators organize special tours to watch Whale Shark or Manta. As you will not find facilities to hire snorkeling gear at all spots along the coastline it is recommended either to bring your own equipment or to hire it at Exmouth or Coral Bay. It is also highly recommended to put on a Lycra or a wetsuit to have protection from coral cuts and possibility of stings by Jellyfish. Lakeside, Oyster Stacks, and Turquoise Bay are the most famous snorkeling sites.
Karijini National Park
Karijini National Park is the 2nd largest park in Western Australia located in Pilbara region. You can reach it either from Perth or within 9-hour drive from Exmouth. Otherwise, you can use a local Solomon airport. The Park is famous for its ancient geological formations with rock tunnels, rock pools, and waterfalls. It is possible to see such typical Australian inhabitants like Wallaroo, Echidna, Red Kangaroo as well as Bats, Legless Lizards, and even Python in the Park. There is a special Karijini Eco Retreat located on the territory of the Park where you can stay in eco-tents and enjoy meals at a restaurant.
Cape Range National Park
This Park you can enjoy while driving between Exmouth and Coral Bay along the coast of Ningaloo Reef. This area is famous for its alien landscapes which appeared due to water and wind erosion. You can find deep canyons, caves and plateaus in the Park as well as many Australian species of flora and fauna like Hill Wallaroo, Red Kangaroos, Emus, Rock Wallabies, and many others. It is also possible to explore the beauties of Yardie Creek Gorge which is located in the Park. Some boat operators offer boat tours along this canyon.