We were bumping up and down as the boat sped across the top of the waves towards the Great Barrier Reef. Only 25 minutes into the 60-minute journey from Cairns and tourists had already taken themselves to the back of the boat to throw up overboard. As we neared the reef, exuberant, tanned guys with bleached hair , who doubtlessly spend their winter on the slopes, instructed us about safety and respecting the reef. We donned our stinger suits, flippers, goggles and snorkel and dived in.
On the sail back, while chatting to one of the instructors who had spent time in Scotland, we heard on the radio that UNESCO had decided not to place the Great Barrier Reef on the endangered list (and again just recently). Some in Australia were disappointed by this, hoping that being put on the list would prompt action to protect the reef: the death of coral is real, the colour has faded and sea life is less abundant.
Ningaloo Reef is on the other side of Australia from the Great Barrier Reef, at the northwestern tip. I had never heard about it before coming here and even among Australians you often get a puzzled look when you mention it. The nearest town is a little place called Exmouth, which has about 7000 people living in it and is 1270 kilometres north of Perth. It’s a new town, only established in the 1960s to support a US naval communication centre.
Ningaloo Reef is off Cape Range National Park and there is no accommodation in the national park, meaning that if you want to stay in the park, you take a motorhome, campervan or tent. And, even then, there are only about 80 camping spaces in the whole park. There are no restaurants, no bars, no shops and no mobile phone reception. There’s you, whoever you came with, whatever you came in with and whatever you brought with you. But a whole other world awaits just the other side of the sand dunes.
If you walked the 50 metres from your campervan onto the beach and into the water until it was chest high, you could stick your head underwater and be transported into a wonderland quicker than falling down any rabbit hole. You would immediately see the colours, shapes and swimming styles of fish that you had never seen before, or even imagined. It’s a whole other world dancing in technicolour just inches below the water’s surface. And it’s a world in which we are slightly ill suited; maybe even out of our depth.
In the array of sea life, be it tiny darting fish, languid turtles, alien looking rays or gigantic whales, none have any resemblance to a human form. I know of the evolutionary theories that our ancestors ascended from water to land, but now it even takes us giant efforts just to get into the water. A person trying to get in a wetsuit is like somebody trying to extricate themselves from a straightjacket, and then we strap goggles around our heads to see and fasten on a tube for breathing. The absurdity is heightened by the people flapping like clowns with oversized fins on their feet.
The unfamiliarity of this alien world does make it completely immersing and mesmerising though. An hour would go by just swimming around being amazed at the creatures swimming beside and around you, and yet it would feel like 20 minutes. During my first swim, I saw a turtle gently waft its flippers and mosey on without a care in the watery world. I came across a ray lying on the seabed covered in sand – and waited. And waited. I just wanted to see it swim off but it was still there when I came back 15 minutes later. And only just as I was about to turn away with impatient disgust did it shake itself from the seabed. It was gone before I realised what I was seeing.
I would go back to the beach and, like a little kid who had just come his favourite rollercoaster, I would want to run straight back in for another shot. But there were sights to be seen from the beach too.
There’s an old lighthouse on a hill at the tip of Cape Range providing a view of the ocean for miles either side. From there, we had been watching humpback whales blow and slap their fins on the water through binoculars. Descending the road to the beach, one whale suddenly rose out of the water, twisted and slapped its back onto the water. The ridiculousness of the whale’s size, its appearance from nowhere right in front of us, and the crash of it against the water, induced spontaneous laughter. We settled down on the beach and watched a few of them go past, breaching, blowing and slapping as they did.
A couple of days later, we were out in a boat amongst them, seeing their incomprehensible size up close. However, the humpback whale was playing second fiddle to the whale shark that day.
The whale shark is the biggest fish in the sea and can grow to over 10 metres long. Their huge wide mouth hoovers up plankton (krill, fish eggs, crab larvae, small squid) as they meander their way around the ocean. Their slow, predictable movement, allied with a distaste for human flesh, means that they are ideal sharks for tourists to hop in the water with and swim as close as three metres away.
I’m quite long for a human but I felt like a tadpole swimming next to a whale shark, and from behind I was gobsmacked at the height of its tail fin, which would be taller than me. I had seen skeletons of whales and sharks in museums before but my imagination had failed to render what it would be like alive and real just metres from my fingers. It was mind-boggling to be with.
We were told that it was only in the late 80s or early 90s that a local doctor, who was a keen fisherman, realised the regularity of whale sharks and humpbacks visiting the area. While he didn’t keep it a secret, the number of people visiting Exmouth and Ningaloo Reef is miniscule compared to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef.
Looking at Exmouth and around the surrounding area, there are not many reasons why you would want to live there other than Ningaloo Reef and the sea life. I began to think that the people who live there do so because they don’t want to live in cities or be surrounded by humans and all of the things that we build. They want to be away from it all, free to explore a world of fish, sharks, dolphins and whales without being interrupted by 10 million tourists.
Of course, there are other people who do want you or I, and our dollars, there. Exmouth has a new tourist centre and there were new homes built along a man-made canal – perfect for holiday makers who want to go out fishing. It felt like a town on the precipice of change, and I was contributing to pushing it over the edge.
Despite being on a boat roaring away from the Great Barrier Reef, I was one of the people who wanted UNESCO to advise that the Great Barrier Reef is in danger. I want the Australian government to do something, but I obviously didn’t want them to stop tourists speeding there on high-powered boats, swimming around chasing sea life and accidentally touching and breaking off the odd bit of coral. The more we visit, the less it becomes. And the less it becomes, the more likely we are to begin searching for new wonderlands to gaze at, take photos of, and tell stories about. The less Great the Barrier Reef becomes, the more likely we are to find Ningaloo.
That’s what I did and it’s Ningaloo that I’m telling people about. Why would others not want to go and enjoy what I and thousands of others have? Why should they not have the chance to experience this watery wonderland? Why should they not explore a far-off corner of their country? But if they do, I wonder what will become of Ningaloo.
It doesn’t take much to imagine the angry muttering of local people as hordes descend to hunt the whale sharks with their underwater cameras. You can hear their frustration at the disregard shown for the fragile coral and sense their despair at having to close up home and move elsewhere to escape high-speed boats terrifying the fish just below. You can see them shaking their heads wondering why we couldn’t just leave the place alone.