There were many things that inspired us to road trip Australia’s western coast, including the remoteness, the national parks, and the romantic idea of driving an empty road in the desert. No single motivator was quite as strong as the desire to dive Ningaloo Reef in Exmouth.
Exmouth is a tiny, tiny town about 13 hours and 1,247 kilometers north of Perth. It originated as a United States Communication Station in the 1960’s and while the base has since been turned over to the Australian government, the town has been there ever since. Now, Exmouth is famous for one thing and one thing only: some of the best diving in all of Australia, maybe even in the world.
The area garnered this reputation from two key attractions: Ningaloo Reef and the persistent opportunity to dive with whale sharks, which migrate up Australia’s coast through Ningaloo every year between March and September. While we were disappointed to have just missed the chance to see these fantastic giants, we did manage to arrive just in time for sea turtle mating season, which kind of made up for it.
On our way in to town we stopped at our chosen dive shop: Dive Ningaloo. We cannot recommend this company enough - we did a total of five dives with them over the course of three days and loved the experience. We also got the chance to dive Navy Pier with these guys, which is listed as one of the world’s top 10 dive sites (totally deserved).
Navy Pier is a dive site that is directly under and around the jetty on the active military base in Exmouth. Dive Ningaloo has exclusive rights to dive on these premises, another key reason we chose to dive with them. There are many rules and regulations in place due to the nature of the base, so if you choose to do this dive make sure you listen to what they have to say!
The dive is shallow and easy, only about 15 meters, and there isn’t much current. Typically, visibility can be quite low on this shore dive, but we got extremely lucky and had unusually high vis. Before we even could jump in the water we were watching dolphins play around just under the jetty. Then we got to jump in…
No fishing and lack of human visitors has made this dive site truly remarkable in its diversity. In the 45 minutes we were underwater we saw everything from grey reef sharks, sting rays, enormous groupers, fantastically colorful nudibranchs, flat worms, wobbegong sharks, and the largest hawksbill sea turtle any of us, including our guide, had ever seen.
We both agreed it was one of the best dives we had ever done. If you get the chance to dive in Exmouth, DO NOT miss this dive. YOU WILL REGRET IT AND FEEL FOOLISH IF YOU MISS THE CHANCE TO DIVE THIS DIVE. Friendly advice.
Also, keep your eyes open for the BFG (big friendly grouper) who lives under the jetty. This is the single largest fish I have ever seen in my life and he’ll come right up and say hello if you let him.
Our first day trip with Dive Ningaloo was to the Murion Islands. These two deserted islands offer an unbelievable amount of coral, micro life (like our friends the nudibranchs), and tropical fish. We didn’t catch a glimpse of any when we went, but you can also spot big rays and whale sharks out there when it’s the right time of year!
One thing we did manage to see is a ton of turtles. You couldn’t miss them because they were everywhere. Remember how I said it was sea turtle mating season when we went in October/November? The Murion Islands seem to be a personal favorite of theirs. We stopped for lunch and were able to snorkel to the beach to get a glimpse of them up close and it became a game of who could see the most. There must have been over 25 around that beach alone.
Take away: if you visit Exmouth and are bummed that you’ve also just managed to miss whale shark season, stick around for the turtles and they’ll more than make up for it. On our last night in town I managed to get up close and personal with a female digging her nest on the beach near the Jurabi Turtle Centre - it was sensational!
If you do decide to pay the ladies a visit during this season, be respectful and keep noise to a minimum and white lights off. It disturbs them and then you’re that asshole who ruined it for everyone else trying to catch a glimpse of the magic. Don’t be that guy. RED LIGHTS ONLY!!
Aside from the whale sharks cruising through during the winter season, the main diving attraction of Exmouth is definitely Ningaloo Reef. The entire Ningaloo Coast is listed as a protected World Heritage Site and is both the largest fringing coral reef in Australia and the only large reef in the world found so close to land. You can snorkel or dive this reef right from the beach if you want!
The most popular way to see the reef is to hop on a boat for a day (or two) from either Coral Bay or Exmouth. You see slightly different sides to the reef and we were told that you’re more likely to see big mantas from Coral Bay.
We didn’t get to see any of these gentle giants since we got our first stroke of bad luck and had a particularly windy day that made diving too far out in the reef impossible, but we still got an eyeful with sharks, rays, an octopus (!!), and even a sea snake streaking towards the surface above us.
Exmouth is a sensational place to dive and to stay. The town absolutely explodes with activity during peak season, so if you’re interested in heading there during whale shark season make sure you book in advance - it does fill up! As for us, I think it’s safe to say that the only thing we can do, since we missed them this time around, is find our way back to the west coast another time.