Strewth! Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia is knee-bucklingly beautiful: blood-red earth, bone-white sand and cloudless skies as azure as the sea. Then there are the locals: the underwater ones with fins, gills and polka dots; the overwater ones with wings, beaks and twiggy limbs; even the familiar-looking ones with two legs.
Here’s who to hang out with on the kaleidoscopic Coral Coast – if you can tear yourself away from the tented splendour of Sal Salis, that is.
MEET: THE MANTAS
Whoever nicknamed mantas ‘devilfish’ needs to wash their mouth out with soap and seawater: swim alongside these giant cloak-shaped rays in Coral Bay – a two-hour drive from Exmouth – and you’ll see they’re more like benign moths, bumbling through the waters with placid grace. If you want to accelerate your relationship, bring them a box of plankton – they can’t get enough of the stuff. That said, we advise you to leave your manta-shaped swimwear at home if there’s a full moon, which prompts the gents to get frisky and triggers their mating rituals. You have been warned. Mantas are sociable types – they might swim beside or around you, or even jump out of the water, for no apparent reason. Show-offs.
Need to know The best time of the year for manta-spying is mid-May until mid–September. Try Ningaloo Reef Dive & Snorkel.
MEET: THE WHALE SHARKS
Jaws gets too much press. He doesn’t even look like a shark, and his whole revenge-thing just reveals a one-track mind. (His theme tune is quite good, though.) We’d much rather spend an afternoon with a whale shark, which we rate for their fashion-forward commitment to polka dots and their size, as the largest fish species. The biggest on record was 41.5 ft and more than 30 tons. BIG. Local tours in Ningaloo Marine Park – which stretches for 280 kilometres south along the North-West Cape – often use spotter planes to catch sight of these mammoth creatures.
Need to know The best time of the year for swimming with whale sharks is March–July. You may have seen photos of divers catching a ride on the sharks, but it’s not encouraged – keep yer hands to yerself. Let Ningaloo Whalesharks take you out.
MEET: THE DUGONGS
If you ever needed proof that Australia attracts some of the world’s most bonkers wildlife, just look to the dugong – a seagrass-munching mammal that’s related to the elephant. Its name means ‘lady of the sea’; its less-polite nicknames include: ‘sea cow’, ‘sea pig’ and ‘sea camel’.
Need to know Dugongs hang out in warm coastal waters from the western Pacific Ocean to the eastern coast of Africa; you’re most likely to meet them in Ningaloo between May and November. All the local marine tour operators spy for dugongs in season. And remember, they may look cuddly, but these bloated beasts are shy creatures, so don’t give it the glad-hands.
MEET: THE TURTLES
Disclaimer: if there are no turtles around, you might meet two tour guides pretending to be turtles mating (and hatching eggs). This is still entertaining. But, if you’re lucky, you’ll see the real McCoys trudging up the sand to drop anchor (or bums) on the shore and hatch their eggs. Before you start viewing between Hunters and Mauritius beaches, you’ll get a crash course in all things turtle at the Jurabi Turtle Centre, including how to spot the three threatened species: the Green, Loggerhead and Hawksbill.
Need to know Nesting season is November–January; hatching is from January–March. The turtle centre is 13km from Exmouth township; guided tours cause much less disturbance to the turtles than bungling amateur intrusions.
MEET: THE EMUS
There are not many places where emus bop nonchalantly down the high street, having a little peck here, a little peck there. But Exmouth is one of these places. Dwarfed only by the ostrich, emus often reach over 6ft in height. Things you did not know about emus: they can go for weeks without eating; males incubate the eggs; they star in Australia’s coat of arms and in indigenous Australian mythology.
Need to know Emus are alleged to have good road sense because they look both ways before they cross; that said, they frequently decide to cross even when a car is coming, so drive very carefully round these parts.
MEET: THE LOCALS (OR DON’T*)
For the best introduction to the cast of colourful characters who make Exmouth their home – including ancient Mrs Mac, who is nearly 100 years old and has survived several cyclones – have a drink and a meal in the tiny township. Avoid the sinister-looking Chinese restaurant; instead, opt for a fishy feast at Whalers. The chef is ex–New Orleans (a lot of people here are not from here), which shows in his faultless barbecue sauces and all-in-your-grill approach to the region’s succulent seafood. Try ‘bug’ (slipper lobster). If you’re feeling brave, go for a post-dinner drink; you might encounter the lively staff of local fashion boutique Idaho. If they take a shine to you, you’ll be an honorary ‘Idaho’.
Need to know Leave your inhibitions at home.
*If you really don’t want to make new friends, hide away with your favourite human at seductive Sal Salis, instead.
Our friends at Western Australia are offering one lucky winner – and their Mr or Mrs Smith – the chance to win three nights at the artsy Alex Hotel, in the heart of Perth’s cultural quarter, followed by four nights at El Questro Homestead, a rugged riverside retreat in the Kimberley Plateau wilderness. The prize includes return flights and lots more.