Ningaloo Reef is one of Western Australia’s jewels and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It stretches along the Ningaloo coast. At 260 kilometres, it is the largest fringing coral reef in Australia. And in some places it is only a few hundred metres from the beach.
Everyone knows Australia for its Great Barrier Reef, which is certainly one of Queensland’s most beautiful destinations. However, it is Ningaloo that may well be Australia’s true jewel in the crown when it comes to tropical marine life. Although the Great Barrier Reef is still worth diving, it is currently suffering from coral bleaching, and although Ningaloo is an equally sensitive area requiring great care, it is still rich in fish and other colourful animals.
How do I get to the Ningaloo Reef?
The only real way to travel to Ningaloo Reef is by road. The west coast of Australia is not served by public buses. So to visit Ningaloo Reef, you really need to arrange your own transport. This can be your own car or a carpool. More often than not, a trip to Ningaloo is part of a longer road trip in Western Australia.
Coral Bay is about 1200km from Perth by road and 150km south of Exmouth. It’s about a 13 hour drive from Perth. There is also an airport at Exmouth, but like most small airports in Western Australia, flights are quite expensive.
Qantas Link fly from the Perth Airport Domestic Terminal, every day. This flight is on a 100 seat jet that takes 1hr 30 minutes to arrive into the local airport, Learmonth. Cost of these flights are suseptable to peak demand pricing, so it is always better to book as far ahead as possible. A bus meets every flight & the transfer directly to your hotel costs $40 per person, credit card facilities may not be available, so have some cash on hand.
Cities near Ningaloo Reef
The two destinations from which you will visit Ningaloo are Coral Bay and Exmouth. Coral Bay is a tiny resort. It has two campsites, a handful of hotels, a shop, a bakery, a few dive shops and two restaurants.
Exmouth is a bit larger. It has two IGAs, a few more dive shops, a café, a bar and more restaurants.
What to do in Ningaloo Reef?
1. Coral Bay
This is pretty easy to list because to be honest, there is not much to do in Coral Bay…
The beach is beautiful and you can snorkel right from the shore. There is also a great Italian restaurant which is perfect for parties. There are also a few excursions, including quad biking in the hinterland and various reef tours. Personally, I would recommend waiting until you are in Exmouth, as the activities there are more varied and cheaper.
In summary if you need a break and want to spend a day at the beach, Coral Bay is a great place to relax for a few days.
Visiting Ningaloo Reef becomes much more exciting when you get closer to Exmouth. As we said, Exmouth is a bit bigger and there is enough to do in the area to spend a few days!
Although the highlights of Exmouth are under the sea and at Cape Range, there are a few things to do in the town. Here are a few of them:
Vlamingh Head Lighthouse: Although the lighthouse is extremely disappointing, the sea view from the top is incredible and extraordinarily blue. This view is worth the rather difficult journey to get there.
SS Mildura Wreck: This wreck is an eerie reminder of the power of the sea in Western Australia. It is the wreck of a 1907 cattle steamer. The wreck lies just 80 metres from the shore.
The Big Prawn: Australia loves giant models (there’s a big banana in Coffs Harbour, a big kangaroo on the Nullarbor, on the border between South Australia and Western Australia, and many other things…). The Exmouth Contribution is a giant shrimp. It is located just outside the Exmouth Visitor Centre.
Little America: In the 1960s and 1970s, Exmouth was used as a US military base during the Cold War. There are ruins of these buildings on the outskirts of the town. This provides a somewhat strange but fascinating atmosphere. If you want to discover a “ghost town”, a walk through the “Little America” part of Exmouth is an interesting experience!
Potshot Memorial: The memorial commemorates Operation Potshot, which was a submarine base established in Exmouth. It was bombed in 1943 and damaged by a cyclone in 1945. A great place to visit for history buffs.
3. Cape Range National Park
This park, located just south of Exmouth, is a must-see when visiting Ningaloo Reef. It is an ideal destination for snorkelling, 4WD driving and some interesting hikes.
Here are the highlights of Cape Range National Park:
Charles Knife Canyon is a fun canyon to drive through. The entrance is before the sign for the town of Exmouth.
Shothole Canyon is only accessible by 4×4 and is accessed via a deserted backcountry road.
(Note: these two points of interest are only accessible from the road to Exmouth. The road to the other points of interest in Exmouth runs through the top of the town. It is therefore about an hour’s drive to both destinations. It is recommended that you do these two points of interest just before entering Exmouth.
Oyster Stacks is one of the best snorkelling sites in the entire Ningaloo Reef. There are lots of colourful fish, bizarre creatures and lots of reef.
Turquoise Bay is a beautiful beach that is really…. Well, turquoise. Under the water is the “giant coral land”. It’s full of huge coral formations that are incredible to swim around!
Yardie Creek, This is a colourful gorge where the water comes from the ocean all the time. You can walk along the trail, trying to spot black-footed rock wallabies and many bird species, as well as marine animals in the sheltered waters!
4. Diving at Ningaloo Reef
One of the best activities to do when travel to Ningaloo Reef is to dive to see what’s under the water. Navy Pier is known as one of the best dive sites in the world. It is a 300m long pier located 14km from Exmouth. It is a navy pier used by navy ships to maintain the naval base.
Dive Ningaloo holds the only licence for scuba diving trips to The Navy Pier, and the restricted access means the seabed is full of life. It has been described as an ‘oasis in a desert’ because of the colourful spectacle it offers, with bright fish and incredible biological diversity. The only problem is that diving at Navy Pier is sometimes so restricted that it is impossible to join the tours.
5. Swim with whale sharks at Exmouth
Being able to watch and swim with whale sharks in Exmouth is one of the best things you can do on the west coast of Australia.
Whale sharks are only present in Ningaloo waters from March to August. However the best times to see them are April, May and June. Outside of these months, Kings offers other tours. You may still be lucky enough to see whale sharks on these tours, but the company also tries to see manta rays, turtles and humpback whales.
6. Glass bottom boat trips from Exmouth
Glass bottom boat trips depart from Exmouth. They allow passengers to see the diversity of marine life through glass panels. Guests can snorkel among the plethora of colourful fish or enjoy the huge aquarium without leaving the boat.
7. Watch baby turtles being born
Imagine countless baby sea turtles leaving their nests and walking down the beach into the water for the very first time. Seeing this natural wonder is a privilege and a reality for visitors to the Ningaloo coast in February and March.
Human activity can have a huge impact on sea turtle nesting behaviour and egg survival. Seek advice from the Jurabi Turtle Centre, which promotes sustainable turtle tourism in the area. Their turtle eco-education tour is very popular. The WA Government Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions’ Turtle Watching Code of Conduct is also a good source of information.
8. Swim with a manta ray
Watching stingrays from the water’s edge on the beach is the goal for many visitors to Ningaloo. Watching them underwater is another challenge! Coral Bay Eco Tour’s marine safari will introduce you to one of the largest winged creatures in the ocean. With a wingspan of up to eight metres, it’s spectacular to see a manta gliding noiselessly through the ocean.
9. Watch humpback whales
Spectacular as they are, whale sharks and mantas don’t get all the attention of Ningaloo’s water adventure enthusiasts; these days you can also swim with humpback whales! Humpback whales gather in Exmouth Gulf from July to November to rest before continuing their great migration south (sometimes accompanied by their young). They can often be seen from the shore at Bundegi Beach, Town Beach, Pebble Beach and Vlamingh Head Lookout.
Live Ningaloo was one of the first tour operators to be licensed to offer humpback whale swimming experiences in the area in 2019. The trial was successful and it is now possible to swim with the whales. Live Ningaloo follows the best and safest practices to ensure guests enjoy the experience of a lifetime.
10. Enjoy a feast
For Australians, it wouldn’t be a coastal holiday if we didn’t enjoy the quintessential Australian meat pie at least once! The Coral Resort Bakery in Coral Bay is renowned for making some of the best baked goods in the region and you’ll rarely find the place empty. You’ll find everything from jam doughnuts to delicious salads.
Also try the plant-based dishes at The Social Society in Exmouth. SoSo’s vegan and vegetarian menu includes paleo, gluten-free and raw options. Whether it’s exhibiting local art, selling second-hand clothes or offering a playground for the little ones, community is at the heart of everything here. And the café is sensational!
11. Watch a sunset
With their vivid reds and oranges, subtle pinks and cooler purples, the sunsets at Ningaloo Reef are breathtaking. Even in an area where natural beauty is so abundant, there’s something very special about that moment at the end of the day. Sit on any beach or headland in the area and enjoy the show; no two shows are ever the same!