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Published: April 28th 2017
So here we are on the road again, this time on a domestic visit to Western Australia. Four of us flew across from the east coast to Perth before first flying north to Exmouth for a few days. From there it was a flight back to Perth before driving a rental car south to Margaret River for a further few days, which will be covered in the next blog. While it is far from the only attraction in the Exmouth region, the opportunity to swim in close proximity to the whale sharks off the Ningaloo reef was clearly the main drawcard.
We were very lucky that the day we had booked well ahead of time for our Ningaloo cruise turned out to be a warm day with relatively calm seas, which significantly increases the chances of spotting the sharks. This is done in two ways - by a spotter plane above and spotters on board the cruise boat. So twenty of us tourists set off with five crew members from Ningaloo Discovery (yes, happy to give them the free plug) on the 60 foot refurbished vessel Highland Spirit, which was very comfortable, although it was a tad disappointing to miss
out on the newer 55 foot catamaran, Windcheetah, that is widely advertised. First stop was inside the reef, where we had around 30 minutes snorkelling amongst the coral and the tropical fish, but more importantly took the opportunity to test our snorkelling equipment and wetsuits, which were essential (and mandatory) given the prevalence of jellyfish in the region.
From there, it took us a further 45 minutes or so to move outside the reef to the traditional shark sighting area, awaiting the call from the spotters that the first shark had been sighted. Now here's the procedure for all you poor folks that have never had the pleasure of swimming with sharks, and that is 99.99 per cent of you we were gleefully advised by our hosts. We were split into two groups of 10, and each group would stand in readiness on the marlin platform at the back of the boat, in full readiness to jump in when signalled. So first into the water was the scout, who would determine the best location to view the shark and then signal to the group leader, who would then instruct the ten swimmers to jump in together and form a
straight line to move towards the shark, heads above water. They would do their best to align the line of snorkelers alongside the shark before giving the signal to all submerge and view the target. From there, all swimmers were on their own and dependent on how quickly the shark moved, could try to swim with it or around it, so long as they stayed away from the front of it and also made no attempt to touch it.
Words can't describe the exhilaration of that first sighting of what the scout reckoned was about a 6-7 metre whale shark gliding serenely just below you. We were incredibly lucky that on that day over a two hour period there were over a dozen sightings, so each group had the opportunity to do half a dozen dives. With each successive dive, we got more confident with understanding the movements of the sharks, which generally enabled us to stay under and track them for a longer period. I've started to hate this grossly overused word of the younger generation 'awesome' but perhaps for once this is an accurate description of this diving experience!
We were fortunate that the scout doubled
as a photographer, so we managed to get some good still shots of the experience, and these are attached. But luckier still for me, one of the guys on board had a GoPro video camera, and was kind enough to give me a copy of his video shots, which would have done National Geographic proud (thanks Nev, and good luck in retirement) . So I have a magnificent momento of the day that I only wish I could share with you all.
The following day we spent exploring the Cape Range National Park, which comprises a good proportion of the North West Cape, along with the beaches that span the west side of the cape. First stops were the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse and the wreck of the SS Mildura, both of which are situated at the northern tip of the cape. As we drove south along the western shore of the cape, we visited a number of the beaches, many of which contained relatively primitive campsites, and most of which had relatively calm snorkelling areas inside the reef. One thing that became very apparent was that we had been exceptionally lucky the previous day with the weather, as it
was pretty windy that day and we could see whitecaps beyond the reef which would have made shark spotting far more difficult, both in terms of locating the sharks and getting a good view of them from the water.
On our final day in the Exmouth region, we decided to venture inland. There is a low mountain range that runs along the spine of the national park which from the road looks fairly unimpressive but when visited probably produced our second highlight of the trip. We ventured down two unsealed roads that eventually led to spectacular scenic drives through a series of canyons. On the first drive, into the Charles Knife Gorge, we drove along the razor-backed ridges at the top of the gorge, which provided breathtaking downward views into the stark, multi-coloured gorges. Then the second drive, through the Shothole Canyon, took us over dry creek beds along the gorge floor, where this time we had to look up to view the colourful rock layers that made up the sheer canyon walls. The canyon was named after the shot holes left by explosive charges detonated by oil searchers in the 1950s.
We Aussies are pretty used to
seeing kangaroos in the wild once you get off the beaten track, but the sight of numerous emus (that's the Aussie ostrich for you overseas readers) wandering freely was a new and pleasurable experience for me. So from the North West Cape of Western Australia it was a flight back to Perth before venturing south to explore the touristy Margaret River region. Stay posted.
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