Western Australia: A whale of a time

By Paul Rush

On Western Australia's timeless Coral Coast, Paul Rush meets the ocean's ageless inhabitants.

Snorkellers have a close encounter with a whale shark at Ningaloo Marine Park.
Snorkellers have a close encounter with a whale shark at Ningaloo Marine Park.

"Have you seen the rest of Western Australia yet?" asks the hotel concierge with more than a hint of pride.

I'm in Perth, a wonderful city of one and a half million, which feels about as laid-back, easy going and friendly as Auckland. I've sufficient time for a five-day visit somewhere in this vast, sunburnt, timeless land. The place I'm looking for will be far from civilization, where the sun shines every day of the year and the sea is warm and clear.

I'm told that Exmouth is such a place. The town sits on a peninsula some 1200km north of Perth, where the Western Australian coastline takes an abrupt right hand turn, hurrying towards the pearly pleasures of Broome.

Stepping off a two-hour flight I'm surprised to find that the isolated coastal town of Exmouth has an upmarket hotel, marina and residential canal development. I know there's a mining boom in Western Australia but can this tidal wave of wealth wash up the entire coastline? Seemingly it can.

With so much on offer, I start my adventure with a Cape Range Safari 4WD tour and stand on rugged, sun-burnt ridges to look down on Shothole Canyon, which spills out onto parched, scrubby plains covered with wildflowers.

Red kangaroos, emus and black-footed rock wallabies run free over the rust-red dirt while bustards, sea eagles and ospreys are ever vigilant, soaring on the thermals.

Visiting a popular Coral Bay watering hole I meet big, craggy Aussie men leaning on the bar. Their tanned skin is as tough as the Outback. Suspended over the bar is a two-metre long tube, which is unidentifiable. I just have to ask but immediately regret it. I'm taken in by another surprise - it's a whale's penis.

Here continent meets ocean in a blaze of colour: the rugged orange beauty of the Outback, the stunning turquoise waters of the Ningaloo Reef. At sunset the intensity is ratcheted up as the sky flames with a firestorm of orange, red and pink as the sun dips low over the Indian Ocean.

I enjoy a Caesar salad under the Vlamingh Lighthouse and sip a glass of Margaret River wine - pure bliss.

Breathtaking Ningaloo Reef is a highlight. At Australia's largest and most accessible fringing reef, you step straight off dazzling white sandy beaches and enter an underwater wonderland. Stretching 300km, Ningaloo Marine Park begins at Bundegi Reef in the Exmouth Gulf, skirts around North West Cape and ends at Red Bluff. It extends 10 nautical miles seaward and encompasses over 5000sq km of ocean.

In March and April coral polyps release a vast cloud of pink eggs and sperm, which attract plankton, krill and a somewhat larger predator, the massive whale shark. This gentle giant filter feeder is the largest fish in the ocean.

On a glorious sunny day I don mask, snorkel and fins and commit myself to the deep blue waters of the Indian Ocean.

The logistics of whale shark watching include a spotter plane and a very fast catamaran, so within seconds of entering the water with a group of snorkellers, a huge grey shape emerges from the blue void. A broad flat head and metre-wide frog-like mouth is heading straight for me. My silent scream is lost in the depths. I plunge sideways as a long drooping pectoral fin brushes past my chest.

I'm mesmerised by the checkerboard pattern of white star-bursts over the whale shark's huge flank. They are as bright as the Milky Way galaxy on a clear night, glistening under the slanting shafts of sunlight. The dark outline of the dorsal fin rises up like a submarine conning tower. The last thing I see is the crescent-shaped tail flexing gently as it propels the gentle giant into the dark void of inner space.

We are all wide-eyed and bouncing off the walls with exhilaration on the way back to base, as the crew continues to relate dramatic tales of close encounters with marine wildlife on the reef.

Blue whales, the largest creatures on the planet, have been sighted recently, along with orcas, humpback whales, dolphins, giant manta rays and cute loggerhead turtles.

Travelling south down the North West Coastal Highway I reach Shark Bay, the largest bay in the Southern Hemisphere, forming a distinctive 'W' shape. The bay supports a profusion of aquatic life; whales, sharks, dugongs, tropical fish, sea snakes, prawns and turtles. The foundation of Shark Bay's ecosystem is a vast meadow of sea grass, the largest in the world.

"Get down to the water - the dolphins are coming!" A cry goes up just as dawn breaks over the small seaside settlement of Monkey Mia.

I stand ankle-deep in water with a group of dedicated nature lovers, absorbing the first warm rays of sunlight and marveling at the sight of eight dolphins finning inshore of their own free will.

Carefully taking a small bait fish from a bucket, I place it under a dolphin's long beak (called a rostrum). Within the blink of a cetacean eye, the fish is swallowed and angelic Nicky looks up at me with eyes glowing with intelligence and a benign expression that seems to say "Are there more fish in the bucket cobber?"

Feeding dolphins at Monkey Mia.
Feeding dolphins at Monkey Mia.

I offer another fish and it's taken with remarkable dexterity. There will be just three more morsels for this dolphin or she may be tempted to linger at the feeding line all morning.

She receives some gentle human counselling in the form of an upturned bucket of water, a clear signal that the first breakfast sitting is over. She responds by rolling over and nodding her head, then reluctantly departs, her sleek, smooth skin glistening in the sunlight.

"Hello, we've got some excitement here!" A ranger cries out as she moves to intercept twelve-year-old female Tia who likes to stir up the babies.

She tells us "Dolphins are sensitive creatures and from their pre-teen years they express their sexuality in a very touchy, feely way."

Tia is preparing for motherhood in a singularly dolphin-like way, stealing babies off their mums. She comes swirling inshore straight for a baby and slams on the brakes just before a collision occurs. The babies don't know technical stuff like evasive action, so they beach themselves, squealing in terror. Tia just dives off to find another baby to torment.

For many travellers this kind of close encounter is the highlight of the visit to Western Australia. For the dolphins it's a major coup, training humans to line up on the water's edge and feed them.

A day out on the waters of Shark Bay with a deeply tanned, Indiana Jones-type eco-guide brings me face to face with raw nature. A lone female dolphin is wearing a soft cone-shaped sponge over its rostrum. This is a rare sight and the only known example of a marine mammal using a tool. This dolphin forages on the seabed using the sponge as protection against cuts and abrasions from bivalve shells.

Our goal is to find the shy, retiring dugong or sea cow, the origin of the ancient mariner's myth of mermaids and sirens luring fearful sailors to their doom.

The dugong we spot hovering in the water like a broad speed hump on the ocean looks incapable of luring even the most gullible of seafarers after a double ration of rum. It raises its seal-like, whiskered snout and views us with complete disdain. The massive herbivore is just enjoying the luxury of being lazy, placid and defenceless.

As we return to the jetty, over one of the bluest oceans in the world, a loggerhead turtle pops up to say hello. The turtle is just one more of the gentle creatures that inhabit Western Australia's famed Coral Coast.

Sometimes the real holiday gems like this are off the beaten track. For me, Exmouth and Monkey Mia are bucket list destinations that are just too good to miss.

Western Australia Top 10

1. The World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef is one of the largest and most biodiverse fringing reefs on the planet, and of all the top things to see in Australia, it's among the easiest to access.

2. Step off the beach and snorkel in the shallows of the lagoon or dive deeper offshore waters with a multitude of colourful corals and more than 500 species of fish.

3. Ningaloo Reef and Exmouth diving sites are internationally recognised as some of the most ecologically diverse marine environments in the world. The Navy Pier is rated by many world famous diving figures as one of the best pier dives on Earth.

4. Many creatures regularly visit Ningaloo Reef including the world's biggest fish, the whale shark. Experience the exhilaration as you swim beside these gentle giants (mid March through until mid July).

5. Enjoy a close encounter with some other amazing marine animals - try kayaking with turtles and dugongs in the Ningaloo Marine Park. The region is also known for its majestic manta rays, sea turtles and dugongs.

Shark Bay World Heritage Area

6. Renowned as one of the best and most reliable places for dolphin interaction in the world, Monkey Mia is the only place in Australia where dolphins visit daily, not just seasonally. The friendly pod of wild bottlenose dolphins regularly swim to Monkey Mia's shore to interact with humans up to three times a day.

7. Beautiful snow-white Shell Beach is made up of millions of tiny shells up to 10 metres deep and stretching for over 120 kilometres. On a still day, the ocean at Shell Beach transforms into a palette of the most intense greens blues.

8. The Hamelin Pool stromatolites are the oldest and largest living fossils on earth. Stromatolites are considered 'living fossils', part of the Earth's evolutionary history. A visit to the remarkable Hamelin Pool stromatolites in Western Australia is a must and gives an indication of what the earth may have looked like about 3.5 billion years ago.

9. The Pinnacles Desert and Nambung National Park is a must see. These amazing natural limestone structures, some standing as high as five metres, were formed approximately 25,000 to 30,000 years ago, after the sea receded and left deposits of sea shells.

10. Kalbarri National Park offers superb walking trails and abseiling spots. The park also boasts over 800 species of wildflowers which create an awe-inspiring display - see them at their best between July to November.

IF YOU GO

Best time to travel: Whale shark season is from March until July.

Getting there: Fly Air New Zealand non-stop to Perth from Auckland, via Auckland ex all other Air New Zealand domestic airports or via Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane with our Alliance partner Virgin Australia.

For more information visit: myaustraliapassion.co.nz.

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