Australia’s Ningaloo Reef: whale sharks and world-class snorkeling and diving

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Enough about that other Australian reef. Ningaloo, located nearly 800 miles north of Perth in Western Australia, is where it’s at. “It” being an astonishing array of aquatic life, a lack of crowds, and plenty of budget-to-mid-range options including camping, backpackers, and smallish resorts.

In January, the Ningaloo Coast (which includes the160-mile-long reef/national marine park, Cape Range, and adjacent dune fields, marine areas, and islands) was nominated for a World Heritage listing, in recognition of the area’s “outstanding natural beauty, biological richness, and international geological significance.”

The world’s largest fringing reef (it grows directly from the shoreline, or a shallow backreef zone), Ningaloo also ranks near the top in terms of biodiversity, and the number of species found within a limited range. Unsurprising, then, that in a one-hour, offshore snorkel, I saw scads of impressive marine life (a large white-tip reef shark, giant potato cod, sea turtles, octopi, moray eels, countless fish) within arm’s reach. Depending upon the time of year, Ningaloo offers visitors the opportunity to view and/or swim with dolphins, dugongs, manta rays, sea turtles, sharks, and Humpback whales.What Ningaloo is best-known for, however, are whale sharks. The world’s largest fish, whale sharks are filter-feeders that can reach over 40 feet in length. Unlike most sharks, they swim by moving their entire bodies from side-to-side. Very little is known about these gentle, migratory creatures, in part because they don’t need to surface for air, and can remain on the ocean floor- at depths up to 2300 feet- for years at a time. They’re found in warm-temperate and tropical seas, but Ningaloo Reef is considered the most reliable spot to find them, when they congregate to feed off the coral spawn April through late June.

Although listed as “vulnerable to extinction,” enabling the public to swim with whale sharks is an incredibly effective way to promote education about the species, as well as aid researchers. In Australia, the animals are protected under the Wildlife Conservation Act, and Conservation and Land Management Act. Swims are strictly regulated by the Department of Environment and Conservation, including how many swimmers are allowed in the water at one time (10), and how far they must remain from the sharks (16 feet, and behind the pectoral fins). A spotter plane is used to locate the sharks, which are usually found up to several miles offshore.

Whale sharks have a pattern of spots marking their bodies that is distinct to each animal. At Ningaloo, swimmers are encouraged to use non-flash photography to capture the spot patterns behind their gills, and note any scars or other unusual features to help scientists track migratory patterns and keep a census.

It’s been a longtime goal of mine to swim with whale sharks, so when I found out an assignment in Australia coincided with their migration, I made arrangements to fly up to Ningaloo, via Learmonth Airport outside of Exmouth. Exmouth isn’t so much a town as it is a tourist pit-stop/marina in the midst of an arid, scrubby landscape of flat red earth and termite mounds, and approximately a bajillion emus, wallabies, and kangaroos. It’s a place of eerie, desolate beauty, and a stark contrast to the turquoise waters of the reef. Don’t expect to find anything to do besides swim, fish, dive, snorkel, and enjoy the scenery. For that reason, I’d recommend staying in one of the backpackers or campgrounds outside of town. All of the snorkel and dive boat outfitters will pick you up at your accommodation, regardless of where you’re staying.

I had my swim arranged as part of a package offered by Sal Salis, a two-year-old, tented, luxury eco-camp an hour south of Exmouth. The property is in the dunes just off the beach; my epic snorkel occurred right offshore. Sal Salis works exclusively with Ocean Eco Adventures to charter full-day, 16-passenger whale shark swims/reef snorkeling. Once onboard, we were issued wetsuits and snorkeling gear, and taken for a test swim to assess our abilities.

We were given explicit instructions on how to enter the water behind our guide, and the protocol for swimming with the sharks. After an “all-clear,” we were free to break away from the group and swim on the far (right) side of the sharks. Fortunately, my group consisted of a couple of kids and their parents, which meant they tagged behind the guide, in the shark’s wake. I was literally able to swim on my own. I should add that while slow-moving, keeping pace with a 25-foot shark for distances up to a mile (I asked) is no small feat. Even with fins on, I had to power swim using a combination sidestroke the entire way, so I could watch the shark while keeping out of range of its thrashing tail.

The exertion was well worth the effort. I’m a spiritually bankrupt sort, but swimming alongside such a magnificent animal is the closest I’ve ever come to a religious experience. There is simply no way to describe the feeling of being alone with a whale shark, in the blue gloom of the open ocean. The accompanying high of pushing myself to my physical limits added to my euphoria. Watching the sharks dive, trailing a clump of hitchhiking remoras from their pale underbellies, and disappear into the murky depths is the most beautiful, haunting thing I’ve ever seen.

By day’s end, we’d had four separate swims: two shorter runs beside smaller sharks (12 to 15-footers), the last two as described above. The boat had also been surrounded by a “super pod” of spinner dolphins that entertained us with their aerial acrobatics. It’s expensive (depending upon the operator and if you observe, snorkel, or dive, expect to spend at least $265/pp) but it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that has no equal. Just to make sure, I’m already saving up for the next time.
If you’d like to adopt a whale shark to aid with research costs, check out ECOCEAN.


[Video courtesy of Rolex Awards for Enterprise and ECOCEAN]

In the Heart of Central America: Diving the Bay Islands of Honduras

Honduras’ Bay Islands – the large islands of Roatan, Utila and Guanaja, plus Cayos Cochinos and the Swan Islands – sit about 40 miles off the coast of the mainland in the Caribbean Sea. While the islands are as beautiful as any others in the Caribbean and offer long sandy white beaches, turquoise water, and lush jungle landscapes, the biggest draw for most visitors is the area’s superb and low-cost diving.

Most visitors stay in Roatan, the largest and most developed of the islands. Home to about 35,000 people, it is the most-visited spot in Honduras. Flights take about 15 minutes from La Ceiba – as soon as the plane rises above the clouds, it starts its descent to the island – or an hour from San Pedro Sula (including a brief stop in La Ceiba). The flight on Taca Regional costs about $90 from La Ceiba or $250 from San Pedro Sula. There are other flight options, but for a fearful flyer, Taca’s modern planes were the most attractive.

Direct flights from the US are offered by several airlines. Taca arrives from Miami on Saturday and Sunday and Continental arrives from Houston on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday and from Atlanta on Saturdays. Even if you are flying within Honduras, it’s wise to know the large carrier schedules as lines at the airport can triple at times when flights to the US depart.The island is accessible by ferry as well. The Galaxy Wave carries up to 460 people at a time, takes just under an hour, and costs about $50. Private yacht charters are also available for $50 per person each way. Unfortunately, there is currently no land or air connection (unless by charter) between Roatan and Utila. You’ll have to backtrack through La Ceiba.

Roatan is the largest of the Bay Islands, but it is still quite small at about 30 miles long and 3.5 miles across at its widest point. At certain spots along the main road you can actually see the Caribbean Sea on both sides of your window. The island’s east side is much more undeveloped than the west, so if you are looking for a little bit of nightlife to go with your diving, stay in West End, a small one-lane collection of open-air restaurants, bars and shops that are just a few yards from the beach. Be sure to try some of the island’s fresh-from-the-sea seafood like shrimp, lobster and conch.

Roatan recently completed a new Port, located near the island’s capital of Coxen Hole, a collection of brightly-colored homes that house most of the island’s residents. The houses were painted so vibrantly so that early postal workers could identify houses that didn’t have addresses. Letters were simply addresses to Name, color of house, Coxen Hole. During high season, cruise ships will be docking every day (even twice a day sometimes) so steer clear of this otherwise mostly residential area if you want to avoid crowds. If you are arriving via cruise ship, you can book activities in advance and hop in a cab at the Port. Cab fare to most destinations on the island’s west side will cost under $10 each way. Just negotiate your fare before getting in.

There are over two dozen dive companies operating on Roatan. One of the most popular is Anthony’s Key, a full-service dive resort that’s been in operation for over 40 years. Rooms are located in wooden cabanas that are a short boat ride across the Lagoon from the main grounds and accommodations include three meals per day. Seven-night high season dive packages start at $2000 and include all meals, three days dives, two night dives, and additional excursions.

For kids and adults, one of the most exciting aspects of Anthony’s Key is the on-site Dolphin encounter. During the summer, the resort, in cooperation with the Roatan Institute for Marine Science (R.I.M.S.) offers kids the chance to be a dolphin trainer, with a week-long Dolphin Scuba Camp. The also offer dolphin encounters, dives, and snorkel activities. During the dolphin encounter, guests learn all about dolphins, how they interact, feed and survive in the wild. They can pet the dolphin, watch it perform tricks, and mug for the camera as the dolphin gives a soft, wet kiss on the cheek.

Snorkelers can swim freely with the dolphins, watching as the dolphins swim around and below them and play with one another. Dolphin dives are also available. During the dives, the dolphins are released into the open water and then interact with the divers near a shallow reef wall. At the end of the dives, sometimes the dolphins come back to the enclosure and sometimes they don’t. If not, the dolphin trainers say, they’ll always come back with the next boat.

If you’re looking for cheaper accommodations than those offered by Anthony’s Key, stay in West End and arrange for dives with a tour operator. In West End, you can also hit the beach, rent a jet ski for the day, or just relax with a few Salva Vida beers and some live music as you watch the sunset at places like The Dive Bar.

For divers on a budget, or those who want to get certified, Utila may be a better option than Roatan. Like Roatan, the waters around Utila are teeming with life. Divers can often encounter whale sharks, dolphins and manta rays as they swim along reefs and around shipwrecks and deep drop-offs. Both islands have easy access to the Mesoamerican reef, the largest reef in region. It’s over 1000km long and is home to over 500 species of fish, 1000 manatees, and several species of dolphins.

Known as the cheapest place in the world to get SCUBA certified, Utila is home to several operators offering very attractive prices. One dive with the Utila Dive Center is $35, a package of ten dives is $250. They also offer courses to become a certified SCUBA instructor. Rooms at the attached Mango Inn start at $10 for a dorm room to $70 for a deluxe room for two. Three nights in a deluxe room with PADI certification is $339 per person.

With beautiful beaches, some of the best and cheapest diving in the world, delicious fresh seafood, and a laid back lifestyle, the Bay Islands are the perfect place for dive enthusiasts and budget beach-bums to enjoy the Caribbean.

This trip was paid for by the Honduras Institute of Tourism, but the views expressed are entirely my own.

You can read other posts from my series on Honduras here.