The Ningaloo Reef
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The Ningaloo Reef

The Ningaloo Reef

Rugged epiphany

Imagine a promontory shaped like a beckoning finger, nearly 200 km long and jutting into the Indian Ocean. Try to comprehend a landscape that is one of the driest in Australia – with a mere 226mm of rain and an evaporation rate of more than 2.5m annually. Some years, if there isn’t a cyclone, it doesn’t rain at all. On average, the sun shines 320 days out of 365.

Ningaloo is famous not just for its reef, surf breaks and fishing but also its soul-destroying winds, white-hot 45°C temperatures and frontier-like feel. The harshness of the landscape, the swarms of native wasps and bush flies, the fine sand that blows into every nook and cranny, and the burning sun make its gentler moments seem like epiphanies.

Standing sentinel over the northern reef is the Cape Range, a rugged upward fold of limestone packed with fossilised prehistoric marine life including countless perfectly preserved shark teeth that are embedded in the rock and visible to the naked eye.

Inside the boundaries of the surrounding 47,655 ha Cape Range National Park is Mandu Mandu rock shelter, part of a massive system of sinkholes and caves that underpin the peninsula’s weathered spine. Here, archaeologists have confirmed the oldest evidence of the collection and use of fish, shellfish and crabs by indigenous Australians – an astonishing 32,000 years.

Ningaloo Reef itself stretches from the skyscraper-high military radio antennas, just outside Exmouth, southwards for almost 300km. It’s the nation’s longest fringing coral reef and the name­sake of the 5218 sq.km Ningaloo Marine Park.

Anyone expecting to find a miniature Great Barrier Reef, however, has come to the wrong place. Instead of rainforest meeting the sea, it’s spinifex and sand dunes. Instead of big tourist cities like Cairns or Townsville, the Ningaloo coast has Exmouth with its population of just 2400. Visitors arriving at Learmonth Airport, 35km to the south of town, are as likely to meet a worker on their way to an oil rig or a defence official as a backpacker. In fact, upon landing, flight attendants request no one take any photographs for security reasons. Even so, the WA Department of Parks and Wildlife says in terms of visitor numbers the region is growing fast. Annual visitation was around 300,000 in 2006, and increasing at up to 10 per cent a year.

The Ningaloo reef is 260 km long and is one the largest fringing coral reefs in the world.  Interestingly it is also only one of two coral reefs in the world that have formed on the western side of a continent.  Fringing coral reefs are generally much closer to land than other reefs and the Ningaloo at some sections comes a close as 10m to shore!  

The Ningaloo reef protects a lagoon that is on average only 2-4 metres deep and is rich in marine life.

Exmouth is also the closest mainland town to the continental shelf.  Having the continental shelf, just a few miles from land means there is up-welling and as a result in the waters of Ningaloo reef being very rich in nutrients for fish and mammals.

What to see: The reef is most famous for its whale sharks which use the rich nutrient waters to feed, however during the winter months, the reef is part of the migratory routes for dolphins, dugongs, manta rays and humpback whales. The beaches of the reef are an important breeding ground of the loggerhead, green and hawksbill turtles. The Ningaloo reef supports an abundance of fish (500 species), corals (300 species), molluscs (600 species) and many other marine invertebrates.

Originally, tourists came to the Ningaloo for one reason only – fishing for game such as sailfish and marlin and the prized reef species spangled emperor. Few swam because the popular belief was that Ningaloo’s waters were shark-infested. When swimming did take off in the late 1980s, it remained focused on the whale sharks. There’s no doubt they are still the biggest attraction for many visitors, however so much more has developed in the interim.

Even surfers have begun making pilgrimages to Ningaloo’s increasingly famous reef breaks, including Lighthouse Bay and Tantabiddi, at the northern reach of the marine park, and Red Bluff and Gnaraloo – which is also a mecca for international wind and kite surfers – in the south.

Source: Australian Geographic Oct – Dec 2006