Dream big and encounter whale sharks, humpbacks, manta-rays and more in the other-worldly waters of Western Australia's remote Ningaloo Coast.
I’m sitting on the beach, looking out over Ningaloo Reef. The water is the colour of jade – but the sheerest, glassiest jade I have ever seen. Twenty metres out, I spot a dark-grey shadow. That’s the coral that lies beneath. Out beyond are the whitecaps of the breakers. And out beyond them are whales.
Well, I hope there are whales...
I’ve been rereading my diaries, remembering my travels. And when I find my entries on Ningaloo, that glorious World Heritage-listed site halfway up the coast of Western Australia, I am there. I can feel the bright white grains of sand beneath my feet. I can feel the temperature of the water as I slide off my kayak – cold but getting warmer. I can feel the thwack of sun on my back as I perch on a boat, my wetsuit rolled down to my waist.
And I want to be there again.
I went to Ningaloo Reef, which is about 1200 kilometres from Perth, for two reasons. One was to swim with humpbacks. The second was to realise a long-held dream to stay at Sal Salis, an eco-luxe “bush camp” on the beach that offers 15 glamping tents, fine food and more wildlife than I could dare to hope about.
My few days there were overwhelming. Driving to Sal Salis, we had to stop to let a blue-tongue lizard cross the road while an emu streaked through the scrub. Later, as I made my way to my tent, a wallaroo watched me inquisitively. The next morning, on a sunrise snorkel at nearby Blue Lagoon, it was as if the marine life saw my checklist and decided to help me tick it off in one go. Two tawny nurse sharks – each about three metres long – slumbered on the sand below while a blacktip reef shark thought it good sport to glide straight for me. A three-metre manta ray – its skin scratched like a piece of old leather – sliced through the water to my left. A turtle flew by so quickly that I couldn’t tell whether it was a green sea or loggerhead. It was an underwater experience as good as anything I’ve had during 20 years of visiting the Great Barrier Reef.
Sal Salis is described as being “where the outback meets the reef” and with good reason. If you drive in on the main road, look to the left, where the Cape Range looms above. To the right, the water is the colour you’d expect to see in the Maldives.
At 260 kilometres long, Ningaloo is the largest fringing reef in Australia and although it has abundant marine life, it hangs its hat on two drawcards: whale sharks and humpback whales.
Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world, growing up to 12 metres, and the best time to see them is from late March to July (although on my trip, in September, there were still a few around). The Ningaloo Coast has been offering whale shark swims for more than 30 years and the experience is gobsmacking – snorkellers cluster in the ocean and wait for the enormous creatures to glide by.
Swimming with humpbacks, from August to October, is a newer proposition. The Department of Parks and Wildlife agreed to trial the experience in 2016 and last year announced that it would transition to a licensed industry (the date of which may change due to COVID-19). Either way, there are stringent regulations. On entering the water, swimmers must be at least 75 metres from the whales (150 metres if they’re travelling) and only seven guests plus crew can be in the water at one time. And they cannot enter if a calf that’s less than half the size of the mother is nearby. It’s up to the skipper to determine whether it’s safe for both the swimmers and the whales.
When I boarded Live Ningaloo’s 40-foot Wave Rider, I tried to rein in my expectations. I remember Katie, an effervescent marine ecologist, reeling off the rules. No flash photography, no touching the whales and no chasing after them. “We want them to interact with us,” she said, “not us with them.”
Murray Pattison, the owner of Exmouth’s Live Ningaloo and the captain for my trip, stayed in constant communication with Ningaloo Aviation. Tiff, who was piloting the spotter plane that flew above us, directed the crew to where we needed to be. “We’re right in the middle of the migration,” Pattison told me, “with some going north and some going south.”
Despite the numbers – it’s thought that 30,000 humpbacks pass through the area during migration – finding whales is no easy task. “I draw a picture in my head of where they are and where I think they’re going,” said Pattison, a former superyacht captain who moved to Exmouth more than 10 years ago. “I also think about visibility. If I drop you in the water and you can’t see 10 metres away, that’s no use. And it’s a safety issue with these animals.”
As we motored along, we saw moon jellyfish and the odd turtle. Then there was a crackle over the radio and Pattison started smiling. “Well, that’s good news,” he said. “There’s one south, one heading north and two pods of two heading south.”
He decided to go for one of the solo whales first and within minutes I was suited up and sitting on the back of the boat, ready to plunge in. Live Ningaloo is unique in that it takes a maximum of 10 guests and one group of seven swims, along with two crew members.
Katie had a waterproof radio in her hand – a direct line to Tiff above us – and we swam west until Tiff told us that the whale was 50 metres from us and heading our way. “Put your head under, put your head under,” exhorted Katie and, my heart in my mouth, I did as I was told, searching through the sheer blue for my first humpback whale. He was below me and he was fast – like a submarine on a rescue mission.
It was over in seconds and I felt a strange mix of adrenaline and deflation. It was too fleeting to really feel something but then I reminded myself that a 15-metre whale swam a few metres below me. And how many people get to experience that?
“We call that a drive-by,” said Pattison, visibly relieved. He’s been known to keep the boat (and the plane) out for prolonged periods in the hope of securing a sighting. “I’m competitive. I want everyone to have an amazing experience.”
It’s his nature – and that of his partner and co-founder in the business, Sonia Beckwith – that’s keeping things going during the COVID-19 crisis. “We’re trying to stay optimistic,” says Pattison. “We’re a small business and a new business. We were entering our fifth year and this was going to be our breakout year. We’d sold out our whale shark tours and already had 33 per cent of our humpback tours pre-sold, which is good for a new product but I wanted it to be 20 per cent up this year. We had more than $500,000 going into the season, which is a lot for a small business.”
In March – just as the whale shark season was about to kick off – they had to let go of all their staff and because the business is seasonal, the couple is looking at up to 18 months without an income. When I check in on them during the crisis, Beckwith tells me that Pattison is quoting an outboard motor repair. “He’s a qualified mechanic and while we are closed it’s what’s feeding us.”
Pattison shakes his head when we catch up via videoconference. “I just want to get back out there. We’re ready to go now.” (Live Ningaloo is now runnings its 10-person Life on Ningaloo Swimming Tour until the end of October).
And trust me, he’s great at what he does. On my visit, the “drive-by” didn’t satisfy Pattison. He was intent on getting us to one of the pods and found two further north. Flippers and masks on, we plunged back into the water.
I found out later that they were probably two males, somewhere between two and five years of age, about 16 metres long. I knew none of that in the water. What I did know was they were a whole lot more interested than the first whale and they were heading straight for us. I could see the slick of their skin, the barnacles on their tails, the pleating of their bellies. They glided past and turned back. They were below us again, rolling and showing off. I actually looked straight into the eye of a humpback whale.
In fact, they came so close that Katie yanked me back, away from the flick of an enormous tail. I felt a bubble of fear then exhilaration took hold. I couldn’t help myself – I squealed into my snorkel.
I spent six minutes with them. “You’ve seen the best of nature,” said Pattison. “They chose to interact with you. This is a particularly good pod.” Tiff whooped from the air. “This is in the top 10!”
It’s a strange thing, swimming with whales. It makes you feel so small. It makes you feel so big. And now, more than ever, I want to do it all again.
Accommodation at Sal Salis
There’s something very special about Sal Salis, which is open from March to November. A cluster of “wilderness tents” nestled into the dunes in Cape Range National Park, it offers a natural experience that doesn’t sacrifice creature comforts (each tent has a king-sized bed and ensuite) while prioritising sustainability (solar power and water conservation).
There’s no wi-fi or phone coverage at Sal Salis. No TV or radio. The focus is on incredible outdoor activities, from snorkelling at Turquoise Bay (look out for turtles) to hiking at Pilgonaman Gorge (where you might see black-footed rock wallabies).
And there’s great food. The evenings are all about Sundowners and dinner by candlelight. Local seafood features prominently on the menu – expect to try goldband snapper or Exmouth bugs – and all meals and drinks are included in the daily tariff.
After you’re sated and are wandering back to your safari-style tent, lantern in hand, remember to look up. The stars are like nothing else. Each night, I lay on the sand, spellbound by the show that played out above me.