From my vantage point on the upper deck of Utopia, I watch Isobel glide gracefully through the turquoise ocean. Not a ripple disturbs the surface as she line feeds, scooping up plankton from the seabed. Only 50m offshore and in 2.5m of water her massive, 4m wide, black wingspan contrasts starkly against the sandy ocean floor.
This huge coastal creature is the most-sighted manta ray at Coral Bay, identified by unique markings on her white belly, which have been photographed and recorded on a database. Such information is integral to the research carried out by Frazer McGregor, who is completing a PhD in marine ecology, and co-owns Ningaloo Marine Interactions with Colin and Peta Walker. The men alternate as skipper aboard Utopia, a 39ft reef-friendly vessel on which they operate their eco-interaction tours at Ningaloo Marine Park.
Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef is Australia’s largest fringing coral reef, stretching 260km south from Exmouth and creating a protected lagoon around the unspoilt paradise of Coral Bay. Resident numbers swell from 220 to some 1800 at peak times, when tourists from around the world converge on the tiny town to see the 500 species of fish and 250 types of coral, situated 100m from shore, in just two to 4m of water.
With no teeth and no barb in their tail, mantas are harmless to humans. So, along with 18 other excited travellers, I fit my flippers, clear my snorkel and goggles, and slip into the balmy 28°C water to swim with Isobel. From above, the majestic manta appears to move sluggishly, but once I’m in the water, it’s a struggle to keep pace with her five-knot speed. I cease my frantic swimming and wait for her to spin and resume eating. The visibility is slightly clouded from the recent coral spawning but her huge, shadowy form is unmistakeable and I’m transfixed as she slides below me, oblivious to my magnified stare.
Frazer tells me 100 mantas have been sighted in this area at the one time, making it the second-largest known aggregation site on the planet.
Mantas are only one of the many awesome creatures we encounter on the tour. Two other snorkelling spots reveal colourful corals competing with each other for dominance and a myriad of fish flap their fins so close to my face, I can count their scales. I still my movements so as not to disturb a young turtle munching on seaweed.
Our underwater tour guides, Vickie and Sharma, point out features of interest and then lead us to the ‘cleaning station’ where small fish nibble parasites off two reef sharks. Chills ripple up my spine. They are small, but still look menacing, circling mere metres beneath us. It’s an infinitely more unnerving experience than observing them in an aquarium. Cruising between sites, dolphins stream through the water like torpedoes and we spot an elusive dugong. By the end of the tour, I am amazed at all I’ve witnessed.
We disembark at the jetty where a shuttle bus meets us for the short drive to the main street. Prior to the construction of a concrete ramp in 2007, cars would become bogged when launching boats from the beach in the bay. The boats’ continuous traversing damaged coral and was hazardous to swimmers. Though skippers are now directed through a marked channel least likely to damage coral, they must remain alert for the many marine animals which swim close to the surface, to avoid striking them with their boats.
HOOK YOUR DINNER
The next morning, prior to joining deep-sea fishing charter Sea Force, I swallow two Kwells to ward off seasickness. Owners, Adam and Peta Cottrell, welcome my fellow passengers – including families with young children, retired mates, and several young lads laden with beers. We climb aboard Valiant, a 50ft aluminium Westcoaster 54 that began life as a cray boat, but underwent a refit and is ideal for these conditions.
Beers are stowed in the esky provided and the serious fishermen claim their favourite spots. There are no fishing rods – instead, six winches are evenly spaced and bolted to each side of the boat. The winches are low-maintenance, simple to untangle, user-friendly and easy on bad backs – one wind equals almost one metre.
We’re told that in about two and a half hours, we’ll drop anchor at the first location. We could be lucky and catch our quota in 130m-deep water and return early. Or it may take up to 14 different stops before we hit the sweet spot.
“We work pretty hard to get everyone fish. We’re pretty proud like that. We want everyone to get a good feed or see at least everyone get value for money,” says Skipper Dane Quirk.
“The ocean is just a big desert. A lot of people have a misunderstanding that there are fish swimming around everywhere – there aren’t. There are only fish in certain areas where there’s structure to sustain life. They’re the areas where we actually fish.”
Dane thinks the new jetty is a double-edged sword: he’s thankful he no longer needs to refuel in the water, but worries that the increase in traffic has put extra pressure on the reef and fish stocks. He assures us that fish which are not good eating or undersized are thrown back.
While Dane gives a detailed safety demonstration, stressing not to use “the world’s smallest toilet” for vomiting, our deckie Michael is chopping up bait and emptying ice into the brines to keep the day’s catch fresh. After Dane is convinced no one has jinxed the trip by bringing bananas aboard, he climbs to the flybridge and the boat picks up speed.
There are only two ways boats can exit and enter through the reef from the boat ramp at Monk’s Head. The north passage, 5km north of Point Maud, is a less-direct route, but deemed the safer option as it’s wider and easier to navigate. The Yalobia (south) passage is west of the jetty, just beyond Five Fingers Reef. Even though it may appear calm, with only a narrow gap it’s considered potentially dangerous. As waves move in from the sea along Ningaloo Reef they are suddenly confronted by a rising seabed, causing them to break. The passage is unnavigable when swells reach 2m.
I have full confidence in Dane’s ability to keep us safe, but I’ve heard stories from seasoned fisherman about horrific trips through the south passage and my stomach clenches. It’s another hot day with temperatures tipped to reach the low 30s, but sitting under the shaded deck I notice the wind has picked up and the sea has become choppy.
Michael releases plastic blinds to prevent salt spray soaking everyone as the boat rears and slaps down with increasing regularity. Our skipper appears with the news we’re turning back as he won’t put his passengers through another 20nm of rough seas. I am both relieved and disappointed. Although we return empty handed, Dane explains he’d rather err on the side of caution than risk the entire group feeling miserable and throwing up their hard-earned money. “That’s where we’ve got a really good name – because we actually care.”
Later in the week, I wander down to the filleting tables to watch as Adam, Dane and Michael fillet and bag the day’s catch, while their passengers pose for selfies with goldband snapper, rankin cod, red emperor and deepwater cod. A small crowd gathers to hear tales of the ones that got away and to share a cold brew with the crew as Dane recalls that the biggest fish he’s ever seen caught in these waters was a 250kg marlin.
Sea Force refunds everyone’s money and the next day I am back at the boat ramp with our own 17ft Southwind in an attempt to catch dinner. My husband, Sean, rates the Coral Bay boat ramp facilities highly. They include numerous parking bays for trailers, while long jetties with two wide ramps allow multiple boats to launch and retrieve easily, limiting waiting times. The ramps allow for high and low tides.
Eager to try out his new fishfinder and chartplotter, we follow the markers for half an hour before reaching the north passage, just 2km offshore. We remain inside the reef where the depth is around 20m, the swell is minimal and the sounder beeps to indicate an abundance of fish.
Sean drops a lure and we begin to trawl. Within minutes he has a hook-up and, after a five-minute fight, lands a 1.2m spanish mackerel which is photographed and placed reverently on ice. We continue to trawl for another hour, catching and releasing a giant trevally and more mackerels. Satisfied, we head back, chaperoned by a pod of dolphins.
While Sean drives into town with our catch, a tender takes me to tour Sail Ningaloo’s luxurious liveaboard, purpose-built catamaran, Shore Thing. The aroma of freshly baked bread greets me ahead of owner and skipper Luke Riley. He and his wife, Lannie, offer various exclusive ‘marine safaris’ along Ningaloo Reef from early March through to December. Lannie coordinates flights, accommodation and transport to and from Learmonth airport, if required. The tours include mouth-watering gourmet meals, kayaking, casual fishing, snorkelling and scuba diving (additional cost) or the opportunity to just read and relax.
Designed to accommodate eight people, there is surprisingly plenty of privacy aboard Shore Thing. The vessel is deceptively spacious, with comfortable cabins, showers with ample elbowroom, an elegant saloon with television, and multiple deck areas. Luke convinces me that with an 8.3m beam, the 51ft boat is stable, ensuring the most delicate stomach remains queasy-free. The friendly crew provide a high level of service, including washing dishes. The only time a guest would need to lift a finger would be to raise a wine glass.
Back in the bay, I sit on the beach, sip my shiraz and gaze at the glistening ocean. The setting sun appears to create a sparkling diamond blanket, protecting the real treasures hidden beneath … like Isobel.