They are about as far from Jaws as you can get. Despite their incredible size, whale sharks are gentle giants from another age, plankton-eaters that glide past watching humans without a second look. With a flick of their two-metre tails, they are gone. But watchers will never forget being in the presence of something so big, so awe-inspiring and yet so majestic.
Between April and July is a magical time on Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef. While there might be a chill in the air, below the surface of the balmy Indian Ocean, the majestic whale sharks are cutting gracefully through the water.
During these four precious months these creatures swim close to shore, and visitors can’t resist the opportunity to swim alongside them. It is one of the highlights of the Coral Coast and this pristine marine world entices visitors to return to this ancient spot.
The entire Ningaloo Coast, including Cape Range National Park and Ningaloo Marine Park, is a World Heritage Area. It sits halfway up the state’s expansive coastline, and alongside whale sharks you’ll find hundreds of different species of reef fish, a number of different whale species migrating from the south and a wonderful array of birds.
But aside from Ningaloo Reef, the Coral Coast has long attracted multitudes of overseas visitors, all looking for adventure along the rugged coastline. WA’s varying landscape means that visitors looking for a combination of sea and land-based adventures have the best of both worlds.
Last year, that state welcomed over 1.1 million visitors, domestic and international, who made their way to the Coral Coast. Some of the most popular activities included basking on the stunning white sandy beaches, hiking to see the pink lake at Hutt Lagoon or fishing for lobsters in the depths of the Indian Ocean.
The Coral Coast starts at Cervantes, a two-hour drive north of Perth, and runs over 1000 kilometres to Exmouth. There are brilliant outdoor activities at any time of year.
Cervantes is known for its proximity to Nambung National Park, a protected area which includes the Pinnacles Desert. These amazing natural limestone structures stand as high as 3.5 metres and were formed about 25,000 to 30,000 years ago. Over time, the coastal winds have blown away the sand, and what is left are the beautiful pillars.
The rock formations look like tombstones, or sharp knife-like points sticking up from the ground. This sandy barren desert is best explored on a four-wheel-drive tour, or get an aerial photograph of this spectacular ancient landscape on a half-day helicopter tour.
Just an hour inland, you’ll hit wildflower country as you pass through the farming towns of Badgingarra, Eneabba, Coorow, Carnamah, Three Springs and Mingenew. During late winter and spring, places such as the Coalseam Conservation Park which as far as the eye can see is blanketed with flowers, known as everlastings because they keep their colour and shape when dried. The landscape becomes a sea of white, pink and yellow. At the Oakabella Homestead in Northampton you’ll see some stunning wild orchids. Drop by the homestead’s cafe for a Devonshire tea.
But come the summer months, the heat stifles these wildflowers and orchids. You will still see plenty of bush flowers, including smoke bush, grevilleas, banksias and pink thryptomene beside the roads.
Heading back to sea, the Mediterranean climate makes Geraldton an attractive place for holidaymakers. In the summer, temperatures average at about 33°C but the winters drop to a low of 20°C, making it a destination where you can still enjoy the beach even in June, July and August.
The bustling town has a growing restaurant and café scene. Cafe Fleur on Marine Terrace is a must if you’re staying in Geraldton. The chefs make a mean eggs benedict with bacon, avocado and mushrooms, or if you’re popping in for a snack, they also do lovely scones with clotted cream and jam.
For a classic Aussie pub meal, the Geraldton Hotel is nothing fancy but serves good honest food. Built in 1858, it was once the meeting place for the local council. These days, instead of councillors, you’ll find chicken parmis and a range of fresh seafood dishes including chowder, local octopus with chorizo and a seafood platter with local crayfish.
Geraldton is the gateway to the Houtman Abrolhos Islands. Consisting of 122 islands, they are about 60 kilometres off the Geraldton Coast and the reef system is believed to have formed 120,000 years ago. For scuba divers and snorklers, it’s a paradise with crystal-clear blue waters and pristine reefs. The Batavia shipwreck lies in four to six metres of clear waters and has been voted the number-one dive spot in Western Australia. Visitors can take a daytrip by boat or plane, or if you have more time to linger, you can take a three- to nine-day charter yacht to discover the islands.
North of the town is Port Gregory, the home of one of Western Australia’s most Instagrammed spots, the Hutt Lagoon. More commonly known as the pink lake, it’s a popular holiday hotspot for fishing and diving.
The reason for the lake’s pink hue is the presence of an arotenoid-producing algae Dunaliella salina, a source of betacarotene and a precursor to vitamin A, as well as a food-colouring agent. Depending on the time of year that you visit, the lake could be coloured anything from bubblegum pink to lilac purple depending on the cloud coverage. And to get the best photo, there are a number of tour operators who will take you on a buggy tour over the dunes and to the Pink Lake. The guides will also point out all the different types of flora and fauna that proliferate along the bank.
Travel about 45 minutes north of Port Gregory and you’ll reach Kalbarri. One of the main attractions is the 541-million-year-old Tumblagooda Sandstone. Juxtaposed against the sea, the layers of red rock bed, trace fossils and ancient insect footprints of euthycarcinoids (an extinct group of arthropods) are a sight to behold.
This is the place for pictures, and you will see lovely hues of pinks, purples and oranges in the sky when the sun sets over the water. This part of the Kalbarri region offers adventurers spectacular hiking trails, the opportunity to quad bike along the beach as well as canoeing and kayaking excursions along the Murchison River.
This part of WA is still relatively untouched, so see it now before the crowds head to this ancient wonderland.