L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N: Ningaloo Reef

Thursday 13th February
We arrived in Coral Bay and the after checking in I went for a swim in the pool with G, Johanna and the Swiss girls whilst the others went to the beach. Jason soon joined us and after a while Nico came back from the beach and joined us as well. G told us about a game called ‘Marco Polo’ where one person has to close their eyes and catch people in the pool. The person in the centre has to say ‘Marco’ and the others respond with ‘Polo’ so the person knows where they are. After a while Joanna left when it was G’s turn so with the game really coming to an end I cheated and climbed out of the pool but continued to splash my hand and to say ‘Polo’. I thought it was funny.

After dinner Nico, G and I went for a walk around the town (really smaller than a UK hamlet) and down to the beach before heading back to wait for the others. It was nearly a full moon so we headed back down whilst listening to some music and I brought my dance move out, though I think it might be time to retire it soon. We chilled out on the beach before the rest of the group joined us. We weren’t drinking but I suppose as a group we were the main source of entertainment in Coral Bay and soon we had attracted the attention of some locals who also joined us. They seemed a bit drunk and creepy and it was at this point that a few of us decided to call it a night.

G, the swissgirls, Johanna and I arrived back at our room and realised to our horror that the air conditioning wasn’t working. It emerged we were meant to have asked reception for a controller. Not only that the windows didn’t open so our only solution was to use the bin to keep the door open which at least let some air in. The room had been very hot and stuffy but our idea seemed to work and sleeping without sheets meant when I awoke the next morning I was if anything a little bit cold.

Friday 14th February – Valentines Day
Today we had an optional activity to snorkle the Nigaloo? Reef with the main activity being to swim with Manta Rays. The reef is famous for the largest fish, the Whale Shark however they tend not to appear until the end of March. Initially I had hoped to time a trip up the West Coast with seeing these amazing animals but ultimately I realised it wasn’t going to be practical to make two journeys to Perth.

Out of the 12 of us on the bus all but 3 had decided to spend the day this way. We arrived at the boat and the captain and the guides gave us some safety instructions however unlike when I went to the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns 3 years ago, we didn’t travel far at all before we reached the first snorkel site. This was a free swim, in the sense that we could go where we liked within a certain radius of the boat.

During the first swim we saw a number of different fish before a green sea turtle was spotted swimming along. I swam with it for a few minutes before we also spotted one sitting on the seabed though as we were only snorkeling we couldn’t get as close to it. We also saw a number of Blue spotted lagoon rays and a variety of different fish. Nico also spotted a white tip reef shark lying on the sea bed under some coral but you had to dive quite deep down to see it and I seemed too buoyant. The mask and snorkel both worked well so this was definitely one of the more relaxing snorkels I’ve done as no unwanted water tried to make its way in to my mouth.

Back on the boat we had a cup of tea, some pizza slices and a piece of cake before heading up on to the top deck. From here we entered an area of the reef that is popular with turtles to find food and it didn’t take us long to spot one swimming just below the surface. We carried on looking out and a few surfaced away from the boat before eventually one came up close to the boat as well. The sea was very calm and clear so it was quite easy to spot them though I still accidentally spotted the common rock turtle, the slowest and oldest of all turtles. (It was a rock).

We carried on further in to the reef to find the manta rays. To aid the company in detecting the rays a sea plane is used however we started by going to an area they had been found the day before. One of the guides jumped in and it didn’t take her long to find one. I was part of the second group and we were told each group would have an initial 5 minute swim and then longer. We were also told not to splash because if it became unsettled and swam away the Manta rays could swim up to 60 kilometres per hour which would be faster than the boat.

I hadn’t quite appreciated how big Reef Manta Rays are and it was only the night before Nico had told me how large they can grow. The impact was therefore perhaps not as great as it would have been when gradually a male 2 half to 3 metres long kite shaped object came in to view about 4 to 5 metres beneath the surface of the water. It’s movements to turn direction were majestic and a sight to behold. We had been told to keep behind it so as not to scare it however whilst we obeyed it seemed to be quite relaxed for us to be in its vicinity.

Soon our 5 minutes were up and group one re-entered whilst we stayed in our flippers and masks ready to go back in. Eventually we went back in and I tried to dive down so that the guide could get a picture of it with me in the background. It wasn’t long before a even larger manta ray, possibly a female came along and here a bit of confused developed. Whilst the West Coast reef is hardly as busy as Cairns it appeared we had met another group following the female ray and our male decided to go off with her. Initially I thought it was our group one as did a few others (people look the same in snorkel gear) so we followed before being called back. Unfortunately our manta ray had gone but our time had probably been nearly up anyway so we got back on the boat to have lunch.

As we ate we went to another bit of the reef which was different from the first because it had areas that were deeper. Like with the first snorkel it was a unguided swim however I stayed near the guide taking pictures as she was an expert at finding interesting species. On this occasion and at the 3rd attempt I finally clearly saw a white tip shark which was about 1 and a half metres long having missed the previous two. I don’t remember the other species but it was fantastic to have a second chance to see such a colourful underwater kingdom. Not only some of the fish which themselves were a wide variety of colours but the coral itself.

There was one marine animal I was fairly desperate to see however like the whale shark the possibility was unlikely. This was a Dugdon otherwise known as a sea cow and similar to a Manatee. I had first seen this type of animal at the sea life centre in Florida about 20 years ago so when I heard there was a population in Shark Bay I was hoping we’d see some but hadn’t been in luck. The guides said they had seen one the day before but that there wasn’t much see grass in the area so there wasn’t a resident population in the area.

We’d all been on the top deck and I don’t think we were specifically looking for them when one of the guides thought they had spotted one just below the surface. I’d been in the process of talking to the other guide taking the pictures and they’d quickly kept to a prime position at the front. As we got nearer the captain said it was a rock, and the first guide apologised and inside I wished we hadn’t got closer so I could have continued to believe (like a child who doesn’t want to be told Santa Claus isn’t real – sorry if I’ve shattered any illusions). All of a sudden the rock moved and brought it’s tail out of the water. It was a Dugdon. Perhaps Santa Claus does exist. We watched it for a while as it swam under the water before rising again for air.

The captain said he had also seen a large dark moving object. If we saw a whale shark out of season I think I may have exploded with delight but unfortunately we didn’t quite have that much luck and by the time we left the Dugdon to investigate we’d lost which direction it had moved and the sea suddenly seemed very large. It had

I remember 3 years ago being utterly underwhelmed by my dive to the Great Barrier Reef. The day had been a lot of fun because of my fellow group but it had taken hours to get to a site and even then most of the coral had appeared dead. I hadn’t seen a turtle, I didn’t even see a reef shark. The Great Barrier Reef was given its name by Matthew Flinders over 200 years ago and the East Coast tourist industry continues to promote its title despite the fact it’s lost half its coral cover since 1985. In my opinion the West Coast has more accessible unspoilt reefs (from the shore at least), a secret gem and long may it stay that way.

We arrived back at the accommodation earlier than we had expected but I suppose in contrast some groups spend longer on the reef and yet see less than us. After chilling out by the pool we eventually made the relatively short drive to Exmouth. Jason had told us that as it was a full moon it would be particularly good to have the chance to see the baby turtles hatching and that if people wanted to go, we’d leave after dinner. This would not be part of the tour, we were all just members of the public.

We arrived near the Jurabi Turtle Centre and Jason read us the list of rules which included no torches however as it was a full moon even behind the cloud the beach was well lit. We went on a hunt for nests that were hatching being careful to cause minimal disturbance with Jason the only person really knowing what we were looking for. We’d arrived in the centre of the beach and going left we walked all the way to the far end. On our way to the far end we saw an adult that had just finished making a nest and saw it wonder back down to the sea. Jason then found a nest but the turtles were taking their time so Nico, Jason and I walked all the way to the far right end whilst the girls stayed and waited.

We saw nothing on this expedition but on our way back some of the girls were waiting by where we’d left our shoes. They said as they had all been waiting, about 10 baby turtles and started to walk by behind them from another nest. We eventually made it back where most of the girls had stayed and they confirmed what the others had said. Our nest didn’t seem to be doing much and it got a bit frustrating and boring as I began to think I’d missed my chance.

Jason had started to look at another mound of sand and had put his hand in slightly to check and exclaimed that he’d touched something that had moved. He’d immediately taken his hand out and we scrambled over carefully but quickly. Less than a minute later the mound seemed to explode with baby hatchlings. It was quite possibly the most amazing thing I have seen on my travels in Australia (indeed ever) to date. We started counting and it felt like a scene from 101 dalmations. The little turtles seemed to know instinctively what to do and started running down to the beach. There was an initial 35 that came out so we walked down to the sea with them, making sure we were very careful about where we put our feet.

Frustratingly It was a bit to dark for me to work the manuel focus on my lens and as we couldn’t use the flash I was the only person that could take pictures for the group. I had been so preoccupied with just watching it all unfold by the time I started to think about what I needed to do – to maximise the ISO setting it was to late and the last turtle had run past my foot as I’d started to head back to the nest. Even if I had though, I doubt a photo would have captured that emotion. I’d thought it was wonderful seeing the turtle nesting up close in Bundaberg but seeing the hatchlings was just unbelievably wonderful. We were a tired but happy bus when we got back.

Saturday 15th February
I was the only member of the group that was doing the 5 day tour and ending my journey in Exmouth as everyone else was continuing back to Perth on a 7 day tour. I was a bit sad it was over because I’d particularly enjoyed the company of Nico, G and Nuria. It sometimes takes a while for a group to click but for us it probably happened fairly early during the night of drinking (international language) at Monkey Mia. Certainly by the end of day 3 I felt we’d become one group and that was thanks partly to Jason and his efforts to interact with everyone and to encourage us to swap seats on the bus. As the metaphorical barriers were down I knew that they’d all have a lot of fun on the return leg.

My last activity with the group was another snorkel around the Ningaloo Reef, this time north of Exmouth at Turquoise Bay. We had hired masks and flippers from a place in Exmouth and I’d been given a ‘fancy’ mask that in theory meant it was easy to blow out water whilst stopping water from getting in. I say in theory because after swimming out in to the reef with the others water started coming in. This meant that every couple of minutes i had to empty the snorkel of water whilst making sure I didn’t knock any rocks or coral in the process which meant sometimes I had to hold my breath until I got out of a shallow section. I tried pressing against the thin flap of plastic that was meant to stop water getting in but that was no good.

Unfortunately it wasn’t the most enjoyable snorkel but the water was incredibly clear, even more so than the day before and we were lucky enough to see another turtle and another white tip reef shark at a cleaning station. I also saw a large clam and obviously a wide variety of fish. Whilst the majority continued a bit further round the coast, Nico whose snorkel had developed an issue so he had to wear it upside down, Johanna and I called it a day.

Back on the beach it didn’t take long for me to re-enter the water to play a volleyballesq game.  Our objective was to hit the ball to each other for as many times without double hitting, or letting it hit the water. We managed to score 75 and I have to admit I found this simple game even more fun than the snorkeling. Eventually we called time and whilst most of the others went back in for another snorkel I stayed on the beach to dry out.

We had a lunch of various nibbles and during the drive back to the accommodation Nico dedicated “Just cant get enough” to me before Jason took me to Learmouth Airport which literally appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. I thought my plane from Bundaberg was small but this was tiny in comparison with capacity for about 50 people and had the old fashioned propeller blades.

I had a window seat and made an effort to look down as we took off and at various points throughout the journey. There were no clouds so first I had a spectacular birdseye view of the reef before we started to cross the vast barren red sand which due to the nothingness looked equally amazing. As we approached Perth more vegetation started to crop up especially around the river areas and soon we were flying over man made structures on the final approach across the suburbs.

I caught the bus back to the hostel I had stayed at a few nights before. I arrived at the hostel and checked in but when I went to my room the occupants seemed to think all the beds were still taken (and it looked it) so I went back to reception where I got upgraded to a 4 bedroom. I then did the laundry knowing full well that there possibly wasn’t much point as it’s all going to be even dirtier after it has experienced the tropical north and red centre…assuming the clothes even survive. Some of the t shirts are already on their last legs as it seems are my “new” walking boots from New Zealand.

I decided not to head back out in to Perth, partly because on a short trip to find a cash machine less than 5 minutes from the hostel two separate incidents with some Aboriginals had left me feeling slightly vulnerable. In reality it was no different to when I’ve been approached in London by someone who unfortunately suffers from substance abuse but as a tourist I always feel more wary as I mentioned when I was in Russia. Whilst it was all perfectly fine I just became slightly more aware of my surroundings and the fact it was a Saturday.

Once I’d got my money I went back to the hostel and made the most of the internet Ibefore going to bed as I had to catch the airport shuttle at 6.40am. I woke up again about midway through the second half of Watford’s game against Middleborough. We were 1.0 up and it was agony pressing refresh for 20 minutes reading about the number of Middleborough shots that were blocked and saved. Unlike against Leicester we hung on and whilst it seems the possession football of Zola is gone at least we’re grinding out some positive results at last. With the result confirmed and after receiving a message from my dad I went back to sleep happy.

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