Ningaloo Nirvana

In early April we roadtripped up the coast of Western Australia from Perth to Exmouth, with the specific intention of spending a month scuba-diving on the Ningaloo reef. Everyone knows the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland but not many people outside the diving community have heard of the Ningaloo.

It’s difficult to get to, and the small town of Exmouth is the best place to be based to dive the reef. The World Heritage area of the Ningaloo Reef National Park is located on the remote edge of Western Australia.

We did some research and decided to dive with Exmouth Diving Centre. They were a great group – friendly, well-organised, and with good equipment, and we’re glad we dived with them.

One of the big attractions of the Ningaloo Reef is the whalesharks – the biggest fish in the sea! On the Ningaloo, you’re not allowed to deliberately dive with whalesharks (if one comes to take a look while you’re diving, lucky you!).  So snorkelling is the thing. Most of the operators use spotter planes to find the whalesharks, and when they’re located you jump in the water and swim like crazy! The operation is tightly regulated, so as to minimize any harm to the whalesharks.  Only ten people are allowed in the water with a shark, and you must stay 3 metres away from the shark’s body, and 4 metres away from the tail. No flash photography is allowed, and also no swimming in front, over or under the shark. No touching is allowed, and if you find the shark swimming towards you it is up to you to get out of the way.

We have been fortunate enough to dive and snorkel with whalesharks in Belize, and so we decided to stay with diving on the Ningaloo (the whaleshark snorkel trips are pretty expensive, we could get several dives instead!)

We were visiting during April/May 2016, and this is when the coral spawns. The wonderful thing about this is that there there is a massive amount of nutrients in the water, and so the water is just thick with huge schools of fish, and marine life of all kinds.  The only drawback to this situation is that the visibility is somewhat reduced, and the particulate matter in the water meant lots of backscatter on the photos. But that was a minor detail. Ningaloo is an amazing place to dive, there is such richness of life in every form.

Coral spawning

One day Chris was diving without me, and was fortunate and quick enough to film this Tuskfish attempting to open a clam by hitting it against a rock. Fascinating!

Banded Coral Shrimp:

Often found hanging out under a ledge or rock. Sometimes upside down, and sometimes “right side” up!

(click individual photos to view full-size)

Octopus:

Octopus are always fun to watch when diving. They’re not usually too nervous while humans are around, but I have seen them turn blazing white if I approach too closely. We had the great delight of seeing several while diving on the Ningaloo, and even saw two mating pairs on different occasions. It’s quite extraordinary to see the mating tentacle of the male make its way across the sand to the female. Female octopuses have the unnerving habit of strangling and eating their mates, so the male has a specialized arm called a hectocotylus. This arm has erectile tissue and a groove to allow the sperm packets to move down and be deposited in the female’s mantle. Many species of octopus stay as far apart as possible, while the male extends his hectocotylus as far as he can to complete the act and still stay safe. Octopus mating is a tricky affair!

(click individual photos to view full-size)

Christmas Tree worms:

The most visible feature of these tube-building polychaetes is two multicoloured spiral structures, which are specially adapted for feeding and breathing. Christmas Tree worms are usually found burrowed into coral heads, and are very sensitive to movement. They withdraw inside the coral very quickly at the slightest provocation. But if you hover carefully they’ll come back out again, and are available to have their photos taken.

(click individual photos to view full-size)

Giant Painted Frogfish:

We saw this frogfish on several dives to the same location, the locals said he hasn’t moved for months! He’s not very camouflaged, just sits out on his rock all day, and provides wonderful photo opportunities to visiting divers. Many frogfish can change colour, and will sit in wait for their prey to swim past, and then they strike quickly.

(click individual photos to view full-size)

Giant clams:

We’ve seen giant clams in many dive locations, and they never fail to wow me ~ I think they look like gorgeous beaded velvet!  Like corals, the giant clams have a symbiotic relationship with tiny plant-like algae called zooxanthellae.  The algae gain protection from predators, and the clams get the benefit of food produced by the algae.

(click individual photos to view full-size)

Mantis Shrimp:

Mantis shrimp grow pretty big compared to many shrimp – some can get as big as 30 cms.  They usually hide under ledges, but one day we saw one scurrying from one hiding place to another. It was just too quick for me to catch any good photos. Mantis shrimp use their club-shaped appendages to punch out their prey – they can strike at the speed of a bullet!

I just love their googly eyes!

(click individual photos to view full-size)

Nudibranchs:

I love nudis! They are a perfect creature to practice your buoyancy and macro photography on, as they don’t tend to move fast, and are usually brightly coloured, so they’re easy to spot. They are however pretty small, typically between 3 to 6 cms long. Their bright colours warn predators of their toxicity, but make them marvelous photo opportunities. Nudis are mollusks, and have shells in the larval stage, but those disappear in the adult form. They have a variety of appendages that move around in the current, and so give us many different photographic poses! Nudis typically have a pair of “horns” called rhinopores, at one end, which have smell receptors, and fringe-like gills, or cerata, which have various functions such as digestion and defense. If you see two nudis together, they are probably taking the opportunity to mate. They can do this with any other nudi that they come across, as they are hermaphrodite. Since they don’t move too fast or far, they need to take whatever opportunities they can. They each donate and receive sperm, and then lay wondrous coils or spirals of eggs.

Nudibranch eggs

(click individual photos to view full-size)

(click individual photos to view full-size)

Mooring line mini-reef:

On this particular dive site, as on many, the boat hooked up to a permanent mooring. The mooring line over the years has developed a wonderful encrustment of corals and sponges, and has become a mini reef environment.

(click individual photos to view full-size)

Sailfin Catfish:

We were thrilled to see Sailfin catfish, endemic to the Ningaloo. Often found down in the sand under a rocky ledge, they can be difficult to see and to photograph, especially in the waters of the Ningaloo that are often full of particulate matter, and they tend to dart off if disturbed.

Sailfin Catfish – endemic to the Ningaloo Reef
Sailfin Catfish – endemic to the Ningaloo Reef

Tasseled Scorpionfish:

Scorpionfish are masters of disguise. I’m sure I’ve often swum over them as they sit motionless on the sandy or rocky bottom. Unless you look carefully, or they happen to move a little, you’re unlikely to spot them. They are ambush predators, and so they sit quietly, waiting for small fish to swim past, when they will inhale their prey in one gulp. The Tasseled Scorpionfish grows up to 36 cm long, and is the kind most often seen on the Ningaloo Reef. The spines along their back are highly venomous, and are yet another reason why we shouldn’t touch anything while diving. They tend to back away and swim off if approached noisily, but good buoyancy and little movement can often yield some fun photos.

(click individual photos to view full-size)

Wobbegong Shark:

There are many types of sharks around the world, and on the Ningaloo we were lucky to see Wobbegong or Carpet sharks several times. They tend to hang out in dark spots under rock shelves. As with most sharks, they are nocturnal and spend the day sleeping on the bottom. Like the Scorpionfish they are very well-camouflaged, and often difficult to spot. When you do see them, they are identifiable by their frilly beards.

(click individual photos to view full-size)

Soft Coral:

The Ningaloo Reef, and particularly in the dive sites around the Muiron Islands, is where we first really saw soft coral. It’s like diving in great drifts of multi-coloured flowers, so marvelous! Soft coral comes in many different forms. The common feature is that it “wafts” in the current. The different shapes and forms and colours move gently in the current as you swim by, and they really are so beautiful.

(click individual photos to view full-size)

Fish:

and turtles, and more fish! The Ningaloo reef was one of the most prolific places I’ve ever dived. Masses of fish, schools and shoals of fish. Fish everywhere! The amount of particulate matter in the water due to coral spawning affected the quality of my photos, but my goodness what an incredible place to dive – just so much marine life!

(click individual photos to view full-size)

(click individual photos to view full-size)

I hope you enjoy our photos and the video as much as we enjoyed diving!

We recognise and acknowledge Baiyunga and Jinigudira people as the Traditional custodians of Ningaloo Marine Park.  

And after the magic of the Ningaloo, we travelled on and saw more of amazing Australia ~ the Wild Kimberley.

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5 thoughts on “Ningaloo Nirvana”

  1. Hi there both, steph here, it was so great to text briefly with you today Danila. I love your blog, it’s so detailed and fun to read. Looking forward to keeping in better touch using this medium. Bestest to you both:-)

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