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Water activities © Tourism Western Australia

The gentle giants of Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

Turtles, Manta Ray, Whales, Dolphins and Fish galore

From humpback whales to manta rays and turtles, Holidays with Kids gets up close with the gentle giants of Ningaloo Reef.

A A first downward glance reveals a glowing white shape gliding in the deep blue depths. It resembles a rippling tablecloth, surely and steadily rising to surface. Soon, the manta ray is visible, approaching fast just a few metres away.

With an intricate pattern spanning its dancing wings in swirls of black, white and grey, it is absolutely exquisite. And oh how it moves! With a grace defying its size, it looks as if it is flying underwater. Even more striking, however, is the moment it flips to get a better look at the crowd of onlookers (its school of remora fish twisting in sync) and regards us inquisitively, eyes alive with intelligence.

With its attention rapt, closely watching my every move, I am tempted not to move at all for fear of scaring it away. But our guide warned us beforehand that if you stop kicking for even a second, this speedy soul will disappear from sight, they are just that quick.

Like a thief in the night the manta ray languidly drops to the ocean bed and out of sight, the only evidence that it was ever there the air bubbles left floating in its wake. We surface, awestruck and whooping “that was so cool” amid laughs and breathless panting.

Image © Tourism Australia

A meeting with Mr Turtle
I’m staying at Coral Bay, a Western Australian family favourite, at the Ningaloo Reef Resort. Mere seconds after arrival I figure out why: the view from the resort is out of this world overlooking the Indian Ocean and metres from the sand. As quickly as humanly possible I wander down to the beach, bikini and snorkel in hand. Swimming in the crystal clear water I’m surrounded by fish almost instantly and float along with the current, moving out of the way of children too excited by the aquatic wonderland happening below the surface to look where they are going.

Loggerhead turtle © Tourism Western Australia

There’s much more than manta rays to meet here, with more than 500 tropical fish species inhabiting the 300-kilometre-long reef, living in and around more than 200 species of coral. In 2011 the Ningaloo Coast was recognised internationally for its outstanding natural beauty and inscribed on the World Heritage list.

There are four species of turtle found in the waters of Ningaloo: the loggerhead, green, hawksbill and leatherback. On my manta ray tour with Ningaloo Marine Interactions, we pass too many to count and once we reach shallower waters, Frazer, our captain, tells all of us on board to jump on in to greet Albert the loggerhead. I count to three, take a deep breath and dive towards the sand. He greets me with an unhurried turn of his head – he has all the time in the world – and looks me straight in the eye as I glide alongside, less than one metre away. I wonder what in the world he could be thinking as I stare – somewhat bewildered – into the unfathomable depths of his eyes. Eventually, shrugging me off with indifference, he steers himself in the opposite direction – but not before gracing me with a wink (I swear, it’s true!) as I hastily paddle to the surface out of breath.

The sound of the whale song
As of August 2016, visitors to Ningaloo can swim with humpback whales. The existing 11 whale shark operators in the area have been licensed to run the tours, extending the whale season into the humpback migration, in which as many as 30,000 humpbacks pass through from June to November. With a maximum of 10 people per tour, only five persons in the water at once and no swimming with mothers and calves, all tours wish to offer an eco-friendly, intimate experience – and I’m lucky enough to be one of the first few to trial this amazing encounter with Coral Bay Ecotours.

Humpback Whale © Tourism Western Australia

The next day I’m in the water, waiting in anticipation. We can’t see it yet, but we can hear it: the famous whale song. These ‘composers of the seas’ are known for their peculiar vocalisation and I am absolutely mesmerised. I stop kicking immediately and just drift along, listening to the soft and beautiful melody. For an animal so big, they approach like a ghost. Spotting them on the boat takes a keen eye, and in the ocean, it’s surprisingly even harder. They swoop on by, either unaware or uninterested by our presence and proximity. We are nothing but temporary spectators to their own grand plans.

For those interested in jumping in the water with these majestic mammals, just remember: the movements of the humpback whales, like all animals, are not guided by human expectations. Jumping in and out of the water throughout the day we often emerge wet and shaking our heads: “It was just too quick!”

On the journey back to the mainland we enjoy more gentle seas and stop for a relaxed snorkel through the reefs, spotting mahi-mahi, golden trevally, mud crab, dugongs... the list goes on. We even race a pod of dolphins for a good half-hour as they playfully disappear and reappear with dramatic flair at the boat’s hull, the kids screaming in delight. I sip at champagne as the sun sets, watching it all with a smile and thinking to myself: I have found where the wild things are.





This article appeared in volume 50 of Holidays with Kids magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.

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