I’ve always had what I consider to be a healthy respect for the sea. Others may call it a fear but I prefer to think of it as self-preservation. After all, why would you want to mess with something which can so easily kill you?
Just last week a British backpacker was swept out to sea on the south coast by a rip tide, never to be seen again. And yesterday the news featured a surfer who had lost her arm to a shark. Here the sea isn’t just a little bit scary, it’s bloody terrifying.
So it was with some trepidation that I arrived in Coral Bay on Friday. The coast from here north towards Exmouth is one of the few places in the world where the reef comes right up to the beach – and so snorkeling is practically compulsory. I had carried my trusty snorkel all the way from England pretty much for these next few days on Ningaloo Reef, and there was no way I wasn’t going to use it.
Thing is, there are signs everywhere (and I mean everywhere) telling you that snorkeling here is dangerous. There are offshore currents, rip tides, large waves, tiger sharks, sharp corals… I could go on. The advice from every corner is not to snorkel alone and never to attempt it if you’re not sure it’s safe. Of course I’m travelling solo and haven’t a clue about things like wave patterns and wind strength. I’m like a statistic just waiting to happen – last time I was here I freaked out my boyfriend by swimming too far out and of course, this time there was noone to stand on the beach scanning the horizon for me when I didn’t come back to shore.
But dammit, this is a sight worth a little risk to see. Ningaloo Reef is truly spectacular – miles and miles of multi-coloured ancient coral harbouring thousands of tropical fish, turtles, rays, and yep, sharks, all just a couple of minutes swim time from the sand. I saw more types of coral than I knew existed just on that first swim and spent many happy minutes mindlessly following shoals of shimmering fish around the reef. Of course every couple of minutes I’d have a little panic and stick my head up to check land was still ahoy but I’m writing this so you already know that I didn’t get eaten by a shark/taken to Indonesia by a freak wave/speared by a stingray – and it was fabulous.
The next day was even better. Cape Range national park reaches south from Exmouth, a string of jaw-dropping beaches with sand so white it almost looks like snow and water so turquoise you take your sunglasses off because you can’t believe it really is that colour. I swam at the aptly named Turquoise Bay, perhaps the most idyllic spot I’ve ever had the luck to visit and saw what felt like thousands of fish from tiny to half my size and even a sting ray. I won’t pretend my mind didn’t float straight to images of Steve Irwin but I didn’t panic this time and by the time I got back to the car several hours appeared to have passed.
Yesterday was my final day on the reef so I took a trip with Ningaloo Ecology Tours on a glass-bottomed boat so I could get further out and see the really impressive corals. And my god, but they were impressive. Huge lumps called bombies came so close to the boat I would have feared we’d hit them if it wasn’t for the self-assured skipper Alek, and we saw every tiny detail of these centuries-old living marvels. There were literally thousands of fish – striped ones, iridescent ones, electric blue ones, silver ones, all with names instantly forgotten because I was too wowed to get out my notebook.
It was amazing but even better was the snorkel we did here. All fear now gone I was one of the first in the water, battling the strengthening waves as the wind got up to swim within a couple of inches of every type of coral you can imagine and follow fish from one crevice to the next. The fish out here were bigger and the reef stretched for seemingly miles away from me in every direction. I swam until my flippers pinched and my skin shriveled but not once did I even think about those ever-present sharks. Until, that is, it came time to head back to the boat. Many of my fellow snorkelers were Aussies and, of course, they all had that typically laissez faire attitude to all things deadly. Floating just a few metres from the boat, one of them, Will, looked at me excitedly and said “wow, did you see that reef shark?” Despite the blazing sun and snorkel mask I, no doubt, went white and replied “No, where was it?” “Right underneath you mate”, he replied “it was huge”. He held his hands about four feet apart and grinned before he was off again. I like to think I acted cool, and I was actually sorry not to see it, but I also reckon not many people have climbed back on that boat quite as quickly.
On our way back to shore Alek told us what he wouldn’t elaborate on earlier – that there’s a resident tiger shark out here which is such a frequent visitor locals have named her. I couldn’t tell you what because Alek went on to tell us how it grabbed his flipper once last June and that it’s almost as long as the boat – a part of the story that had me gratefully packing my snorkel away.
This happy story occupied my mind for the journey back to the beach but just as we were about to lay anchor, Alek spotted a turtle and swung the boat around after it. Being mating season, the females are desperately hiding from the randy males at this time of year and so are much harder to spot – so this was lucky indeed. As we scanned the water for more turtle heads popping up, a vast loggerhead floated sedately underneath the boat. He was only there for a second or two but my mind was well and truly off that shark story. Well, at least until the next time I decide to go for a swim.