Welcome to the first of our new featured series of blog posts on our recent trip to Western Australia! In December 2020, after the opening of domestic borders, we were lucky enough to spend three weeks in Australia’s most remote (and perhaps least visited) state. We’re super excited to be bringing you stories of our adventures in the WA. From the stunning coast line of Ningaloo Reef, the harsh and surreal desert outback roads, and the extraordinary natural landscapes of Kalbarri, all the way down to the wineries, caves and food delights of Perth and Margaret River, Western Australia should certainly be on the bucket list of any adventurous traveller! This first article features one of the true highlights of our journey, swimming with manta rays off the coast of Coral Bay, a small town on the Ningaloo Reef, Australia’s lesser known (but arguably more stunning) coral reef.
What is the Ningaloo Reef?
Western Australia has breathtaking coastline where the dry landscape meets the crystal clear turquoise waters. The Ningaloo Coast is a World Heritage Site and stretches around 300km along the mid north of Western Australia’s coastline. Ningaloo Reef is famous for its annual whale shark migration and rich marine life including manta rays, dugongs, humpback whales, dolphins, turtles and many specifies of fish and coral.
We visited the Ningaloo Reef in December 2020 and stayed in both Exmouth and Coral Bay. Both of these locations have extensive reefs close to shore making them highly accessible and popular amongst snorkelers and divers. While we visited during low season when the humpback whales and whale sharks were out of town, there was still an abundance of marine and coral life to see. Notably, manta rays are found in reliable numbers all year round in Coral Bay.
Why swim with manta rays?
Swimming with manta rays is a magical experience. Manta rays are found around the coastline of Australia typically in tropical and sub-tropical waters, such as Western Australia and Queensland. Manta rays have large pectoral fins spanning up to 7 meters which enable them to glide effortlessly through the water. Manta rays also like to display their acrobatic skills by somersaulting and occasionally breaching the surface.
Manta rays are gentle and inquisitive and will often swim close to humans. Unlike stingrays, manta rays do not have stinging barbs on their tails making them relatively harmless. Another interesting feature is the horn shaped fins near their mouth which are used to direct plankton for filtering through their gills. Overall it is a real honour to swim in the presence of a manta ray and a truely unforgettable underwater encounter if you are fortunate to have the opportunity.
Full day tour with Coral Bay Eco Tours
There are a number of marine tour operators to choose from in Coral Bay. We went with Coral Bay Eco Tours because of their high rating reviews, tour experiences and focus on sustainability. For a full day (6 hour) tour, the normal cost was AUD$210 (USD$160), however we were able to get a low season discount of 10% off. On the day of the tour, we arrived at their office at 7.30am where we checked in, met the friendly crew and were fitted with snorkel equipment. From there we loaded onto a mini bus and taken to the jetty, around 7 minutes away. Once we boarded the boat, we were given a safety briefing and set off to our first snorkel site.
It wasn’t long until we arrived at the first snorkel site and anchored the boat. We got our snorkel gear on and proceeded to the back of the boat ready for our underwater adventure. With everyone in the water the crew guided us through the breathtaking aquatic world. We snorkelled through a vivid coral forest passing lots of marine life including reef sharks, countless varieties of fish, sting rays and turtles.
After around 40 minutes in the water between two snorkel locations, we were told a manta ray had been sighted by a spotter plane. Spotter planes are used by many tour operators to help find and direct boats to wildlife, maximising your chance of an encounter. We quickly put our snorkel gear on and jumped into the ocean. Unfortunately, the manta ray was not open to having an interaction with us and it swam away quickly. While this was a little disappointing, we appreciated the respect the crew showed towards the wildlife and were careful not to overwhelm them.
We all got back on the boat and awaited the news of another sighting. After around 30 minutes, we were told that another manta ray was nearby. In no time we were back in the water and the crew guided us to where the manta ray was gracefully swimming. This time the manta ray was open to having company and it even put on a bit of a show for us and did some full backflips or ‘barrel rolls’ beneath the surface. We kept out distance at all times giving the manta ray space so it felt comfortable.
We swam with the manta ray for around 30 minutes before it glided away. Once everyone was back on the boat we were provided with lunch which we were grateful for given the amount of swimming we had done that day. On the way back to the jetty we were treated with a pod of dolphins and several turtles that were swimming near the boat, topping off an incredible day.
On a side note, it is common for marine tour operators to contract photographers to take pictures throughout the day and offer them to guests for around $50. The quality of the photographer can be an important factor to consider when deciding between tour operators. Our amazing photographer, Alex Kydd, took some amazing shots of marine life. We found out later that Alex has won several prestigious awards for his marine photography, which is not surprising given the quality of his work – as you can see from some of the photos we’ve included in this article. You can check out Alex’s instagram here.
Our time swimming with turtles, reef sharks and manta rays in Coral Bay was an extraordinary and magical experience. We would highly recommend it if you have the opportunity, and in particular we would recommend Coral Bay Eco Tours for an experience like no other. We hope you enjoyed reading about this experience. Be sure to comment below – what has been your favourite ocean experience? Also make sure to follow us on our blog as well as on social media (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook). We look forward to bringing you more of our experiences in Western Australia soon!