When we booked our flight to Exmouth, I assumed we would be boarding a small plane.  I was hoping the aircraft would be post WW II, and that the pilot wouldn’t have to start the engine by spinning the propeller.  My error was in assuming that tourists would make up the majority of the passengers.  It turned out the SkyWest flight was a shuttle service for off-shore oil workers. In the two hours it took our packed plane to reach its destination, I learned more about tools for oil rig work than I ever wished to know.  The airport for the town is located 37 kms south of town, which makes the drive south to Coral Bay a reasonable two hour run.

I was dismayed to discover that I would have return the car with something approaching a full tank of petrol.  This meant driving back past the airport and on into Exmouth before dropping off the rental car at the airport.   Between the tarmac and Coral Bay, there are thousands of termite mounds and some cattle with precious little shade.  The Cape Range separates the road from the ocean, hiding some rugged and forbidding-looking terrain.

The Ningaloo Reef extends about 260 kilometers (163 miles) from North West Cape (north of Exmouth) to Amherst Point, south of Coral Bay.  Unlike the Great Barrier Reef on the other side of Australia, this fringing reef  starts only 100 meters off shore.  There are over 500 species of fish, 250 species of corals and 600 species of molluscs.  It is a snorkeler’s paradise.

Coral Bay (population 160) hosts thousands of divers and snorkelers every year, particularly when the giant whale sharks are in the area– March through mid June.  Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean and the largest cold blooded animals on earth.  They are filter feeders, so swimmers can have a close encounter with ten-ton creatures without getting stepped on or eaten.  In the pictures I’ve seen, they are beautiful.

Thanks to a very early flight, we arrived at our hacienda in Coral Bay in plenty of time to kick back and wait for the room to be made ready.  Our hostess made it clear that we had arrived too early and shouldn’t expect miracles from her staff.  The sun was already hot and the flies were already out in full force.  At least there were comfortable chairs and good coffee available.

We didn’t realize until later that the Melbourne Cup, “the race that stops the nation,” had followed us across the continent.  The three minute race for three year-olds would require the entire population of Coral Bay to dress up in fashionable hats and begin their serious drinking before noon.  Everyone was coming to the Ningaloo Reef Resort to celebrate.  On top of the 5 AM wake-up call to catch our flight, we would have to put up with the post-race revelry until way past our bedtime.

But the next day was perfect, as it tends to be in Coral Bay.  We had signed on for a snorkel cruise with Ningaloo Experience, an outfit that has actually been eco-certified.  Peter Shaw, the owner/operator who pioneered the business in the area, limits his groups to 12 and tries to do a little fish education on the side.  The word eco is now used very loosely, but “Pedro” takes it seriously.  I was dismayed to see the word “Eco” plastered on a fleet of ATV vehicles, tempting lazy tourists to go out and find turtles hatching without having to walk.

The outer reef provides sanctuary for whale sharks, turtles, dolphins, dugongs and manta rays.  We were after the rays, those cloaked and elusive creatures of silent movies, sensuously propelling themselves along the sea floor.  We were soon treading water furiously in an attempt to keep up with their effortless pace. Later, there would be time for the little fish and the corals, for a more relaxing time in the giant aquarium we had crossed a country to see.

Our brief stay up north had been dictated by the availability of seats on SkyWest, by the schedule of oil workers.  On both evenings in Coral Bay, our walks took us only a few hundred yards from the resort to Fins Cafe and back.  The setting sun (rising Earth) offered us a stunning, ever changing kaleidoscope, appearing as liquid and colorful as the coral reef itself.  It was a little bit of paradise a long way from home.