Whether you're saying g'day to the whale sharks on Ningaloo Reef, watching humpback whales breach from a live-aboard catamaran, or throwing yourself down a waterfall or up two-billion-year-old rocks in Karijini National Park, big, in-your-face wilderness is everywhere you look in WA.
Diving into Ningaloo
A cruisy green turtle beats time with the ocean as it glides over a forest of blue-tipped staghorn coral. As snorkellers drift along in wonder, blue damselfish descend like a tropical storm cloud, pouting sweetlips emerge from rocky enclaves, parrotfish gnaw at blooms of plate coral, and a tiny clownfish plays peek-a-boo in the tentacles of a sea anemone. Shoals of neon fish flash past like strobe lights and manta rays fly over for a subaquatic dance, their huge wingspans and graceful moves eliciting bubbles of excitement. Meanwhile, over at Asho's Gap, grey reef sharks in need of a parasite polish queue at a cleaning station for their fish-nibble spa treatment.
This is just an ordinary day on the 6000 sq km Ningaloo Reef, one of the largest and most accessible fringing coral reefs on the planet, off the mid-west coast of Western Australia. Here more than 500 species of fish, as well as turtles (hawksbill, loggerhead and green), manta rays and dugongs splash around in the shallow, crystal-clear Indian Ocean year round. Seasonal highlights for sea-life spotters include whale sharks from mid-March to July and migratory humpback whales from July to November, who use the reef as a giant nursery and can often be seen playing with their calves.
Unlike the Great Barrier Reef, the real beauty of Ningaloo is that you are likely to have it all to yourself, particularly on live-aboard catamaran Sail Ningaloo, which sets sail from Coral Bay with a maximum of ten guests. Skipper Luke, his wife Lannie and qualified dive instructor Dee are marine experts, working together with a local university to gather data on the manta ray population. On these multi-day marine safaris, days are spent tuning into the slow, absorbing rhythm of the reef, and wetsuits become second skins for the multiple dives and snorkels in Ningaloo's shallow reef lagoons. Lannie's terrific home-cooking and nights spent watching shooting stars on deck round out the days with a dash of luxury.
Swimming with whale sharks
Sliding into the translucent waters of the Ningaloo Reef and coming face-to-face with a fish the size of a minibus, its metre-wide mouth held cartoonishly agape, is a once-in-a-lifetime moment you'll store on your internal memory card to tell your wide-eyed grandchildren about one day. Nothing sends adrenaline cantering through your body and turbo-charges your flippers like the first mind-blowing glimpse of a whale shark, the world's biggest fish. Swimming alongside these gentle giants, you'll get close enough to see their distinctive mottling, mesh-fin gills and the fan club of cobia fish sheltering below their protective bulk.
The odds of finding whale sharks are excellent aboard Exmouth-based Ocean Eco Adventures (www.oceanecoadventures.com.au) boat tours, thanks to their spotter plane and team of clued-up snorkel guides. As well as whale sharks, the crew keep their eyes peeled for manta rays, dugongs, bottlenose dolphins and, in season, the humpback whales that perform acrobatic displays of breaching and tail-lobbing. Conservation is the aim of these non-intrusive, eco-oriented day cruises, with boats operating to a strict code of conduct and snorkellers keeping a respectful distance - three metres from the whale shark's side, four metres from its tail.
Though whale sharks are distributed in a band 35 degrees south and 30 degrees north of the equator, and are regularly sighted in countries like India, Mexico and Thailand, Ningaloo is the most reliable place in the world to see them. Driven by their stomachs, these filter-feeders rock up around mid-March in time for coral spawning season, when the water swarms with the krill they find so tasty. It's the greatest show on the reef.
That said, the whale sharks are in troubled waters. Listed as 'vulnerable to extinction' on the IUCN Red List, much about them - their exact migratory patterns and breeding grounds, for instance - remains a mystery, despite satellite tagging. This is partly because they spend long periods away from the water surface and can dive up to 1500m. Co-founder of the Ecocean Whale Shark Photo Identification Library (whaleshark.org), Brad Norman has been researching whale sharks since 1994. 'Everyone can do their bit to help save the whale sharks,' he says. 'Their spot patterning is as individual as a human fingerprint. Simply take a photo behind the whale shark's left gills and upload it to our website. We'll try to match it using NASA Hubble telescope star-mapping technology. If we can, we'll learn more about its movements; if we can't, you've found a brand-new whale shark.'
Exploring Cape Range National Park
If you want to see what lies above the water in Ningaloo, swing around the North West Cape from Exmouth to the Cape Range National Park. This elevated limestone plateau is carved into rugged, rust-red gorges. You can go it alone on a self-guided bush walk - local DEC visitor centres can assist with maps - but to see the highlights in a day, consider hooking onto a Ningaloo Safari.
The estuarine Yardie Creek is the park's only permanently water-filled gorge and word is out among the local critters. Boats take day-trippers into the mangrove-clogged gorge for a game of wildlife I-spy. Up on the ledges are rare black-footed rock wallabies lapping up the midday sun. Ospreys swoop down to the newly hatched chicks in their nests, and corellas are sprinkled across cliff faces like pink-white confetti.
The park is fringed by 50km of frost-white beaches with barely a soul on them. One such beach is Turquoise Bay, a spectacular spot for a south-north drift snorkel (be sure to get out of the water before the sandbar). Slip on a snorkel and flippers and you can float effortlessly past gardens of coral, home to turtles, docile reef sharks and a rainbow riot of fish.
Back on dry land, red kangaroos and wallaroos bound and emus strut across the grassy plains. Enjoy primetime wildlife viewing at teatime before heading up to Vlamingh Head Lighthouse, at the northernmost tip of Cape Range, to watch the sun melt into a molten gold ocean.
Going bush in Karijini National Park
Karijini (www.karijini.com), Western Australia's second largest national park at 6274 sq km, is every bit the outback dream. With the Hamersley Range a ripple on the horizon, the earth here seems redder, the skies vaster, the wilderness more raw. Two billion years in the making, this is a geologist's Shangri-La, with banded iron rocks that have been layered and polished smooth over eons. Waterfalls spill over the cliff faces of 100m-high gorges, splashing into natural pools that sparkle jade, turquoise and aquamarine when the sun catches them.
The park's scale, remoteness and nature-gone-wild landscapes give it an almost primordial feel. Wedge-tailed eagles soar above plains bristling with spinifex, snappy gums and bottle-shaped boab trees - a landscape at times redolent of the savannah in East Africa - and monitor lizards lay their eggs in giant termite mounds. Kangaroos, echidnas, rock wallabies, legless lizards, non-venomous Pilbara olive pythons and rare pebble-mound mice, the rockery lovers among rodents, are equally at home here. From July to September, wildflowers like yellow wattle (acacia), purple mulla mulla and northern bluebells add a splash of seasonal colour.
You can self-drive or fly to Paraburdoo, 80km from the entrance to the park, but to really see the dramatic change in landscape, sign up for one of West Oz Active's reef to range trips (www.westozactive.com.au), taking you from Ningaloo to Karijini. A great base is the award-winning Karijini Eco Retreat (www.karijiniecoretreat.com.au), owned by the Gumala Aboriginal Corporation, where you can camp or glamp in an eco-tent with a private en-suite open to the stars. West Oz Active run canyoning trips taking you deep into the Hancock Gorge. Besides heart-stopping moments tubing, abseiling, bouldering and free climbing, the real quest of these tours is, according to owner Pete West, the 'hunt for beauty'. 'Karijini is a rough diamond; you just have to let her shine,' he says. And shine she does.
Plan your adventure
The Tourism Western Australia website (www.westernaustralia.com) should be your first port of call for maps and info on what to see, when to go and how to get around. Qantas (qantas.com.au) fly to Paraburdoo (for Karijini) and Skywest (www.skywest.com.au) and Qantas fly to Learmonth airport in Exmouth (for Ningaloo).