Ready! Stanley Johnson in his wetsuit
Ningaloo!’ my Australian friend exclaimed. ‘That’s probably the only place in the world you can see the Big Three together. You’ve got humpback whales, manta rays and whale sharks. Just be sure you get there by mid-July or not much later.’
Well, as Robert Burns put it, the best-laid schemes ‘gang aft a-gley’. I was indeed all set to leave the UK for Western Australia in mid-July when it became apparent that, towards the end of the month, my eldest son was likely to top the poll in the Conservative Party leadership election and become the UK’s new Prime Minister.
Of course, I could have sent him a text from Ningaloo saying ‘congrats’, assuming they had mobile reception there. But I decided that wasn’t really on, considering the circumstances.
I mean, how often does your first-born become PM?
Admittedly, in postponing my departure to the end of July, I realised I might have missed the chance to see the whale sharks. But I consoled myself with the thought that at least I would get to see Boris arriving at Buckingham Palace to ‘kiss hands’ with Her Majesty The Queen.
Another comforting thought was that, even in August without the whale sharks, Ningaloo was at the top of my list of places to visit.
Pink paradise: Sunset at the Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef beach safari camp
Take the coral reefs, for example. The Ningaloo World Heritage Area, a two-hour flight from Perth, has one of the largest coral reefs on earth.
At a time when so many reefs around the world have been affected by pollution, or bleaching, or other forms of degradation, the coral here is both gloriously pristine and astonishingly varied.
There are 220 species to discover and, despite not being a coral expert, I’m pretty sure I saw most of them.
What’s more, you don’t have to get in a boat and spend hours getting out to the reef. What makes Ningaloo unique is that you can explore the Technicolor wonderland simply by stepping off the beach into the water with flippers, snorkel and a mask.
Ningaloo is a ‘fringing’ reef — one that is close to the shore — and one of the finest in the world.
The good news is that the humpback whales, heading up from Antarctica for the warmer waters of the Kimberley Coast, were already out in force.
Close encounters: The reefs off Western Australia are visited by humpback whales, whale sharks and manta rays
Why Ningaloo is so special
- Halfway up Australia’s West coast, it’s the world’s largest fringing reef. This means it hugs the shore, so you can explore by snorkelling off the beach.
- The name is from the words ‘promontory’ and ‘deepwater’ in the Aboriginal Warajji language .
- From July to October, thousands of humpback whales migrate up and down the West Australian coastline on what’s sometimes referred to as the Humpback Highway.
- One of the largest biological structures known, it is visible from space.
- By law, swimmers can get no closer than 30m (98ft) to the whales, but that doesn’t stop them getting close to you.
- Six of the world’s seven species of marine turtle live on the reef.
On my first evening, I sat with a glass of Margaret River merlot in hand on the Sal Salis Safari Camp’s veranda, watching the humpbacks breaching and blowing just beyond the reef, almost within hailing distance.
More than 30,000 humpbacks pass through these waters each year. If you are close enough when they blow, you can get a strong whiff of whatever it was they had for lunch.
Next morning, while my fellow guests — a charming family from Paris and a Peruvian couple — went off to swim with the whales, I joined what was possibly the last ‘swim with the whale sharks’ excursion of the season. I couldn’t help feeling they had put an extra one on the schedule just to accommodate me.
We headed out through a gap in the reef into the offshore waters, then turned south. I could see the spotter plane overhead. An hour passed. No whale sharks.
We had a sandwich lunch on board. Still no whale sharks. Even the plane seemed to have disappeared.
Around 2pm, we suddenly turned to starboard and headed north, back up the coast the way we had come.
Chiara, a young Italian woman, whose job would be to film us in the water if and when we encountered a whale shark, explained: ‘The spotter plane has seen a whale shark up towards the Cape. Better get ready.’
I owe a lot to Chiara.
When the moment came, a dozen of us slid quickly into the water with our wetsuits and snorkels — but Chiara seemed to take special care of me. ‘Stick close to me,’ she said.
So I did. She even grasped my hand to turn me in the right direction.
‘Look behind you,’ she mouthed behind her face mask, pointing her huge underwater camera. I turned my head as instructed. The sight of the whale shark that day I shall never forget.
It was 7 m or 8 m long, swimming faster than I could.
After a few seconds, I found myself trailing behind while the giant fish — yes, the whale shark is a fish, the largest fish in the world — disappeared from sight.
In the pre-swim briefing, they taught us the basic signs. One arm in the air if you need help. Wave both hands if you’re drowning.
Swimming back to the boat, I raised my right hand and made an ‘O’ sign with my index finger and thumb. Total success. I’d both seen and swum with a whale shark and, thanks to Chiara, it was probably on video, too.
Stanley joined one of the last ‘swim with the whale sharks’ excursions of the season
I spent my last two days farther down the reef, at Coral Bay. So as far as the Big Three were concerned, it was two down and one to go.
If I was going to see the huge manta rays — they can grow up to 7 m wide from wingtip to wingtip — Coral Bay was the place to be. About 850 manta rays have been catalogued here over the past ten years.
This time, the spotter plane located not only one but a whole group of mantas feeding off the coast.
A few minutes later we were in the water, watching the rays barrel-roll, dip and dive as though they were enjoying putting on a display. So that was it. Three out of three and the prospect of another glass or two of Margaret River merlot.
But I don’t want to give the impression that Ningaloo is only about the ocean and the creatures that dwell therein.
About 850 manta rays have been catalogued in Coral Bay over the past ten years
One morning I took a dawn walk in the Cape Range National Park and saw more than a dozen black-flanked rock-wallabies.
They are on Australia’s endangered species list and it’s thought the total population may be as low as 500.
Watching them hopping from crag to crag among the gorge’s precipitous cliffs was, in its way, almost as exciting as seeing the whale shark in its spotted splendour.
And there was one final bonus to my trip. I had a day in Perth on the way back. I have been coming to Perth for years but never before managed to visit Rottnest Island, a 25-minute ferry ride from Fremantle. Well, I remedied that omission.
Shane Kearney, Rottnest’s environment manager, gave up his morning to show me round.
We could have cycled but, as ever, I was pressed for time so we took an electric car instead (the only kind allowed on the island).
Amazingly, we saw two ospreys on a nest built on a rock out to sea and, I am glad to say, encountered Rottnest’s most famous little marsupial mammal, the quokka.
Shane took a photo of me and a quokka. What a sweet and pretty animal. Useful for Scrabble, too.
Stanley Johnson travelled with Wexas Travel (wexas.com), which offers an eight-day trip from £3,815 pp, based on two travelling during whale season, from June to August. Includes flights, transfers, seven nights’ B&B at The Westin Perth, Sal Salis in Ningaloo (including meals) and Ningaloo Reef Resort Coral Bay and touring, including a whale swim (whale shark or humpback) and one manta ray interaction snorkelling. Visit westernaustralia.com.