Overnight stays: Bullara Station Stay, Exmouth Gulf; Ningaloo Caravan & Holiday Resort, Exmouth (2 nights); RAC Exmouth Cape Holiday Park, Exmouth (3 nights); Exmouth Overflow, Exmouth; Lighthouse Caravan Park, Exmouth
About 25 years ago, I remember trawling through mum and dad’s National Geographic magazine collection and seeing a front cover with a snorkeller completely dwarfed by a whale shark in WA. I was mesmerised, and from that moment on, if there was one thing I had to do in my life, it was to swim with these magnificent monster fish of the ocean.
When we visited Mexico in 2011 we missed whale shark season by a krill’s testicle, keeping the hunger alive for another day. And when we finally got around to planning the Wombatical I knew the time had come; as long as we were at Ningaloo Reef between March and September there was every chance my childhood dream would come true. So, along with Ally and Tony’s Newcastle wedding, and my annual Melbourne Grand Prix weekend, this was the only other deadline we weren’t going to miss.
Weight of expectation
Coming off the back of the incredible Kimberley and Karijini, absolute highlights of the trip, spirits and expectations were high. Not only was Exmouth famous for whale sharks, but it’s widely regarded as home to some of the best fishing and scuba diving in Australia. It’s also the gateway to Cape Range National Park, teasing some of the best snorkelling, wildlife and beaches on offer. Fair to say we were more excited than Indonesia’s fault lines.
After a long, flat 600+km drive through the sometimes scenic Pilbara, we pulled into Bullara Station on the Exmouth Gulf and again snagged the last available site for the night. This place was highly recommended by Brian and Kath Gridley, my brother-in-law Marcus’ parents, who lapped Oz in 2017. Brian mentioned it was a unique place and great for kids, so we were pretty pumped to see what was on offer.
The place had a great vibe and was full of families, as it was still school holidays. It took Liv all of one minute to find some friends and kangaroos, while we setup camp and started our fire. One of the best things about campsites has to be fire, it just makes a stay so much more special 🔥.
One of Bullara’s ‘must-dos’ is the Donkey Shower. Sounds odd, and we had never heard of such a thing before, but it’s effectively a shower where the water is heated by fire rather than gas or electricity. What’s more, I reckon the heat feels different; like a coldish hot, spot on the money. To add to the true authentic experience, the bathroom is completely roofless, allowing you to shit, shave, shower and stargaze; and the shower head is an old silver bucket with a bunch of holes punched in the bottom. If best bathroom of the trip was a thing, this would have to take the cake 🚽 (forgot a photo though).
Once we gobbled down the sausage sizzle put on by the host we retreated to our own campfire, where we were joined by our neighbours, Dave and Helen from Geelong. They are a couple of nurses working their way around the country for a year. There we sat, toasting marshmallows, sipping beers and wine, and admiring the infinite amount of stars only the country can offer. We were also lucky enough to spot the International Space Station as it passed by, completely coincidently.
Bullara was a great intro to the Exmouth Peninsula, giving us small taste of the vast diversity this part of the world can offer.
We had initially planned for just three nights in Exmouth, and had actually booked them in a week or so earlier, knowing it’s an incredibly popular place, and still school holidays. Turns out we arrived a day early and were able to snag a site at the caravan park across the road.
The Clohesy’s were also in town and keen to catch up, just as we were. Dan the man managed to book the two of us on a fishing charter the following day, hoping to replicate our success in Broome.
Family fishing fun fail
Given the area’s notoriety for fishing I shot straight to one of the several tackle shops for any tips on how to bag a beauty. Turns out just saying I wanted to catch something wasn’t specific enough, and I ended up being completely overwhelmed by the amount of info provided. There were a million fishing spots and species – I didn’t care what I caught, as long as it was legal. After much back and forth I finally decided on a sunset spot for a family fishing frenzy, expecting to bring home a bucket full of Queenfish and Golden Trevally.
The stars were aligning: the tide would be high around sunset, which is when the fish eat, and I had the right lures and bait to seemingly bag as much as we could handle.
As I’m sure would be obvious from the outside, given my pisspoor record, we caught absolutely nothing. For one I forgot to take our bait (intended for Liv to throw in and bottom fish), meaning she was basically ruled out straight away. Loz and I lure-fished for hours straight and didn’t manage to attract a single bite, not one. Despite the disappointment, we had a beautiful afternoon family fishing, as dolphins passed by while the sun set perfectly.
Knowing we had taken no fish out of the sea, I rose early the following morning to chance my arm again, solo, attracting only a couple of bites and landing doughnuts.
Sticking like a strong Clohesive
By this stage in the trip Liv was pretty much obsessed with the Clohesy girls, Leona, Delilah, and Primrose. Loz and I also had a couple crush on Dan and Ali, so we were all super pumped to reconnect, which we did for the day, now staying in the same caravan park and checking out Exmouth – the only town with two IGA supermarkets directly across from each other – seriously, what the hell?!
Early the following morning, Dan and I, just as we had a few weeks prior in Broome, boarded a boat, busting to bag a bundle of whatever bit, while the girls took a glass-bottom boat on the reef.
On the slow journey out of the gulf onto the edge of Ningaloo Reef, we trawled unsuccessfully for Spanish Mackerel, until we reached depths of approximately 70m and a clutter of red on the fish-finder. That’s one of the first major differences I noticed here, was the depth of the water we were fishing in. I can’t remember what it was in Broome, but here it took so so long for the sinker to hit the bottom, and you could only imagine how long it took to reel in 70m of braided line.
Not unlike our Broome boat, it took a while for the first fish to bite, but once they started, the frenzy ensued. The first fish joining us aboard was a plethora of Honeycomb Cod, some good for keeps, but most for bait.
Then, while the whales began to breach endlessly in the background, the bigger fish started to find their appetite. Kobia, Sharks, Batfish, Cod and Emporer all having a field day until they reached the surface.
As seems standard practice on this side of the country, sharks were a battle all day, seen circling several times and often taking our catches right off the hook in front of our eyes; heartbreaking stuff when you’ve just spent all the energy you have reeling in a fighting fish from 70m below.
Between fish we spotted more whales than I’ve ever seen in my life, averaging one every few minutes I reckon. Turtles, dolphins and sea-snakes also made appearances throughout the day, having me repeat several times over, “this is the best place in the world!”
For me the Red Emperor I managed to get past the sharks we could see on the surfact was the highlight. That, and the fact that someone called it the catch of the day, often asking up to $70 per kilo apparently.
Dan and I shared our bag, admitting that it looked far more impressive that way, clearly outfishing all the other punters on the boat.
We returned home, victorious and proud to have provided again for our families. The menu that night was a mix of Kobia and Red Emperor, and it was as good as it gets.
Living the dream
At long last the day had come. It was a fresh morning when the bus picked me up and it didn’t take long for me to share my story with the crew, that this day had been 25 years in the making. I felt the atmosphere change as soon as I told them this was my dream, and I think they felt a sense of pressure that this had to live up to dangerously high expectations.
I was by myself, with Loz looking after Liv in the caravan park. Surrounded by families and foreigners all ready to swim with the world’s largest fish, I can almost guarantee this meant nothing to them compared to what it did for me, and I reckon the crew sensed it too. So much so that they pulled me aside pretty quickly and told me they’d look after me, so I wouldn’t get stuck with the slowest, begrudging kids in the water – effectively you can only move as fast as the slowest cog, and with a boat full of kids, some reluctant, the slowest cog looked like it was going to be running like a flat tyre.
Holly, the photographer and spotter, always first in the water, told me to stick with her. They only allow 10 people in the water with the whale sharks at any one time, effectively splitting the boat into two groups. The first group would jump in and swim with the sharks for a while, then the second group would jump in upstream while the first group returned to the boat. I was in both groups so didn’t have to get out of the water at all – winning.
At 10am the planes take off to start spotting the sharks from above, notifying the boats of their location so they can get amongst it and give the punters what they want. Conditions were ideal: wind was down, sun was out and water visibility was as good as it gets. All we needed next was a whale shark spotting and it would be on like Donkey Kong. Being by myself, I befriended the crew pretty quickly and was speaking to the skipper when the spottings started. One, two, three, four, more! Stacks of sharks spotted within minutes of hitting the air, and we were nearby – time to get ready.
It happens so quickly when it begins. All excitement is overwhelmed by the need to get fins and masks on stat – the whale sharks won’t wait, go go go!
By 10:10am we were in the water, waiting excitedly for a nearby whale shark to make himself known. You could see Holly, the photographer/spotter about a hundred metres in front of us, following the fish with her arms in the air, indicating the direction of travel. Before we knew it we were told to look down, now! Arrrrr! No time to think about it, this was the moment I had been looking forward to not only on the trip, but for decades.
Even more majestically than I imagined, the most beautiful whale shark came into my peripherals, just beneath the surface. It’s a moment I hope to remember forever – the elegance and beauty of this animal is truly mesmorising.
Completely overwhelmed by its size and beauty, I was totally still and forgot that we were here to not only observe these magnificent monsters, but to swim with them. And because of their size they don’t have to try very hard to move quickly – so I started swimming flat-stick to try and keep up.
And just as quickly as he arrived, he was gone again, continuing north towards who knows where. Back on the boat, there are plenty more fish in the sea, especially today.
The crew started to point out that days like this were incredibly rare where all the conditions stacked up like they were. Like 3 days a year it happened – it was just meant to be for me :). But it was about to get even better…
Watching whales, dolphins, and turtles in all directions while we migrated between sharks, it was no time at all before we were back in the water, waiting for the next whale shark to pass.
This bad boy was incredible, and friendlier than our newly elected PM is to the budget bottom line. Once he reached us, again blowing my mind, he then began to circle around us, again and again, to a point where you didn’t actually have to swim, you could just pivot on the spot while this gentle giant sussed us out. I ended up staying in the water with him for around an hour – just ridiculous. I can’t tell you how many of the same photo I took, but I seriously could not tire of this – an absolute life high-point.
And when we finally had to leave the water to allow another boat to swim with this legend, we had one more stop with another whale shark before exploring for more wildlife.
Ningaloo Discovery put on the best possible day, and I couldn’t recommend them high enough – now I just had to convince my beautiful wife that she had to do this…
As soon as I got home, drunk on adrenalin and a little bit of champagne, I all but dragged Loz to the booking office to get on the next available whale shark boat. Her arm was more rubbery than expected, and despite being a little hesitant about getting seasick and being scared in the open ocean with sharks (actual ones with teeth) circling below, she booked it in then and there, for the following week.
The Last Supper
The Clohesy’s were also out whale-sharking the same day (different boat) and agreed it was an all-time moment. They were even lucky enough to see a humpback give birth right beside their boat – that’s how f&*king good this place is!
This would be their final night in Exmouth, so we wandered to the Whalebone Brewery for a last dinner and drinks before parting ways until we see them again in Melbourne.
I’ve talked enough about our family crush on this incredible family, and it was so lovely to spend a good amount of time travelling with them.
A week later, after relaxing in Cape Range National Park, it was Loz’s turn to experience this bucket-list item that so many leave unticked in a lifetime.
When we dropped her off at the boat-ramp in the morning we could tell she was equally excited and nervous. She has a history of motion-sickness, and is notoriously scared of fish and the deep blue. So taking this step was monumental for her, but we knew (as long as she wasn’t ill onboard – helped by some tablets) she would only ever live to regret not doing it, rather than the other way around.
When we picked her up she was higher than a boat captain in Cape Tribulation, and we couldn’t wipe the smile off her face if we wanted to. She described her first spotting as bringing tears to her eyes – that’s the beauty of these magical animals, they are simply breathtaking.
That night, both reliving some of the greatest days of our lives, we agreed we now had a taste, and weren’t going to leave any stones unturned. So we booked in (for a few weeks’ time) to swim with Humpback Whales. More on that later :).
In the Navy (Pier)
After another week or so in the magnificent Cape Range National Park, I booked a scuba-dive at Navy Pier, rated as one of the Top 10 shore dives in the world. I missed out of diving on the Great Barrier Reef as my ears were playing up, so I was pretty pumped having not submerged for a couple of years. And given my obsession with huge amounts of sealife, this particular dive is famed for a plethora thereof.
Navy Pier is the kind of place where everything needs to stack up for you to even enter the water. Firstly, the tides need to be spot on, which only occurs about once per-week. Secondly the winds need to be heading in the right direction, and finally the swell must be below a particular level. If any of these factors don’t stack up, they won’t dive. So sometimes it won’t be seen for weeks on end.
I managed the slot the last spot on the following week’s dive, and despite conditions looking 50:50, I wasn’t going to leave Exmouth wondering. I called into the dive-shop the afternoon prior and they said it was a goer, so we pulled into the neighbouring caravan park to stay for the night. The dive was at 6:30am the following morning, so we weren’t going to risk an hour drive in from Cape Range with the amount of wildlife we had already seen on that road.
Great Grey Nomad Northern Migration
Each year there’s an incredible phenomenon even more amazing than the Staircase to the Moon. It happens on both of Australia’s east and west coasts, where Grey Nomads, in their thousands, migrate from the southern states, just like the whales, to the warmth of Queensland and Northern WA. There they plant themselves across the coast for months at a time, to keep the muscles from seizing in the apparently bitter colds of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. One can only assume the same thing happens in the UK, with thousands of similar nomads migrating to the southern shores of Spain and France etc. during winter.
Although not a new phenomenon for us to witness, what did surprise us was the impact it would have on us in Exmouth.
Only weeks prior we had rolled into Exmouth in school holidays and find a caravan park without any trouble. Assuming, now that it was outside holidays, we would have even less trouble parking up for a night in town, we were in complete shock when we were turned away by the two massive parks in town we had banked on.
Turns out the Grey Nomads had flocked to town after school holidays, and were about as willing to budge as Tony Abbott. Shit. What were we going to do? Not only did we not want to drive in from Cape Range at sparrow’s fart, we really just didn’t want to drive back there for the night, only to return again, and then back again the following afternoon.
So we hit the Visitors Centre, with a whisper that when all parks are full they open the close-by footy fields as an overflow area, ensuring everyone has somewhere to stay. Turns out their definition of ‘all caravan parks’ included the other two parks that were out of town, including one basically on the border of Cape Range National Park. We refused to budge and eventually they let us book in for the night, and stay on the footy fields, phew.
It was a Saturday, and as we pulled into the grounds to park for the night we noticed a few local footy boys in uniform warming up. Looks like it might be game night, and we are in prime position.
As the crowds started to arrive it became obvious there was a big game on, and we wandered over to watch Exmouth take on the undefeated Carnarvon in a surprisingly skillful game of AFL. A great way to pass the night with a few beers watching the footy while Liv found friends and played. We even had a streaker add to the entertainment – a dangerous notion in a small town where everyone seems to know everyone.
Navy Pier d
An early start and I was in the dark on the pushy, cruising through Exmouth towards the dive-shop, excited for my first dive since Sipadan. Everyone had their gear fitted and we were on the bus, northbound into an area long-time American-owned, where up until the late ninties they drove on the right-hand-side of the road, and you needed a USA passport to enter.
Now it was owned by the Australian Federal Police (or the Navy, can’t remember), and it was less inviting to tourists than North Korea. We each paid and entry fee which gave the driver access to a key to get into the grounds and down to the pier. Any incorrect info on the strict manifest and no one was diving – super strict, apparently.
We made it down to the pier while the Dive Master briefed us en-route, getting everyone equally excited and curious. Once we arrived it was time to split into three groups, buddy up, gear up, and get ready to snorkel out to our drop-zone, a hundred or so metres from shore.
The swell was decent and a little challenging to get past the first fifty metres, but it calmed as we got further away from the beach. I was in the second group, and my buddy was an old fella from the UK who had only dived a few times. This made me a little nervous as I hadn’t dived for a couple of years, but worst case it wasn’t a deep dive, and we could always easily come to the surface should we encounter any issues.
Once our group all reached the drop-zone we deflated and started to descend down a buoy rope to the bottom, only 5m from the surface. We would then meet there, regroup and continue to descend and move further offshore through the pier.
I did as instructed, following the four people in front of me, while my buddy would follow, and finally our dive master. When I reached the bottom it became bleedingly obvious how tough conditions were. You couldn’t see more than about 50cm in front of you, in any direction. So I had lost the four people in front of me, and my buddy was also nowhere to be seen. There I remained, calmly, for a few minutes, until realising something was amiss, so I ascended to find my buddy and dive master still catching breath from the swim out from shore.
Okay, good to go for take two. We buddied up again and descended together, with the dive master coming in and out of vision in front of us. We found the others at the bottom and moved as a group towards the pier. I tried to stick as close as possible to the dive master, only spotted every now and then with a fin in my face. I’d never dived in conditions like this before – if we couldn’t see anyone in front of us, how the hell were we going to see all the fish?!
Turns out not as hard as I thought… As I was closely following the dive master with my buddy beside me, I noticed a large dark shadow to his left, originally assuming it was another diver from our group. On a second take I noticed this monster shadow wasn’t a diver at all, it was the biggest fish I had ever seen (bar a whale shark). This Groper was as long or longer and as wide or wider than me, no kidding. Despite it’s ridiculously intimidating look, it was incredibly friendly, curiously swimming in-between divers as it pleased, wondering what all the fuss was about.
After travelling somewhere between 50-100m towards the pier, the big friendly Groper in-tow, the dive master grouped everyone together and indicated for us to surface together. Surfacing was a challenge in itself – this was a pier and there were poles and bollards seemingly everywhere in the murky water. I started to ascend and looked up to find I was headed straight towards a barnacle-ridden pole, needing to navigate around it – it’s probably the scardest I’ve ever felt in the water – even more so that ascending through a school of jelly-fish in Sri-Lanka. Once on top our dive master informed us we were calling it then and there. There was no way we were going to see anything, and it was pretty damn dangerous. Damn it! I knew this was my only chance for Navy Pier – the stars had misaligned and it wasn’t meant to be. Not to worry, there was plenty to look forward to.
Full credit to the dive shop for giving everyone full refunds – they would’ve run at a massive loss that day for something completely out of their hands. But I feel like I would’ve felt short-changed had I not got my money back for a 5-minute terrifying dive.
On the tip of the Exmouth Peninsula, the Vlaming Head Lighthouse atop a hill with 360′ views took us a few weeks before we visited. We headed up for lunch after my failed Navy Pier dive, on our way back to Cape Range, and ate lunch in awe watching whales. I have tried to describe the abundance of whales in this part of the world to numerous people, saying that you could sit and watch the water for five minutes and be guaranteed to see a whale. As it happens five minutes is a drastic over-estimation – you really only need to look out for about 2 minutes, and I could guarantee you’ll see at least one whale cruising past, playfully. Vlaming Head offers the perfect view for this, with the view of Ningaloo Reef continuing as far as the eyes will allow.
A couple of days later we were back at sunset, fully setup to cook pizzas and whale-watch with a beer while the sun hid behind the ocean. So so memorable and a great reminder of how magical this part of Australia is – simply the best.
Swimming with humpbacks
After the incredible experience swimming with the world’s largest fish, Loz and I agreed that swimming with one of the world’s largest mammals seemed like a natural progression.
We originally booked two separate days, just as we had done with the whale sharks, assuming each of us would have a better time as a result, being fully relaxed and not having to entertain Liv onboard (she’s only just learnt how to swim, let alone putting a snorkel and mask on and jumping into the deep blue).
With a keen eye on the weather forecast, it looked like my day was going to be okay, and Loz’s with horrendously with high swell and wind. Ningaloo Discovery agreed and cancelled Loz’s day a few days out, then kindly offered for her to come on the same day as me and Liv to come onboard for free (usually hundreds of dollars). They knew we were keen-beans and had already spent a decent amount with them with the whale sharks, so seemed eager to please. Not only that, they said they’d be happy to look after Liv onboard, allowing the two of us to experience the whales together, amazing.
The wind was forecast to howl in the arvo, so the day started earlier than planned, and we were picked up from the Lighthouse Caravan Park, more pumped up than our outside rear tyres that were only recently given flexi-valves and inflated for the first time in 20,000kms.
I’ve already mentioned that whales are at an absolute surplus in this part of the world, so we expected it wouldn’t take long for us to be in the water. Turns out it’s a lot more complex than that… Yes there are more whales than hard-right Liberal Party members, but legislation only allows punters to swim with them under certain criteria, such as not joining mothers with calves, or males breaching or flapping tails etc. So we saw plenty of whales before we actually jumped in the water for the first time.
With Liv happily drawing inside the cabin, we were put into group 3, which consisted of just the two of us and one other person – awesome. The first swimmable whale was spotted from above and group one were in, waiting, while we heard the calls from the plane, “500 metres, swim east, stop. 200 metres. Whale has changed direction.” Damn, it moved so they had to hop back on the boat – time to find another one.
It didn’t take long and group two were in with a whale approaching from the south. They were in the ideal position; all bar one punter. One of the dudes, it appeared, was a weak swimmer and couldn’t keep up with the group. And so the crew member in the water with the group, instructing everyone what to do, where to swim and when to look down, doubled back to pick him up. The problem was that she was the only one in the water with a radio. And so, while she was swimming back to basically rescue this guy, leaving the group like a stranded school of fish in the middle of the rising swell, the call came over the radio that the whale was right beneath the group. All they had to do was look down; a whale was right beneath them, only metres away, almost close enough to touch. But the entire group weren’t aware, as the crew member wasn’t with them to instruct and advise them. It was a disaster for them, and they didn’t even know it. On the boat we were flabergastered! We couldn’t believe that these guys got to swim with a humpback and they didn’t even know it! All because of the slowest cog.
Okay, next it was our turn to get in the water once we had the next whale in our sights. We were excited but also dubious, given the failed success of the previous two groups. In we jumped, with two crew members now in-tow (both with radios), hoping to avoid the previous catastrophe. We stuck with the group photographer, knowing he would be close to the action when it all went down. He repeated the radio calls to us from the plane and boat, “500m, 400m, 200m, get ready.” And then, like Bill Shorten and a bi-election, he changed direction at the last minute, leaving us stranded with nothing to look at but a sandy bottom (of the ocean). Another failure, time to get back onboard and wait our turn :(.
It appears the crew seemed to like us, so they somehow managed to put the two of us in the next group, pew pew. But again, we tried and failed, doing our very best to change direction to that of the whale, but it turns out these >10m giants and their huge tailspan can swim just a little faster than Benvenue’s Year 6 women’s swimming champ, and a guy who once made it to District.
Again, we were lucky enough to also be selected in the next group in the water – we had a good feeling about this one.
The calls came over the radio, just like before, counting down from 500m. But this time it was getting closer, and closer. And finally the call came over, “Look down, NOW!” We ducked our heads into the water, with visibility spot-on, waiting, waiting, come on! And then, in the most graceful way possible, a humpback came in from the right, slowed, and duck-dived right in front of our eyes. The water was only 10m deep so we could see the whole thing, and it was magical. He appeared to turn a little for us, as if to show off and say hi, and then gently swam away while Loz, the most excited I think I’ve ever seen her, frantically and hopelessly chased after him. This was one of those moment, one of which we seemed to have too many of in the Exmouth Peninsula.
We celebrated like it was 1999 when we returned to the boat, with those left onboard happy for us but also obviously sad they weren’t part of it. Unfortunately for them the winds and swells were rising, so this would be the boat’s last swim for the day.
How fortunate we were that everything added up for us. Not only did we manage to get on the first day of the season, and be in the right group at the right time (although it now seems we were in every group), but could also experience this together. Life moment!
On our way home we also dropped in for a drift-snorkel on the reef; time to let the adrenalin run its course through our bods.
The town with two IGA’s turned dreams into memories, and up to this point, is our favourite part of the country.