Overnight stays: Peoples Park, Coral Bay (3 nights)
I don’t know what it is, but whenever we turn up to a town with two or more caravan parks, rather than picking the family-friendly one with jumping castles, playgrounds and movie nights, we pick the Grey Nomad park with noise curfews and exclusive happy hours. Every time!
And so was the case in the tiny town of Coral Bay, barely a town at all, but for a general store, two caravan parks, two dive shops, and a bakery. The People’s Park was recommended to us so that’s what we went for; and we were the youngest in the park but about 40 years.
Not to worry, the park was right across from the beach, and despite being thrown up the back in the unpowered section, we loved the vibe of the town and were keen to settle in for a few nights.
We unhoooked the bikes after a few weeks off in Cape Range and rode around to the boat ramp in some of the toughest headwinds we’ve experienced. There, along the cliff we saw a beautiful rock shelf with stacks of fish swimming along below, seemingly perfect for fishing. Noted for a return journey later in the stay.
Back to the main beach for another nice ocean sunset of which we’d by now become accustomed to, and we noted that things were just starting a feel a bit colder. Our endless summer might have stretched about 7 months, but it seemed the sun might be starting to set on wearing thongs, shorts and shirts anytime of day.
Swimming with mantas
Coral Coast companies talk about, ‘swimming with the big three’ like it’s some sort of thing. I can’t recall ever hearing any reference of ‘the big three’ being whale-sharks, humpbacks, and manta rays prior to visiting the area, but I’ll be buggered if I was going to miss out on the third of this fictional trilogy, so I booked a trip as soon as we arrived in Coral Bay.
The first thing I noticed when I boarded the boat, apart from being given shit about my Swans beanie (they had just lost to Brisbane and Essendon), was the fact that I needed a beanie. The air was hovering around 8’C and despite the delicious sunshine, I was about as keen to jump in the water as an senior white-house official is to put their name to a New York Times op-ed.
The intro dive, while the plane searched for mantas, as one of the best of the trip. Not only was I blown away by the mammoth coral garden that gives Coral Bay it’s name, but I was able to get up close with rays, turtles, clams, and stacks of fish.
It seems the mantas were shy on this morning, or at least sleeping in; unsurprising given the cool morning. And so we waited in the bay, cruising around in search of dolphins, sharks, and whales.
As had become customary for us along the Ningaloo Reef, it took all of about a minute for the first pod of whales to make an appearance, playing in the bay.
At last the word came over the radio; there were mantas spotted, time to move.
Apparently it’s more common than not for mantas to move in small groups, or often solo. Today was different – apparently there was five or six spotted swimming together, Bingo.
Not unlike the process with humpbacks and whale-sharks, we jumped in as a group and waited as the spotter shared direction with the rays. The great thing about these bad boys was that you could swim right on top of them. And so we did as they reached us, at a beautifully gentle pace, until we were back on the boat, getting ready to do it all again.
I’ll be honest, there were a couple of things that disappointed me a little on this experience, despite being able to jump in and swim with these beautiful creatures four times in an hour or so:
1. Visibility – rays tend to prefer sand over coral, so this group were quite close to shore. Unfortunately the part of the shore they were close to was pretty shallow, with small waves breaking not far in from where we were, which meant visibility wasn’t as clear as I was accustomed to in this part of the world.
2. Size – whale-sharks can grow to 18m, humpbacks to like 30m or something, and mantas up to 8m or so. But the ones in the bay max out at around 3m. So when you’ve swum with the biggest fish in the world and one of the biggest mammals, a bay manta ray is going to battle to meet your expectations.
3. Expectation – manta ray marketing is all about the under-ray shot. You know, like when you go to an aquarium and walk through the ever-existent tunnel only to look up to a huge dark shadow that focuses to a manta cruising along the top of the glass? Well I was kind of expecting that, but without the glass. I was hoping we could dive to the bottom and swim under the rays, recreating the beautiful photos we were sold on. I think legislation (or at least that’s what I was told) only allows punters to swim above mantas, deeming the money-shot a continuing dream.
On our way home we had one more dive at a place called The Cleaning Station. I was pretty pumped about this spot, as our friends John and Belinda from Tulki Beach had told me about the fascinating phenomenon that occurs here. They described a large bommie where sharks line up one by one, and then come in to sit on the bommie and open their mouth, almost smile-like, allowing a particular species of fish that lives there a chance to clean their teeth – not even kidding. I’m fascinated with how ecosystems work and this just sounded completely out of this world – like something you’d see in a movie like Shark Tale or Finding Nemo.
Our skipper described it a little less comically, explaining that fish and sharks who have a build-up of bacteria, sometimes in their teeth (but often on their skin) will come here and be cleaned by these tiny little fish, who feed on that very bacteria. Amazing how the world works 👏🏻.
After a short swim over to the station we quickly spotted three sharks circling below us, waiting to be cleaned. They didn’t smile like I ignorantly expected them to, but it was pretty amazing to see.
Every second day on the main beach at Coral Bay, punters are invited to the edge of the water, where dozens of massive fish linger, waiting to be hand-fed. We had been told about this event by stacks of fellow travellers, for some as a reason alone to visit Coral Bay.
As we lined up along the water, knee-deep, the fish started to come, swivelling between our legs, begging for the easiest feed they’ve been so used to. We expected it could go two ways with Liv – she would either embrace and love it, or be scared right out of her pants, leaving a sobbing mess in our arms. Thankfully it was the former, and she was uber-excited to feed the, with the few turns she was allowed.
On our final day in Coral Bay, we hired a kayak, giving us opportunity to check out the whole bay and snorkel wherever we wanted. There were bugger-all people around so we had the pick of the bay to ourselves. We tied up to a few different moorings, where either Loz or I would jump out for a snorkel in the incredible coral garden below.
Ayers Rock fail
There’s a well known bommie a hundred metres or so off the beach at Coral Bay called Ayers Rock. It’s called this because of its vague resemblance of the big rock in The Red Centre. It can be notoriously difficult to find underwater, with only a few loose landmarks given as clues by locals, and the fact that the bay and coral garden is bigger than the GWS/Swans Elimination Final score difference 🙁.
We managed to find it on the kayak without too much drama, allowing Loz to jump in and circumnavigate the monster rock in search of some awesome fish, while Liv and I struggled to keep up with the quickly-souring conditions above the water in a 2-person kayak, battling to fight the strong current.
Loz claimed it as one of the best snorkels of her life, but was also happy to call it a day, so I dropped her and Liv back to the beach, and swapped the kayak for a single; eager to checkout Ayers Rock for myself.
With the girls heading towards the warmth of the WomBatmobile, the rain starting, and wind increasing, I paddled my single kayak back out towards the bommie, paddling directly over it towards the closest mooring where I parked to swim back the 70m or so for a much-hyped snorkel.
In the water I used the landmark, references provided to line myself up with Ayers Rock, but looking around in the water, all I could see was coral and fish – no Uluru… So I spent the next 10-15 mins trying to realign and find the rock, but it had gone, vanished into thin air 🤷🏼♂️.
I eventually gave up, and decided I’d had enough snorkelling, realising I’d been totally spoilt up until this point anyway. So I swam back to the kayak for a gentle paddle home, albeit against a strong drift. When I made it to the kayak I soon realised that there was no paddle. What the hell was going on?! It seems I hadn’t secured the paddle well enough, and the wind and waves had knocked it off, drifting it into the abyss. Not only was I upset that this was going to cost us financially, but I felt this the very definition of up shit creek, without a paddle.
So I remained in the water, and dragged my kayak back to shore, against the current, all the way up the beach, and embarrassingly explained to the rental guy what has happened. He was understanding but like me, a Capitalist, so took my hard-earned for a new paddle and with my head between my legs, I stumbled back to the motorhome with one of the trip’s biggest fails now behind me, drifting gently towards Broome.
Finding the unicorn
Later that afternoon, with the sun shining again, and Loz’s convincing pretty eyes egging me on, I did eventually find the hidden bommie, by swimming out from the beach. Thankfully there were already a couple of punters snorkelling there, so the landmarks became less dependable.
The snorkelling here was awesome, and my last for a long time. There were some monster fish and the rock itself was quite the spectacle.
Coral Bay, all the way
We had heard mixed reviews about Coral Bay, mostly around, “it’s beautiful, but busy”. We like busy – busy means vibe to us, and that vibe, combined with the ridiculously massive and beautiful coral garden, made our Coral Bay stay an absolute ripper.