“Look down now!” yells our guide as we pile off the boat into the deep blue. Still adjusting my snorkel, I peer down, straight into the face of an enormous shark, incoming like a slow-moving bus. It’s a harmless whale shark, and I stare goggle-eyed at the 10-metre-long behemoth. The toothless mouth gapes as its spotted body glides by. Adrenaline courses through me as I gaze after the disappearing tail, and I’m exhilarated by its wild beauty.
I’m offshore from Exmouth, Western Australia, some 1200 kilometres north of Perth. It’s a wild, red-dirt outpost, perched on the edge of North West Cape, a finger of land pointing into the Indian Ocean. On its eastern side is sheltered Exmouth Gulf, while the western cape is flanked by vibrant Ningaloo Reef. Whale sharks visit every year between March and July (often until September), and like most human visitors, it’s Ningaloo Reef that brings them here.
But it wasn’t tourism that started the town. Exmouth began as a US Navy listening base in 1967, during the Cold War. Today, the base still has antennas up to 387 metres tall that communicate with submarines around the world. It was a tiny town on a wild frontier then, and although Exmouth now offers every creature comfort, it’s the astounding natural wonders of this place that still generate that untamed vibe.
On a visit to the Ningaloo Aquarium and Discovery Centre, I find out more about this American-born town, complete with Chevrolets that cruised the right-hand side of the road. Stepping inside a cyclone chamber, I feel the extraordinary force of Cyclone Vance, which battered Exmouth in 1999, and I get an underwater introduction with displays of colourful reef life.
I’m ready to explore the wilds of the reef firsthand, and decide on a guided snorkelling tour. On the 50-minute drive to Turquoise Bay in Cape Range National Park, my guide Neri Grieve of Exmouth Adventures shares her passion for the environment.
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