Western Australia's stunning Ningaloo Reef and Coral Coast need to be on any marine life lovers bucket list.
While many flock overseas or to the Great Barrier Reef for extraordinary beaches, diving, stunning landscapes and wildlife experiences, Aussies needn't look further than Western Australia’s stunning Coral Coast.
Home to two World Heritage sites, you can also get up close with whale sharks, humpback whales and dolphins - and see ancient canyons and gorges.
The Coral Coast is home to some of the world’s most diverse marine wildlife habitats, including the world heritage sites at Ningaloo Reef and Shark Bay. Extending more than 1200 kilometers north of Perth, the journey up the coast is ideal for a road trip holiday, or only a 1.5 hr flight away for the time poor.
Whether camping, caravanning or staying in a hotel in one of the region’s hubs, a trip to the Coral Coast is perfect for families, couples and even a soul-searching solo traveler.
The Indian Ocean Drive
This stretch of the Coral Coast starts just outside of Perth, extending around 400 kilometers up the coast to Geraldton.
After driving through Yanchep and approaching the halfway mark along Indian Ocean Drive you’ll hit Cervantes, and one of the first ‘tourist’ destinations I visited as a kid - the Pinnacles.
Just out of Cervantes within Nambung National Park, the Pinnacles are an eerie sight; literally thousands of limestone formations sticking straight up into the West Australian sky.
When you’re ready for a spot of lunch, head back into Cervantes to check out the Lobster Shack - as well as serving up fresh, local lobster dishes, they also offer a tour through the Cervantes Islands, where you can spot Australian sea lions.
Back on the road, you’ll travel up through Lancelin, a worthwhile stop for sand and surf lovers (we always make time for some dune surfing here).
Buckle in for a few hours behind the wheel as you drive through to Jurien Bay, famed for its snorkeling spots, then through Dongara to Geraldton.
Geraldton is a great choice for an overnight stop, with a wide range of accommodation options and plenty to explore.
It’s amazing to see the rapid development of a city which has retained a lot of its coastal small-town charm.
The town center and surrounding beaches are dotted with historical landmarks, museums, arts and cultural hotspots and great shopping.
Foodies will love getting their fill of local seafood. I always recommend the Sail-Inn Snack Bar as my pick for top rate fish and chips.
As you continue along the coast towards Carnarvon, you’ll drive through field after field of wildflowers.
Around 200 kilometers outside of Geraldton, you’ll pass another great potential stopover spot, Kalbarri.
A renowned fishing spot, the biggest highlight of the area for me is hiking through Kalbarri National Park, where you can walk across the clifftops and take in the gorgeous river gorge and rock formations.
While you’re here, take in a truly unique view of the distinctive red rock formations of WA, at Natures Window - an arch frame made entirely by nature from rock, only a kilometer’s walk from the carpark.
If you're feeling adventurous and keen for more snaps of the perfectly framed river running past the Window, It’s also the start of the 8km Loop Walk Trail.
Shark Bay and Monkey Mia
Further north you’ll reach the start of the Shark Bay World Heritage Drive and Monkey Mia, where you'll find over 2 million hectares of marine habitats.
Despite 70 per cent of the region being covered with water, it isn't short of diverse landscapes, from rocky limestone cliffs to white sand dunes and vibrant red hills.
There are loads of short walks throughout the whole area (the Tourist Bureau have maps if you don’t fancy winging it), where you’ll find great vantage points to check out the scenery and abundant wildflowers.
Steep Point and Shelter Bay offer a back-to-nature spot to pitch a tent on the westernmost tip of Australia - we’re talking no running water or power, but stunning vistas and excellent fishing (don't forget you will need a permit).
Do be warned this is strictly 4-wheel drive territory, an everyday people mover won’t navigate these tracks.
Shark Bay is also a popular spot for windsurfing and kite boarding. The best spots are the Denham foreshore, Little Lagoon and Monkey Mia.
Kayaking and paddling are also popular, though you’re better off heading to the inner gulfs of Shark Bay, which are better protected from swells.
Eagle Bluff is perfect for snorkeling, with clear shallow waters that snake around the bluff, and provide a home for easily-visible starfish, sea cucumbers and urchins.
If you’re game to venture further out, Bar Flats is a popular dive and snorkel site accessible by boat.
It's home to Australia’s largest sea grass meadow, and filled with tiny fish, soft corals, staghorn and cabbage.
You’ll also spot sponges, sea anemones, yellow tubeworms, and one of Australia’s biggest populations of dugongs.
No trip to the area would be complete without taking part in the Monkey Mia dolphin experience. If you can get to the shore between 7.30am and 12 noon, you can catch them being fed.
The regular pod of seven or eight wild bottlenose dolphins swim in to shore and interact with humans, and there’s groups of up to 20 that swing by from time to time.
Further up the coast again, Ningaloo is famed for being Australia’s most pristine reef, which can be accessed straight from the beach.
It’s also the only place in Australia where you can swim with whale sharks (from March to July) and humpback whales (June to November).
Ningaloo Reef is one of only a handful of locations worldwide where huge, harmless whale sharks regularly congregate.
Turtles and manta rays are also around in numbers. Scuba diving trips, glass bottom boat cruises, underwater scooter tours, sail cruises, sea kayaking tours and scenic or microlight flights are all available via the Exmouth Visitor Centre.
Popular with snorkelers yet completely beginner-friendly, the outer edge of the Ningaloo Reef surrounds a clear lagoon, and is brimming with marine life.
Many choose to snorkel their own path, though if you want to see the more ‘secret’ spots, I’d recommend signing up with one of the many local operators for a guided underwater tour.
The tip of the Coral Coast - Exmouth
Exmouth is easily accessed by air if you’d prefer not to drive, and is a favored holiday spot for many families based in WA-based.
For this reason, accommodation can book out quickly in peak holiday times, so if you plan to stay, book as far in advance as possible.
Head up to the Cape Range National Park, located 42 kilometers out of Exmouth for some world class snorkeling spots, all easily accessible from the shore.
More into land based activities? Check out the Yardie Creek Walk Trail, a two kilometer walk overlooking the ancient Yardie Creek gorge (and from the top of the trail, views over Ningaloo Reef).
It’s also home to some rare wildlife. If you’re lucky, you may spot the black footed wombat - or you can count on seeing red kangaroos.
Turquoise Bay in Exmouth is always a favourite destination in Australia thanks to its white sands, turquoise water, and coral reefs.
Snorkelers should visit the ‘Drift’ - head to the 'Drift Snorkel' carpark, where you can walk straight in from the shore and swim out, where the current will carry you north over the beautiful, fish-filled coral gardens.
This article is brought to you by Tourism WA.