everyone has heard of the great barrier reef. it’s huge, it’s the only living organism that can be seen from space (technically not a single organism but let’s not get hung up on that), it’s conveniently located on the east coast of australia and only a short flight away from the major centers.

fewer people have heard of ningaloo, which, while relatively small compared to the great barrier reef, is the biggest fringing reef on the planet.

‘fringing’ is the operative word here: it means the reef is right up on the coast and you can literally walk in from the beach and start snorkeling in knee-deep water. we did that today and saw a moray eel with a cute yellow face, a few blue spotted stingrays trying to hide, a cuttlefish that was brilliant at changing colours as we watched, parrot fish feeding on the coral, butterfly fish and many others we don’t know the names of. yesterday natalie spotted a lion fish from the beach and counted seven sting rays trying to sleep.

ningaloo is also home to many larger sea creatures. the reason is that here two ocean currents meet, which results in a nutrient-rich environment that attracts and supports amongst others dolphins (we spotted some yesterday), dugongs, orcas, humpbacks, but most famously the whale shark (which we won’t see) and the manta rays.

i should also say a few things about coral bay. during our western australia trip 12 years ago this was my favourite spot. it may have lost a bit of it’s gloss: the caravan park is as roomy as a box of sardines (maybe due to the long weekend) and one feels it would actually improve if a merciful tornado came through and decided to rearrange the amenities block. there are a few shops that look and feel like they have not been upgraded since they were built in the seventies and the ‘super market’ is reminiscent of a convenience store in communist hungary. however, all is forgiven when you get out to the beach.

we brought out the ‘outside’ again and paddled out in search of a good spot. turns out the best is right off the beach.

we generally only use our own photos, but in this case we have to make an exception: these underwater photos were all shot by tara, the marine biologist / photographer who came with us on the manta ray tour. we didn’t bring a waterproof camera but even if we had, they would not be anywhere near as good as the ones she shot. thanks for letting us use the photos!

this is how it works: first we went snorkeling out on the reef and watched a few grey reef sharks getting themselves cleaned.

they do that by pulling into certain spots on the coral where cleaner wrasse live. the wrasse eat parasites living on the shark, e.g. on their gills. this is an important job, it feeds the wrasse and keeps the bigger animals healthy.

a spotter plane was then used to find the manta rays for us. some days they only find individual animals cruising around but we got lucky. that’s not a fin in the photo above, that’s a manta wingtip.

the manta rays also get themselves cleaned from time to time, these guys, however, were just feeding very close to shore.

we saw six or seven mantas in a small area, which is really rare. they are solitary creatures and don’t normally hang out with each other.

the feeding must have been really good that day.

and check the one below, the one without a tail:

this is a rare black ray. most mantas are black on top and have a white belly with spots. these spots are unique like fingerprints and are used to identify the animals. tara shares her photos with the local research team; the pictures are used to understand how many mantas live here and whether they are local or just turn up from time to time.

there is a local population of (i hope i get this right) about 80 mantas but many more come in to feed. these coastal mantas like the ones we saw get to about 5m wingspan, the oceanic mantas outside the reef can get up to almost double that. let me tell you, even the ‘smaller’ coastal mantas are very impressive.

on the way back we stopped at another snorkel spot, this time we didn’t see any sharks but a few green turtles were having a look around.

ningaloo is an amazing place and if you like diving, snorkeling or generally marine life you need to put ningaloo on your itiniary. we’re enjoying coral bay for now but we’ll be heading north soon and check a few more sites on the east side of the cape range national park. before that, however, we’ll go to karijini.

this is how they ‘fly’. they are surely among the most graceful animals living in the sea.