Ningaloo Reef Marine Park (and whale sharks!)

Sorry for the delay in blogging - a mixure of travelling, lots of driving and experiencing some wonders of marine life up here in Exmouth. With quick overnight stops in Geraldton and Denham along the way, I made it in good time to Exmouth and one of the undoubted jewels in WA’s marine park network, Ningaloo Reef.

Oyster Stacks - snorkelling with corals just off the shore

Oyster Stacks - snorkelling with corals just off the shore

NIngaloo Reef is isolated and unique, its fringing reef allowing snorkelling among coral reefs just metres off some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Designated in 1987, it shares the accolade of being one of WA’s oldest marine parks, and together with a corresponding federal marine park that extend further than 3 nautical miles, the park makes up around 5080km2. Then there is a further offshore marine park, the “Gascogne Marine Park”, which joins up to the combined Ningaloo Reef marine park (although sanctuary zones there were reduced in 2017).

Turquoise Bay “drift” side - stick your snorkel in at the far end and let the current take you up to this point - one of the must-do snorkel sites

Turquoise Bay “drift” side - stick your snorkel in at the far end and let the current take you up to this point - one of the must-do snorkel sites

As well as the corals, Ningaloo has amazing turtle nesting and hatching, dugongs, dolphin and sharks, including the majestic whale shark, young males of which arrive regularly from this time of year to take advantage of the coral spawning. More of that later!

Delving into the management of the marine park

Pretty much the first thing I did when I got here to Exmouth was head to the Parks and Wildlife Service office to meet Pete Barnes. Pete is the Ningaloo marine park coordinator, a pretty amazing job, and in charge of the overall management of the park, including its sanctuary zones. We met in Pete’s office, a thankfully air-conditioned cabin as the temperature outside was well over 40 degrees.

Ningaloo has so many amazing natural assets that it unsurprisingly is a major draw for tourists, and it’s here where most of the pressures on the park lies, along with fishing. Pete and I chatted about the difficult balance to be struck on how much you can encourage magical experiences like swimming with whale sharks, before affecting the condition of the sanctuary zones. One of the best snorkel sites, Turquoise Bay (really just stunning) is backed up with cars in high season out the car parks and onto the main road. I got the sense that the answer to this question has not yet been found.

The old NIngaloo management plan and zones (sanctuary zones in Green, compared to the more recent zones above

The old NIngaloo management plan and zones (sanctuary zones in Green, compared to the more recent zones above

The issue of monitoring came up and Pete was clear: monitoring is all great but it needs to be linked to management and to reducing the pressures on the sanctuary zones. So as well as just measuring nudibranchs or condition, try to use it to answer some of the questions about what the impact of different activitieis are. And showcase the economic and social changes that would occur.

The economic argument was one that we also came back to, notably that you can’t, even in Ningaloo, rely purely on the ecological case for these zones. Some way of showcasing the economic case for such sites can be crucual in winning hearts and minds of the local community and speaking in simple language. It doen’t need to be in dollars or pounds, but some way of communicating the economic importance of the park helps.

Just missed a nesting green turtle….

Just missed a nesting green turtle….

Ningaloo was rezoned incrementally in 2004 to increase the percentage of sanctuary zones to 34%, 1% greater than the Great Barrier Reef and by far the most in the WA region. That was a reflection of NIngaloo’s importance and spending a few days here I can really see why. It’s such a special place.

Swimming with Whale Sharks

I was also lucky enough to go on a whale shark tour with Ningaloo Blue - a really well-run operation with super keen staff that know all the rules about swimming with whale sharks. During the trip I had the chance to chat with the videographer Vee from Blue Media Exmouth, who took these amazing photos below , and they obviously recognise the importance of the sanctuary zones and the need to protect the reef that brings the sharks that brings the people that brings the money. And when we snorkelled later outside the sanctuary zones, meeting some fishermen, the captain Brad exclaimed “it’s okay, it’s not sanctuary. Can’t fish in sanctuary!”.

It was a special experience and one I won’t forget in a while.

What a privilege to see this whale shark (image: Vee at Blue Media Exmouth)

What a privilege to see this whale shark (image: Vee at Blue Media Exmouth)

Image: Vee at Blue Media Exmouth

Image: Vee at Blue Media Exmouth