West Coast Australia: Stromatolites, Monkey Mia and Ningaloo Reef

GUEST ARTICLE: In which our intrepid outback explorer Rob gets a closeup view of ancient living fossil stromatolites, snorkels at a Coral reef and has close encounters with dolphins, dugongs, a whale shark and giant manta ray.

After landing in Perth and picking up our rental (little Subaru) we drove 4 1/2hrs to our first stop – Geraldton for the night. Nice little mining/fishing/farming town but a little too ‘ghost’ like…we’re talkin’ serious tumble weed town. Although we did get to go on a tour of one of the worlds biggest Live Lobster Exporter factories (100% Aussie) which was pretty interesting and yes…delish!

The next day we drove to Denham (next to Monkey Mia) which was about a 4 hour drive down a fairly deserted highway with the exception of the odd road train (mega semis with about 3-4 flatbeds in tow!).

Bone dry fields of rich deep red earth lined either side of the road and the heat!! Oh man! the temperature gauge just kept going up and up until it hit a very dry stifling hot +44C!!

About 80km just before Denham we noticed a minuscule sign to the right saying ‘Stromatolites’ that away. Needing a much needed stretch anyway we decided to go check them out. After about 5km we drove into a very little dusty place called Hamelin Pool in Shark Bay.

Stromatolites - Hamelin Pool, Shark Bay - Western Australia

The intense heat was a blast to the face after exiting the comfort of our little A/C slice of heaven but we were on a mission! It was actually very lucky for us that we did decide to stop, it turns out these Stromatolites are the world’s oldest living organisms that can be seen and were a major factor in Shark Bay being declared a World Heritage Area.

Stromatolites were built by primitive life forms called cyanobacteria that first existed on earth 3.5 billion years ago!, reach up to about 60cm in height and grow at a rate of less than 1mm per year. They say the discovery of these ‘living fossils’ was akin to finding a live dinosaur, now that’s incredible!!

Back on the road again we came across, or I should say almost wiped out 2 big Emus! Man, could you imagine hitting one of those things (they’re only about as big as our little car)! It would be sad to kill such a beautiful animal but another thing to get a face/mouthful of Big Bird ass! Lol! (Fabio eat your heart out!)

Fortunately the roads up here are pretty much deserted and you can see for miles so we had plenty of warning and Kodak time.

Denham is a nice little town situated on Shark Bay, the color of the ocean water has an incredible array of greens and blues with patches of dark sea grass and white sand.

Fortunately the weather here is a much cooler +34!?! The water is very warm ranging from +24-26C and great for swimming as long as you do it first thing in the morning otherwise you get the afternoon gale that only increases as the night goes on.

Yesterday morning we drove about 15 minutes to the famous Monkey Mia and watched the daily dolphin feed. There were only about a handful of us there and we got to stand in the water just inches away from about 10 Bottlenosed dolphins lazing about waiting to get some free grub, soo cool!

Dolphin - Monkey Mia, Western Australia

Afterwards we went on a sailing safari on a catamaran called the Shotover, we had the wonderful opportunity to spot giant sea turtles, dolphins, a sea snake (one of the most poisonous in the world) and Dugongs and their babies.

Dugongs are a milk chocolate brown colour and resemble Manatee (sea cows), they are very docile creatures and feed on sea grass. They also have a really cool self defence mechanism, for example if one of the very common Tiger Sharks here wanted a nibble, the Dugong’s skin automatically tightens and turns to a very hard plate of armour making it impossible to penetrate.

It’s so tough in fact that if a shark were to surprise it and sink it’s teeth in, the skin still hardens instantly cementing and breaking off the shark’s teeth in it’s skin, and once it feels it’s out of danger it’s skin relaxes and releases the teeth, cool eh!

The view of the coastline from the boat was pretty amazing, such a beautiful stark contrast of great dark red Aussie earth, white sand beaches and blue green waters – spectacular!

Monkey Mia beach, Western Australia

We tried a bit of snorkelling in a few places but unfortunately there wasn’t too much to see except for a few wonderful surprises – 1 Shovel Nosed Ray (about 4-5ft), 1 green sea turtle and 1 sea snake (3ft) and lots of small Blue Spotted Rays.

Not too bad for cruising close to the beach, we weren’t about to go out too far, they don’t call this place Shark Bay for nothin’! and I kinda like my legs….


Today we went to visit a little Ocean Park just outside of Denham. Very cool little place with a great collection of all the local sea life like – baby Loggerhead turtles (they get massive), Stone Fish (extremely dangerous and uglier than sin!), eels, lobster, rays, a big pond of Snapper (yum) and a few other very cool and curious fish (they actually pop their heads out of the water and give you a once over…weird!).

Last but not least a big pond of sharks with a little walkway and observatory. It held a few very big Sandbar Sharks (not very kind to humans and if you see one it’s probably too late..!), Lemon Sharks (also not a great pal of man) and some Nervous Sharks (nice little fellas). We got to feed them and see them go ape over a few scraps of fish (little wooden bridge please don’t fail us now!!).

It took us about 6 hours to get to Coral Bay (Ningaloo Reef) from Denham. The drive was smooth sailing once again but instead of just having beautiful rich red farming fields on either side of us the landscape changed to one of a smattering of tough short shrubs and a continuous graveyard of giant Red Kangaroos, cows, feral goats and the odd Emu. We unfortunately contributed to the mass by collecting a little birdie to the ol’ fender, she was quick…but not quick enough

Coral Bay is a nice little place, situated literally in the middle of nowhere and it has that rare untouched quality which is really nice. The white sandy beaches go on for miles and the water is as warm as bathwater (+27C) and a magnificent colour of aqua.

Coral Bay - Western Australia

If you want to know what paradise looks like this is definitely it! The reef is only a few steps off the beach and stretches out about 1 – 1.5 kms and runs up and down the coast for about 200kms. So for you snorkel/diver lovers out there this is the place for you!

On our second day we decided to sign ourselves up for a 2hr kayaking/snorkelling tour of the reef which was highly recommended.

Of course in the morning the winds were not on our side but our tour guide told us, ‘no probs, she’ll be right’ with a sly outback Aussie grin. We should have taken that gesture as a ‘you’re gonna be in a world of hurt my city friends,’ but of course we didn’t and continued on with our group of 7.

Seeing as I had never kayaked before I thought we did pretty well and everything seemed fairly easy going for the first 100 meters or so (Cronulla in the lead!), that is until the wind picked up the further out we went. After ½ hour of paddling like madmen against the wind, and getting a constant battering of water against the ol’ face we finally reached our mooring point.

We were about 1km or so from shore and we all eagerly welcomed the break from the evil kayaks and looked forward to the snorkelling sights ahead. The water was crystal clear and the marine life abundant with multitudes of fish and coral of all sizes and colours – absolutely breathtaking! We even got to swim with a large green sea turtle, what a beautiful graceful creature.

After some exploring we reluctantly got back on the ‘evil one,’ and our guide took us another ‘easy’ km down the reef to another snorkelling spot. This time we weren’t swimming with nice little Nemos but rather 3 meter sharks!

We slowly (no thrashing) swam to this giant piece of coral that looked like a giant carnation and watched these graceful and rather intimidating creatures glide around with mouths wide open while tiny wrasse fish cleaned their mass of teeth, it really was an incredible sight.

Now the fun part of paddling back home was ahead of us. We tried to get a rhythm going but it was tough going seeing as we’re not exactly navy seals but rather two whimpering tourists whose spaghetti arms were just about wound out of their socket s from acting like friggin windmills for the past 2 hours!! And not to mention our legs! (what legs!?) Good grief chief! At least now we can check that off the ‘to do (nevah again) list!’

On our last day we signed up for a Manta Ray tour.

Giant Manta Ray
Manta Ray blocks out the sun photo credit: NOAA’s Sanctuaries Collection

Fortunately since this is off season there weren’t many of us on the cruise. They had a spotter plane overhead in search of Giant Manta Rays when all of a sudden a call came through that they had spotted a Whale Shark!!

What a wonderful surprise, especially seeing as they usually don’t come until April. Our guides told us to get our snorkel gear on asap and before you knew it we were jumping in and swimming like crazy to get a chance to swim with this enormous 7 meter long, 4 meter wide Shark!!

It was every man for himself and if someone got an elbow or fin in the face, so be it! (Thankfully no blackeye for me this time! Not so sure about the Pom that kept getting in my way though, oops!)

At one point it actually swam right underneath us, everything seemed to go in slow motion as this beautiful massive dark white spotted body and huge gaping mouth passed by and then we were scrambling again trying to keep up with it.

You really don’t realise how insignificant you are until you’re up against one of them, it’s just unbelievable.

Next we got word of a Giant Manta Ray in sight and were soon diving in and swimming with this magnificent creature. It was about 4-5 meters across and glided effortlessly through the aqua waters. Fortunately it didn’t move nearly as fast as the Whale Shark and we were able to swim right on top of it for quite some time, at times it got so close I literally could have hitched a ride (darn!).

These two incredible creatures are both harmless and spend their time cruising the deep waters of the bay for plankton. This was definitely one of the most extraordinary experiences we’ve ever had. We would most certainly recommend this one for you ocean lovers out there.

ABC TV’s Catalyst science program recently broadcast a story on Whale Sharks, you can watch the Video below (5 minutes 33 seconds in length):

If you can’t see the video player than you should open this URL in Windows Media Player:http://www.abc.net.au/science/broadband/catalyst/asx/WhaleShark_Ep39_hi.asx

This travel diary has been written by Rob Gower, a friend who enjoys taking the road less traveled!

5 thoughts on “West Coast Australia: Stromatolites, Monkey Mia and Ningaloo Reef”

  1. Fantastic post. I can’t wait to go there with my kids. I have an Aunt – actually had one – that was from Melbourne and my cousins have all been. But being an X-US Navy guy myself I want to go to Perth and check the coast. Some of the finest coastline in the world I imagine. Cheers –

  2. Interesting post!
    I watched a TV report about the Western Australian stromatolites the other day. It was amazing to learn that these simple life forms were the foundation of our planet’s atmosphere. They produced the oxygen to enable life on mother earth.

  3. Wow. What a gorgeous area! I can’t tell you how badly I want to go to Australia. I’ve been saving money for over a year now, I should be able to make the trip this summer and man am I excited. Thanks for a great post!

  4. Wow what an amazing post
    Makes me want to just drop everything and head off into the sunset lol
    I dont think the wife would like that though, so it looks like the family is coming too.
    This is going on the list of things to do when we head off around Australia next year.
    Thank you Lyall

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