Words and photos by Chris Gurney
As a lifelong Perth resident who enjoys road trips, finds solace in the ocean, and is often commissioned to photograph travel stories, it perplexes me that I’d never visited one of my home state’s crown jewels until very recently.
Ningaloo Reef, the world’s largest living coral reef, had been on my radar for years, but a confluence of factors (overseas travel restrictions, an overwhelming urge for winter sun and murmurs of industry threatening the region), finally sent my girlfriend and I hurtling up the NW Coastal Highway this past August.
Ningaloo is nearly unbelievable in its ecological diversity and natural importance. So large that it can be seen from space, the reef provides a home to over one thousand species of fish, molluscs, mammals, coral and other marine life. Travelling through the region, this divergence of life is readily apparent. When we turn off at Vlamingh Head and head to the lookout, it’s impossible not to see humpback whales constantly breaching beyond the lagoon. Even from kilometres away, you can sense the weight of their bodies as they impact the surface, sending masses of water flying through the air.
On land, the region is viscerally raw, with a real frontier feel. Driving along Yardie Creek Road, dingoes roam the nearby scrub, eagles fly overhead and snakes hide in plain sight throughout the sand dunes. The vegetation here is hardy, wind-beaten and thrives with virtually no annual rainfall. The untouched nature of Ningaloo is what makes it such a unique place, and ironically leads to more and more people visiting each year. For the most part, the tourists seem to celebrate and respect the environment, and its world heritage listing nearly a decade ago helps to reinforce its significance.
It’s this undeniable magic, and the fact this place already delivers so much to the economy by way of tourism, that make recent attempts at development particularly erroneous. Waters just west of Ningaloo were added to the Federal Government’s Oil & Gas Exploration Acreage Release earlier this year, prompting a huge backlash from conservationists, locals and visitors alike. Finally, just before winter ticked over into spring, the area was removed from the report. Good news, but a stark reminder that no matter how prestigious it may be, some still see this coast and its unadulterated landscape as a prime opportunity for industrial expansion.
Preparing for the long drive back to Perth, our last afternoon in Ningaloo was spent enjoying a perfectly still ocean, untroubled by the sea breeze common along this coastline. From the beach, we could hear two whales exhaling further out to sea, their deep breaths echoing across the shallows. In this age, the ability to relax, forget about day-to-day life and recharge among the elements can’t be downplayed. Once you experience it, you realise why Ningaloo and its revitalising energy make it not only a must-visit destination, but a place we need to preserve for years to come.
If you’d like to support efforts to stop the industrialisation of Ningaloo and The Exmouth Gulf, click here.