The jig is up: Ningaloo Reef is officially on the world’s bucket list. Haven’t heard of it? Don’t look so surprised—until five years ago, neither had the World Heritage List. Found on one of the world’s loneliest stretches in the remote northwest of Australia, this pristine patch of coastline offers long, leggy beaches, chilled-out coastal towns, and some of the most profound wildlife experiences on the planet. Here are five things to know before you go:
1. The Great Barrier Reef it is not
Terrible things are happening on one side of Australia. Land development, environmental degradation, and catastrophic levels of industrial runoff have led to serious damage on the Great Barrier Reef (though it’s not all bad news; preservation projects such as Richard Branson’s Reef Aid are slowly getting underway). But on the other side of the continent—roughly as far away as NYC is from LA—things are looking decidedly better.
Like the GBR, Ningaloo Reef is so big it’s visible from space, stretching some 160 miles along an outback coastline of Martian-like rock formations, creamy, translucent sands and spearmint waters, speckled with one of the longest fringing reefs on earth. Bookended by the tiny beach hamlet of Coral Bay and the area’s main hub, Exmouth (population: 2,000), the area is home to some 270 types of coral and a complex universe of marine species, including an unusual, year-round population of manta rays and arguably the world’s best whale shark experience. If you like your people friendly, your beaches unspoilt, and your wildlife plentiful—well, you can’t get much better than this.
2. It’s UNESCO-listed
Despite being sometimes referred to as Australia’s “other” reef, Ningaloo couldn’t be more different. It’s a fringing reef, for starters—as opposed to a barrier reef—which means you can slip off the sand and snorkel right over the top of it, rather than needing a boat for access. And unlike the GBR, relatively little is known about the place.
“There hadn’t been a push to understand [the reef] until 2005, when we started campaigning for the UNESCO listing,” confirms resident Fraser McGregor. Now an accredited marine biologist and head researcher at Coral Bay Research Station, McGregor first showed up in town 16 years ago and “started asking questions about the place.” The more he learned, the clearer it became that Ningaloo was utterly unique: He would go on to become a key player in the area’s World Heritage listing, granted in 2011.
3. Two words: whale sharks Reaching Ningaloo is a more effort-intensive process than the GBR—Exmouth is roughly 13 hours’ drive, or a two-hour flight from Perth.
But remoteness has its benefits. “Ningaloo still has all the animals nature intended in its system, so it’s incredibly healthy—even in light of climate change,” McGregor asserts. The resulting bounty of life makes for spectacular snorkeling and diving.
And then there’s the star attraction. “During whale shark season (from March to July), we average sightings on about 97 percent of trips,” explains Natalie Yeates, an Exmouth-based marine biologist at local operator, Life Ningaloo. Hop on board an expedition and you’re virtually guaranteed an Imax-worthy experience, snorkeling alongside world’s largest fish in some of the wildest, clearest waters on Earth.
The thriving tourism industry has been so successful that from August this year, visitors can also swim with humpback whales. That’s big news: At last count, only two other countries—Mexico and Tonga—offer this experience.
4. Did we mention the luxury?
For those who prefer their wilderness with a side of comfort, there’s another happy discovery here: Sal Salis. This profoundly luxurious glamping lodge, hidden among the sand dunes in Cape Range National Park, has been deliberately misplaced on Google Maps to minimize the uninvited. For guests, however, the lodge offers a true beachfront location, making it possible to peel back your bed sheets, step onto the milky sands, and simply wade into the topaz water for a morning snorkel. Book us in.
5. It’s sustainable
If it seems a little grubby to espouse the benefits of visiting one reef when tourism has impacted on another, stop right there: Ningaloo is fiercely guarded, not just by stringent regulations but by a vocal, actively involved population. In 2002, thousands of locals became so enraged about a proposal to build a large marina on the reef that they took to the streets in protest. (The development did not go ahead.) Coral Bay is also one of Australia’s most sustainable communities, half-powered by wind turbines, protected by complex laws preventing further development.
If that wasn’t enough, “Our whale shark industry is the most environmentally friendly and sustainable in the world,” says Yeates. “There are very strict rules and regulations; the wildlife comes first here.”
You can, in other words, feel good about a visit to Ningaloo. See? We told you—one for the bucket list.
>>Next: The Great Barrier Reef’s Great Big Complicated Story