Ningaloo Reef: Australia’s Other Coral Attraction

The Great Barrier Reef might be Australia’s most well-known reef, but it’s certainly not Australia’s only reef worth visiting. If you want to explore Australia’s waters, swim with sea creatures, and avoid the crowds, take a trip to Australia’s lesser-known, World Heritage listed Ningaloo Reef and Australia’s Coral Coast, the world’s most accessible and largest fringing reef closest to shore just off the coast of Western Australia.

About the Ningaloo Reef

Ningaloo Reef is a pristine water wonderland, different to the Great Barrier Reef in its location, in that it sits along the turquoise waters of the East Indian Ocean on Western Australia’s northwestern coastline – a 13-hour drive from the state’s capital, Perth. The reef is approximately 160 miles long, making it the largest fringing coral reef in Australia, and the longest western fringing coral reef on the planet. Ningaloo Reef is also regarded as one of the world’s last remaining healthy major coral reef systems. This reef is part of a region called the Coral Coast, spanning from Cervantes to Exmouth and boasts 2 World Heritage listed marine parks, Ningaloo Reef and Shark Bay. The Coral Coast earned its moniker for its abundant coral formations which are rarely seen so far south.

See more about Exmouth and Coral Coast

Perth skyline at dusk as seen from Swan River
Perth skyline at dusk as seen from Swan River

In the Wajarri dialect, Ningaloo means promontory, deep water, or high land jutting into the sea. The indigenous Australians of this area have lived here for more than 30,000 years. Indigenous artifacts found in rock shelters and shell middens suggest the reef is at least this old, but it may be much older.

A small fish sits on a coral reef
A small fish sits on a coral reef

Ningaloo Reef is home to 500 different fish species, 300 types of coral, 600 types of marine mollusks, and a host of other sea creatures. The reef sits in a transition zone between temperate and tropical waters. Because of its location, the reef is home to both tropical and temperate flora and fauna, including many animals you’re unlikely to see anywhere else in the world.

In 1987, Ningaloo Reef and the waters surrounding it were named Ningaloo Marine Park. The park earned a place on the Australian National Heritage List in 2010 and received UNESCO World Heritage status in 2011.

Tour the Reef

Many major international airlines, including Qantas, Cathay Pacific, and Air New Zealand, fly directly to Perth. American carriers including Delta and United also partner with local airlines for flights to Perth with stopovers in Sydney or Melbourne. Once in Perth, you can hire a rental car and enjoy the 13-hour scenic drive along the Western Australian coast, or take a 90-minute Virgin Australia flight to Learmonth Airport, 75 minutes from Coral Bay.

Suggested Itinerary:
16-Day Perth to Broome Self-Drive

Accessing the Reef

Since Ningaloo Reef is a fringing reef, it’s easily accessible from the shore. Staying in Exmouth or Coral Bay will put you close to Ningaloo Reef’s best snorkeling spots. Locations with dolphins, rays, sea turtles, and fish can be easily accessed from the shore. If you’d prefer to explore a little farther out in the reef, a tour is the best option.

Tour inclusions will vary according to the provider. Some include equipment hires while others charge extra. Some operators also provide snacks, beverages, or lunch.

Navy Pier in Exmouth
Navy Pier in Exmouth

Scuba lovers from across the world travel here to dive into Ningaloo Reef. The Navy Pier site is rated as one of the top ten dive sites in Australia and an underwater photographers dream. More than 200 different fish species live here, and the waters are warm and clear and access is only granted to specific dive operators. The pier site, however, is not your only option, particularly if you’d rather explore an area away from the tourist crowds. Gullivers, The Labyrinth, and the Fish Pit are excellent sites for inexperienced divers, while more advanced divers will appreciate the challenge of Sponge Garden Drift and Helga’s Tunnels. Dive tours typically range from AUD $75 to AUD $300.

If you want to have a more personal wildlife encounter, you’ll find those tours too. Whale shark and manta ray snorkeling excursions will put you close to some of the sea’s gentle giants. Expect to pay between AUD $90 and AUD $300 for this Australia vacation experience.

If you’d prefer to stay dry, a ride on a glass-bottom boat is a great way to admire Ningaloo Reef. The expert guides will point out notable tropical fish and coral formations so you’ll always know the best photo opportunities. These tours can cost as little as AUD $30, depending on their duration.

Swimming with whale sharks in Ningaloo Reef
Swimming with whale sharks in Ningaloo Reef

What You Can Expect to See

The shallow lagoons and deeper offshore waters create a diverse array of habitats for a multitude of colourful corals and more than 500 species of fish. Many other creatures regularly visit Australia’s Ningaloo Reef, including whale sharks, turtles, dugongs, dolphins and humpback whales, making it a must-see for divers, snorkellers, and nature-lovers. Top marine experiences, combined with the region’s white sandy beaches and outback attractions by land, offer a truly extraordinary holiday for visitors.

Ningaloo Reef is home to hundreds of species of plants and animals. Since it’s the coral that makes the reef a reef, it’s not surprising it is one of the most popular attractions. Ningaloo Reef is home to around 200 species of hard coral and 50 species of soft coral. The reef is beautiful throughout the year, but if you really want to see it at its peak, visit during the mass coral spawning. This phenomenon lasts for three days, beginning about a week after a full moon in March or April.

The whale sharks that live in Ningaloo Reef’s waters between March and July are some of the region’s most famous residents. They’re very imposing creatures, measuring between 13 and 40 feet, but they’re so docile that they don’t mind swimming with locals and tourists.

Manta rays also call Ningaloo Reef home. The world’s largest ray species lives in the reef’s gentle waters throughout the year. They might look intimidating, but since they don’t have the stinging barb of most rays, these animals are safe to interact with.

Ningaloo Reef is also home to three seagrass species, a favourite food source for the endangered dugongs that take shelter here. Sea turtles, humpback whales, and dolphins, also call Ningaloo Reef home.

Ningaloo Reef whale shark
Ningaloo Reef whale shark

Ningaloo Reef is the jewel of Western Australia – a natural paradise with abundant wildlife, pristine water, exciting Australia tours, and fewer tourists than “the other reef.” If you’re looking for a memorable vacation experience not heavily frequented by tourists, then consider a trip to Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef, Australia’s lesser-known reef.

Suggested Itineraries:
3-Day Ningaloo Reef

Coral Bay at Sunset | © Tourism Western Australia
Coral Bay at Sunset | © Tourism Western Australia

Tourism Western Australia Logo

Share with friends and family
Meg Boyd
Meg Boyd

Downunder Product and Marketing Manager - Melbourne-born Meg arrived in Canada in January with no winter coat, one suitcase, a one week booking at a youth hostel, and a sight-unseen job offer at Goway Travel. She thought she’d stay for a year – that was 12 years ago! Never one to shy away from adventure, Meg has been in the industry for 23 years and has journeyed extensively through Europe, Asia and North America. Meg’s heart however belongs to the South Pacific, including New Zealand, Fiji, and her native Australia.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Get the latest travel trends & hear about the best deals on vacations around the world.

If you’re a Globetrotter, these are the newsletters for you!

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x