Coral Bay: the west coast marvel
The quality and range of sea life on Ningaloo Reef has to be seen to be believed. Photo: Craig Scarr
The north-west WA coast might be the best holiday destination in Australia, writes Roy Fleming.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
The ocean here is a temptress. She wears red lipstick, has beautiful exterior but is harsh and unforgiving beneath. She sucks you in with her turquoise charm, but savages you with her sharp reef.
There's hundreds of victims scattered along the 280km reef, known as Ningaloo, one of the great fringing reefs of the world. Many of them Dutch traders who took her tranquil waters for granted, not knowing the menace of her impenetrable false passages.
One such tale, all too familiar, is of the Croatian vessel Barque Stefano which ran aground in 1875. Her crew scuppered to safety on the brilliant shores of Coral Bay, only to be found weeks later by local Aborigines, sick and dying, only two teenagers of the 10-strong crew left to tell the tale.
It's a beautiful, cruel world up here. And today, aboard local game fishing charter, the Mahi Mahi III, a cruel sea begins to ask me questions my stomach won't answer, and even crueller karma prevents me from securing a position anywhere near the game rods should a black marlin strike (more on this later).
Today, 20km out on a sea having its shutters rattled by a stiff southerly, we find ourselves in 100 metres of cobalt ocean.
Beneath, a lottery.
On deck, a handful of women and children are among the paying customers (this charter also caters for the disabled), but one by one they retire, groaning, to the wide lounges. For it is a cruel ocean on this day, and only the hardy stand tall.
A happy customer with a fine Red Emperor, perhaps the finest table fish in our waters.
This is bottom bashing on a large scale. Underneath this foaming sea is some of the finest table fare in the land: red emperor (if you see them swim, you'd never catch one for the table warns a wise one, who is abjectly ignored), rosy jobfish, Robinson sea bream, pink snapper, sweetlip; one by one they come in, magnificent specimens of the Coral Sea.
Sharks snarl around the edges; the best fish are lost to men in grey coats. Today and tomorrow, for your intrepid reporter, will be a tale of woe. Sharks take my best fish. Karma destroys my only chance at a game fish.
Let me explain.
When you are among a group of 20 paying customers, being a reporter on a media trip about sports fishing means jack when they allocate the spots on the four trolling rods they place for marlin.
The easiest way to solve this riddle is with a deck of cards. Those who select an ace and cards numbered two, three and four secure a rod each. I drew card number 15. Sigh.
Day two, full of hope, I am the last to select to a card, only two left in the deck and the ace unclaimed. I select ... wait for it ... the Queen. Aaaaargh!!
This is pure evil of thought, but I find comfort in the fact that the rods stay untouched anyway, on both days.
The randomness of this selection process means the fittest often don't get to fight the best that Mother Nature offers. According to Mahi Mahi skipper Bernie Vale, who's been in the caper for 14 years, a man in his 80s mourning the recent loss of his wife drew the ace on a trip sponsored by his children who thought tackling monster pelagics in the ocean might cheer him up.
Within minutes a glorious black marlin smashed the surface lure. Up in the cabin, the captain smashed his forehead. "He didn't look like he'd have the strength to pull it in," remembers Bernie. "But he did, it's one of the greatest catches we've had on the boat."
For a captain who enjoys the status of twice having the most tagged black marlin in a season, this is some call.
"I went round to his [the old man's] accommodation later that night and I presented the lure to him," says Bernie.
"It meant a lot to him."
Bernie's partner, Sandra, pulls out a polaroid of the old fella, looking withered, frighteningly pale and absolutely beaming. One is reminded of the movie Weekend at Bernie's.
Anything can happen up here in Coral Bay. You never know what's next on the line, who might be connected to the fish of a lifetime, or who'll be skippering the next craft to drag its hull across the reef. It's a roll of the dice, a deck of cards.
And most of us wouldn't want it any other way.
Mahi Mahi departs Coral Bay seven days per week (weather permitting). They also cater for trips to the Montebello Islands.
For more information contact (08) 99425 874, or visit their website.
SHORE THING: A SCARY ENCOUNTER
They are the shiny ones; wonderful wholesome people who care for the ocean’s conservation; its delicate corals, who embrace its incongruent charm.
Coral Bay needed Luke Riley, the Shore Thing and the unique experience he offers.
Here we are, gliding like albatross on the inside reef, a twin-hull cat with her mainsail proud and at full spread; heading north where the shallow inshore reef provides the sort of snorkelling and diving experience you might see on documentaries.
Luke Riley and his wife Lani, just a young, recently married couple, had the dream. Luke, grinding it out in a Sydney bank, knew his calling was the ocean.
So he sold up, bought a ticket to the Seychelles, and set about learning as much about marine eco systems as possible, then returned to Coral Bay armed with a fresh idea.
He sunk his savings into a 51-foot, twin hull catamaran, decked out with beautiful timbers, stately quarters, showers, toilets, and ensured all the trimmings would be standard: frangipanis and fresh towels on arrival, gourmet lunch and dinners, expertly trained dive instructors to keep you safe; kayaks, fishing rods - just name it.
It can cater for the end of year footy trip, corporate getaways, families with kids, romantic trysts.
Prue, his dive instructor, has piercing green eyes, deeply tanned skin, sun streaked hair and the economy of words of someone who has seen it all. Yet she is friendly and full of information.
We load into the tender and buzz out to sea. The ocean has been miserable these last few days; large swells and fierce winds lashing the reef, forcing detritus and seaweed into the inner reef, where we plan to do our viewing. It’s not a great combo, but it seems to matter little as Prue deposits us on a bombie with schools of silver drummer, a green turtle hiding under a ledge, a white tip shark and countless reef species. Just on this one bombie, and there’s hundreds of bombies in this next two mile stretch of reef.
Go on, admit it ... you're dying to see what's hanging arond that bombie.
Later Luke, who has personally charted these waters for cool snorkelling and dive spots, takes us to one of his favourites spots; close up to the reef, only for the strong swimmers. It’s different. A strong current, the water a bit murkier, sheer limestone ledges revealing we are closer to the main reef now. Out of nowhere, three large green turtles fly into view. They are inquisitive, wanting to know who’s making the intrusion. They are amazing. Later, a smaller one hangs suspended in front of us, checking us out. If he were human, his cap would be on backwards. It’s a sweet moment.
In between, yep, sharks.
I must admit, 20 years of surfing hasn’t diminished my fear of sharks. Though this snorkelling trip did, to some degree. It seemed every day included a shark; white tips; tawnies, grey nurses, black tips, lemon sharks ... after a while I became a little ho-hum about them. There was no gnashing of teeth and lunging at my naked arm like in a Ben Cropp doco, they kept their distance, showing respect, as best a wild killing machine is capable of anyway.
We (my photographer comrade Craig), even felt brave as Prue began dropping us off further up the reef and allowing us drift back, exploring. Then Craig saw it, a nasty beast, big enough to dominate a pool with its bulk and shadow. A very large shark by all accounts, and which I happily reported back on the boat without ever having actually seen it. Prue reports that your journalist ‘screamed like a little girl’ when another snorkeler’s flipper accidentally brushed my arm, and could not be trusted with this breaking news.
Craig and I broke all the rules and stood up on the shallow part of the reef to escape this imminent attack, this ghastly death at sea, which would no doubt make the papers. We had hand signals to warn our comrades that we were in danger and required rescuing, but after a few minutes we got back in and roared away from the pool, looking over our shoulders the entire way.
Back on the boat, just shame and indignity when we are informed it was most likely a lemon shark. Yes they have the appearance of a man-eater – all snout and rows of curved teeth – but they are more docile than Dora the Explorer. We are certain it was far more dangerous than this orange shark – no doubt a big tiger or small great white - but it is futile to argue.
We retire to the comfort of our master suites, replace our wet shorts with robes, and reflect on our near-miss with a glass of Margaret River sem-sav and a good book, borrowed from the galley. Quickly our thoughts turn to whether the shiraz or cab-merlot might be a better choice for this evening’s meal – seared scotch fillet and garlic prawns. The agony of choice.
Out here, on this reef, a life of luxury is juxtaposed with the untouched ocean around you. Life never felt so great on a glorious yacht, one never felt so alive with the creatures of the sea.
For those wanting the unique experience of the best Coral Bay has to offer, this is the one for you.
Shore Thing runs weekly cruises. For more information phone (toll free) 1800 197 194 or visit their website which lists departure dates.
SAND BETWEEN THE EARS
Stu, he’s been our friend for all of five minutes, and already there is a very awkward moment which might spell doom for the future.
We didn’t mean for it to happen, but we got excited, temporarily forgot to be safe, and well, one thing just to led to another.
Yes, that's our guide Stu up the very front. Given our misdemeanours, your reporter and photographer felt safer taking this picture from the back of the line.
We were on a quad-biking tour of Coral Bay’s southern shores. It is intended as a relaxing escape among the dunes, with cameras and chilled water to take in the magnificent western sunsets.
Very clearly, and in a tone to suggest his next statement should be adhered to, Stu advised our driver to follow his tracks down a very steep embankment. "Use the brakes," he barked, as a final instruction.
Of course, we did neither. And thus, the first of at least three awkward moments in this new relationship as the quad bike, 200kg and almost $20k brand new, teeters delicately, undecided if it will roll over or stand firm. Fortunately it’s the latter, and as we grovel past, feeling sheepish, very harsh words from our friend ... "not good, guys".
I call myself an ocean-goer and a fisherman, but I’m the first to admit there’s something peculiarly lustful about a quad biking tour along the shoreline. Maybe it’s the threat of injury "we get a broken bone a week between us (the other quad-biking business)," reports Stu, or maybe it’s the almost guaranteed appearance of green turtles at Turtle Rock at the halfway point of this trip; or perhaps it’s the latticed sunsets, and golden afternoon light that turns this activity into a sensory overload of colour and vibration. Don’t know, but it is spectacular, and it works for me.
Not sure Stu how feels about it though.
Coastal Adventure Tours, Shop 12, Coral Bay Arcade, Coral Bay, WA, 6701
Ph: (08) 9948 5190, or email.
The writer travelled with assistance from Tourism WA, Skywest, Coral Bay Beach Resort, Coral Bay Ocean game Fishing Charters, Budget car rental Learmonth, Coral Bay Coastal Adventure Tours, Fins Cafe and Sail Ningaloo.