Last Updated on December 1, 2021 by worldoftravelswithkids
We hope you enjoy these facts about Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia as much as we enjoyed visiting it! We just got back from an amazing holiday on the Coral Coast and are in love with this remote, little-known barrier reef in Western Australia! The beaches of Ningaloo are considered some of the most beautiful in all of Australia – and we have to agree!
Stretching almost 300km from Red Bluff to the Muiron Islands, Ningaloo is Australia’s second-longest coral reef and one of its most biodiverse marine environments.
We didn’t swim with the whale sharks while at Ningaloo. We added that to our bucket list for when the kids are older. However, some of the most interesting facts about the Ningaloo Reef are about the whale sharks themselves. That is why we have included a whole section on these big fish.
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Interesting Facts about Ningaloo Reef
How big is Ningaloo Reef?
Ningaloo Reef is one of the largest coral reefs in the world, measuring 260km (162 miles) long. The Ningaloo Reef Marine Park covers a total area of around 5000 square kilometers. Okay… it’s not as big as Australia’s most famous reef, the Great Barrier Reef. It stretches for over 2300 kilometers (1,400 miles).
I like to put these facts into perspective. The Belize Barrier Reef is 290km (180 miles) long making it the second-largest coral reef in the world and the largest reef in the Northern and Western Hemispheres. This Caribbean reef features 106 coral species (both hard and soft) and houses 500 fish species. The most diverse, though not the longest reef in the world is considered to be at Raja Ampat, in Indonesia.
Speaking of the Great Barrier Reef, if you want to learn more read our Great Barrier Reef Facts For Kids.
Where is the Ningaloo Reef?
If you are looking for Ningaloo facts, one of the most important is its location! It is found in the midline of Western Australia. Or, in other terms, you’ll find Ningaloo 1200km north of Perth, and in the eastern Indian Ocean. The best way to see the Ningaloo Reef is either from the southern end at Coral Bay or the northern end via the North West Cape and the town of Exmouth.
Many people visit the Ningaloo Reef as part of a ‘big lap’ of Australia. Or a road trip from north to south of Western Australia. If you are short of time – or have small kids (like we do) then you can get one of the daily flights from Perth to Learmonth Airport. Once a strategic military airport, Learmonth is an airport quite literally in the desert!
How did the Ningaloo Reef Form?
Coral reefs formed along the Ningaloo Coast many times over the last few million years as the sea level rose and fell. The modern reef began to form in its current location only at the end of the last glacial period – around 11,000 years ago. As the oceans warmed coral larvae drifted south from reefs near the equator. They settled onto the bed of ancient fossilized reefs to form new coral colonies.
Ningaloo Reef is the World’s Largest Fringing Reef
Unlike the better-known Great Barrier Reef, which mostly lies far offshore, Ningaloo is a fringing reef. That means in places it comes right up to the beach. In other areas, it extends as little as 200 meters offshore.
Coral reefs often don’t grow so close to a landmass, because rain washes silt into the water, making it cloudy and hindering coral growth. However, the arid climate of the Ningaloo Coast helps keep the water mostly clear. This means you can reach the reef simply by swimming from the beach. This is awesome when you visit as a tourist, as it means you can access the coral inexpensively.
Ningaloo’s World Heritage Listing
In 2011, the Ningaloo Coast was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, which recognized the area’s global significance as a place of amazing natural beauty and exceptional biological richness. Ningaloo was specifically recognized for its diverse and intact ecosystems, and its abundant marine life, as well as its seasonal gatherings of large marine life, including whale sharks and turtles.
Another thing that is so distinct about the Ningaloo Coast (and was part of its world heritage listing) was the distinct and spectacular contrast between land and sea. From the azure of Turquoise Bay, the white sands, to the deep reds of Cape Range National Park, the colors created by nature on the Ningaloo Coast are out of this world!
How did the Ningaloo Reef get its Name?
The Ningaloo Coast comes from the Australian Aboriginal language. Ningaloo means “promontory”, “deepwater”, or “high land sticking out into the sea” in the language of the Yamatji peoples that have lived in the area for over 30,000 years.
Who were the Original Inhabitants of the Ningaloo Coast Area?
The Ningaloo Coast was once alive with hundreds of nomadic Australians living in harmony with nature. The Yinikurtira people knew no king or chief. No one person directed the tribe; they simply led a life guided solely by the instinct of the wild, with each individual family being independent. We have a spectacular insight into the lives of the Yinikurtira people due to diaries written by shipwrecked sailors in 1875 who documented their lives with the local people.
The Ningaloo Dreamtime Story
During the Dreamtime (which is how the indigenous Australians describe the origins of the world), when the world was new and soft, the snake Kaljura and the hill kangaroo Padjara, traveled across the land together, molding the landscape as they moved. They started their travels in the Kennedy Range and headed west to Vlamingh Head, making gorges and hills in their journey. Aboriginal elders say that the snake Kaljura still lives around Vlamingh Head.
Did you know that the area between the Tropic of Capricorn (in the south – and the tropic of cancer in the north) is a tropical climate, referred to as ‘the tropics’
Ningaloo Reef Straddles the Tropic of Capricorn
Ningaloo’s location straddling the Tropic of Capricorn means it is home to both tropical and temperate species. Seasonal currents bring influxes of coral and fish larvae, and the Leeuwin Current is strongest in autumn and winter, bringing tropical species south. In spring and summer, southerly winds create the north-flowing Ningaloo Current which carries the temperate species north.
The Leeuwin Current is the longest coastal current in the world. It carries water all the way from the Timor Sea in the North to Tasmania in the south.
Ningaloo Reef is Amazingly Diverse
When I first read these facts about Ningaloo Reef I quite literally took a “double-take” – surely there had been some mistake in these statistics!
For example, more than 50 percent of Indian Ocean coral species are found at Ningaloo Reef, with over 300 species! Ningaloo has about 200 species of hard coral and 50 species of soft coral. If that is not enough, there are also over 738 species of reef fish, and 600 species of crustaceans. In addition, there are over a thousand species of marine algae!
Now, while sponges aren’t quite as visibly powerful as the fish the Ningaloo world-heritage sponges are considered exceptional with 155 sponge species, most new to science!
Don’t forget some of the most interesting species – which we will discuss in depth below, are whale sharks, manta rays, humpback whales, and dugongs.
Nearly all of the World’s Sea Turtles Visit Ningaloo!
There are seven species of sea turtles – and six of them visit / or live around the Ningaloo coast! Now that’s a fact to blow your mind. Some of these turtles include the Green Turtle, Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Hawksbill Turtle, and the Flatback Turtle.
Over 10,000 Turtles Nest on the Ningaloo Coast each YEAR!
While six of the world’s marine turtles species visit Ningaloo, a whopping three of these actually nest on the beaches of Ningaloo Reef each year. Loggerhead Turtles, Green Turtles, and Hawksbill Turtles nest during the summer months (November through – March)
Ningaloo is not a Well-Known Tourist Destination despite a lot of Sunshine
Pre covid, it was estimated that each year 180,000 people visited the Coral Coast area, including the Ningaloo Coast, Exmouth and Coral bay Ningaloo to swim, dive, and relax on the white-sand beaches. Compare this to the Great Barrier Reef which has over 3 million visitors each year!!!
Another quick Ningaloo fact to whet your appetite – The Ningaloo Coast claims fame to 320 days of sunshine a year, making it a year-round destination. Though it is very hot in the wet season!
When do the Humpback Whales visit Ningaloo?
Every spring more than 30,000 Humpback Whales (some sources say as many as 40,000) migrate through the Ningaloo waters. Many bring their newborn calves into the Exmouth gulf to rest. This is considered one of the largest gatherings of humpback whales anywhere in the world. Another way of looking at it – at least half of all humpback whales on Earth visit Ningaloo at some point of any year! We think this is one of the most amazing facts about Ningaloo Reef.
Tell me about the Ningaloo Reef Whale Sharks
All whale sharks around the world are the same species – the Rhincodon typus. They are the world’s largest living fish, which can live up to 100 years, and reach a weight of 34 tonnes, and 18 meters. They are found in tropical waters around the world. Each year they gather at Ningaloo Reef from April through July.
We think that whale shark facts are so interesting we’ve put together a whole set of facts below.
You can Swim with Whale Sharks at Ningaloo
Unlike many other species of shark, the whale shark is not considered a threat to humans, which is why swimming with whale sharks is a popular activity. The Ningaloo Reef is famous around the world for its whale sharks and is one of the world’s most famous places where you can go swimming with them
Other places you can swim with whale sharks include Utila, Honduras, Isla Holbox, Mexico, and Gladden Spit in Belize is another of the best places to dive with whale sharks. Fascinatingly the most dependable place in the world to swim with whale sharks is in the Bay of Ghoubbet, Djibouti.
You can also Swim with Manta Rays at Ningaloo Reef
In case you didn’t know manta rays do not have a sharp barb (but stingrays do!) making them very safe to swim or snorkel with.
At Ningaloo, you can swim with the manta rays year-round! Like whale sharks, manta rays are filter feeders and have a large toothless mouth which they use as a sieve to scoop up plankton and krill. Visitors to the Coral Coast describe the experience of swimming with a manta ray as almost sublime as you watch these majestic creatures glide elegantly and effortlessly through the water.
What is the Ningaloo Big Three?
Africa wildlife spotters will be aware of the big five- lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and African Buffalo. Well, in Western Australia we have the ‘Big 3’ bucket list experiences – swimming with Humpback Whales, swimming with the Whale Sharks, and swimming with the manta rays.
What is the Early European History of the Coral Coast?
Europeans first records of the North West Cape area date back to 1618 by the Dutch ship Zeewolf. Later, American whalers were known to frequent the area conducting ship-based whaling (the whales were ‘processed’ on-board). There were whaling stations known some 90 years before European settlement for grazing.
Given that the annual Humpback Whale migration is such a joy to thousands of visitors to Ningaloo Reef each year, it is stunning to learn that between 1936 and 1938 factory ships with chasers operated off the north-west coast, taking a total of 7,240 humpback whales in three years. Thankfully this practice has now ended forever.
Exmouth – A Town with Two Flags!
Exmouth, the closest town to the Ningaloo Reef has a rather unique history. It was established in 1967 as the town that serviced the North West Cape’s Harold Holt Communications Station. A slice of United States in outback Australia, Exmouth’s schoolchildren played baseball, celebrated both American Independence Day and Australia Day while both countries’ flags flew over their schoolyard.
Exmouth was a unique experiment in cross-cultural cooperation until the United States handed over the base to Australia in 1992. The radio towers of the Harold Hold Communications stand testament to this part of the region’s history and still remain in service today. With a transmission power of 1 megawatt, it is the most powerful transmission station in the Southern Hemisphere
What is Special about Cape Range National Park?
When you read about Ningaloo facts, its terrestrial partner, Cape Range National Park, is often overlooked. While we did love the turquoise waters of the Ningaloo Marine Park, we loved Cape Range National Park just as much. There are many stunning places to visit and breathtaking deep canyons such as Yardie Creek, and, Turquoise Bay – voted Western Australia’s top beach by TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice.
We particularly enjoyed the early spring wildflower display including brilliant Red Sturt Desert Pea, Mulla Mullas, Wattles, Everlastings, and more. There is a lot to do in Cape Range National Park especially great walk and hike trails, and particularly scenic wildflower viewing areas at Mandu Mandu Gorge, Charles Knife Canyon, and Yardie Creek Gorge. Stay tuned for our full review of Exmouth coming soon! If you love wildflowers check out Where To Find The Best Wildflowers In Western Australia.
Are there any Threats to Ningaloo Reef?
Being so isolated from the rest of the world, you would be forgiven thinking Ningaloo is not under threat! One of the sad facts about Ningaloo Reef is that it is not immune to threats. Normal pressures from visitors wearing toxic sunscreens, boats, and camping all do have some impact.
In 2004, a large-scale marina project was stopped following an outcry from thousands of people and claims it “saved” saving the reef.
So as we mentioned above, Ningaloo is one of the best places to swim with Whale Sharks in the world! Whale Sharks are special because of many reasons, including that they are the largest fish in the ocean and the largest shark in the ocean.
Sharks Come in all Sizes
There are many different sizes of shark, with the biggest being the Whale Shark which is reported to have grown to 18 meters (60 feet). The smallest sharks can fit in your hand. The most famous – and feared shark – the Great White Shark – sits in the middle of the range of whale sizes.
How do Whale Sharks have Babies?
Did you know that no one has ever seen a whale shark give birth – seriously! One theory is that the pregnant whale sharks give birth way offshore in the open ocean so that they are further from predators. Also – there is no parental care, once whale sharks give birth they are on their own – their mother doesn’t take care of them.
Whale Sharks are Ovoviviparous
What? Come again? You’ll be excused if you have never heard the term ovoviviparous. It means that the whale shark produces eggs, but instead of laying the eggs, the eggs develop inside the mother’s body, and then the young hatch (inside them), and THEN they are born live. Amazing!
What do Whale Sharks Eat?
Whale sharks have huge mouths that are up to 1.5 meters (4.9 ft) wide with around 350 rows of tiny teeth, up to 3000 teeth! The whale sharks have such big mouths because they are filter feeders, which means that they eat food by swimming towards it with their mouths open. Their diet consists mainly of plankton, krill, small fish, shrimp, larvae, and algae among other small life forms.
How old do Whale Sharks get?
The short answer – no one really knows. Some scientists propose that whale sharks grow about 50cm a year for their first 10 years, before slowing down in growth. They have to be 8 or 9 meters before they can reproduce – that is roughly 30 to 35 years old.
Each whale shark is unique
Like humans, every Whale Shark is special in its own way. They have their own distinct patterns of spots and stripes. By photos of the gill slits and the area above the pectoral fin, scientists can identify different Whale Sharks. Using this system, it is estimated that between 200 and 400 Whale Sharks visit Ningaloo Reef each year. They can also see if they are the same sharks returning year after year, or whether there are new ones coming.
Are Whale Sharks under Threat?
Yes, Whale Sharks are vulnerable to extinction as they are slow-growing and take a very long time to reach sexual maturity. Threats to whale sharks include propellers (and boats in general), fishing, litter, being harassed by tourists, as well as big picture issues such as climate change.
The Verdict – Facts about Ningaloo Reef and Whale Sharks
It truly was a privilege to visit Ningaloo Reef and the amazing ecosystem that surrounds it, including the fascinating whale sharks and manta rays that live on it. We hope you have enjoyed this amazing marine and terrestrial journey with these Ningaloo Reef facts. And, also discovered some interesting things about Whale Sharks!
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