The Watery World of Exmouth

Somewhere along the 17-hour journey from Broome to Exmouth, the season pattern changed from wet-dry to Summer-Winter. In Broome and Darwin, being in the middle of the dry season meant temperatures in the low to mid 30s and relatively low humidity, but in Exmouth – still technically in the tropics – the winter season meant it was suddenly 10-15 degrees cooler and rainy. Had I known, I might have stayed in Broome for a couple more days…

The overwhelming majority of visitors to the Exmouth come to see the Ningaloo Reef, which stretches 160 miles along the western length of the North West Cape peninsula, a twenty minute drive from the town. People come for snorkelling, scuba diving, and at this time of year boat trips to swim with whale sharks. People don’t hang around in the town unless they’re forced to by, say, inclement weather, so there’s not much touristy development in the town; a couple of surfer clothing shops, a single cafe, two supermarkets and a few pricey restaurants is about all there is in the town ‘centre’, as well as a scattering of shops to book reef excursions. It reminded me in that way of Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies, where I lived and worked a few years ago. The village of Lake Louise is pretty nondescript; people come to see either the lake or the ski hill depending on the season, and then they move swiftly on to Banff, a more charming place to wander around, with lots of amenities and eateries. Also, although Exmouth has a much more substantial static population than Lake Louise, the workforce is largely driven by transient workers, in this case diving professionals who work for the whale shark and scuba diving companies. The similarity between this group and Lake Louise’s hospitality and ski bum population was highlighted on the Friday night a week after I arrived, when the bar next to the hostel had its weekly party night, and all of the dive boat staff came out to play. Just like in Lake Louise, the local economy can’t support a nightlife scene as such, but there are enough young working people to support a weekly dance night in the otherwise deserted and low-key hotel bar. Very nostalgic.

Although it’s on the opposite side of the peninsula to the Ningaloo Reef, Exmouth does have a beach, known unimaginatively as Town Beach, which I walked out to see on my first day. It’s not particularly well-regarded compared to the fine sand and clear water further around the coast, but it was what I think of as a ‘proper’ beach; brown, gritty sand scattered with a heavy dusting of pebbles and sharp shells, a strong smell of seaweed and a breeze that whips the sand and grass up from the dunes right into your face. After the hot sun and immaculate white sand of Cable Beach, it made quite a refreshing change, and walking on to the small harbour I had a good nose around the fishing and sailing boats.

Mandu Mandu Gorge

It’s useful and usual to have a car here, because the main land-based event is to visit the Cape Range National Park on a drive up and around the peninsula. Luckily I was able to catch a ride with some people I met at the hostel and we went for a drive through the showers to have a look. It’s pretty amazing the effect the weather has on the landscape; on a hot sunny day the undulating scrubland of the bush looks parched and sandy, but with a little rain and cloud it is suddenly transformed to a green but desolate place. It reminded me so much of the North York Moors, I half expected to see Kate Bush dancing around in a leotard. Dodging the showers, we made a brief, windswept stop at the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse, before going for a short but energetic walk around Mandu Mandu Gorge, a pebbly dry river valley surrounded by steep green and orange slopes. We then headed to the popular snorkelling spot of Turquoise Bay, which on that grey, windy day was all but deserted, and had a rather pessimistic and ill-advised go at snorkelling in the rough swell. After quickly giving up on that idea I had a bit of time to look at the amazing colours of the landscape – the turquoise shallows then the deep aquamarine of the water over the reef, blending into the ominous dark purple of the clouds – before the heavens opened and the rain started.

SS MIldura Wreck

This rain continued all afternoon, and for two more full days, during which my scuba dive trip was cancelled and there was very little to do except hang around the hostel and wait for the weather to improve. But eventually the worst of the weather passed and my temporary travelling buddy Cat and I hired a car and went for a drive, and although we followed almost exactly the same route as I had done a few days before (there’s pretty much only one direction to go for a drive from Exmouth), a bit of sunshine changed everything. We stopped by a viewpoint for the wreck of SS Mildura, a cattle ship sank off the tip of the North West Cape in 1907, which is juuuust about visible from the shore, and had a second, less windswept visit to the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse.

Vlamingh Head Lighthouse

The views over the land and the sea were lovely, not to mention the imposing figure of the pylons of Harold E Holt Naval Base. The site was leased and developed by the US Government as a communications base at the height of the cold war in the mid 1960’s, and the town of Exmouth was established 6km away at the same time to service the base. The naval base has the distinction of housing the highest freestanding structure in Australia in the form of the central mast, as well as being named after Harold Holt, a previous Prime Minister of Australia, whose premiership came to an abrupt end in 1967 when he went for a swim in Port Phillip Bay in Victoria and was never seen again. After a lunchtime picnic stop at a packed Turquoise Bay, we headed on for a walk along the Yardie Creek Gorge, the only permanent river on the North West Cape. It was very pretty and enjoyable, slightly scrambly walking, and we even spotted a few tiny rock wallabies scurrying around on the cliff.

Yardie Creek Gorge

As the weather improved, so did the prospects of my being able to do what I came here for; to get out on the water and see some wildlife. The most popular excursion from Exmouth at this time of year is to take a boat trip to spot and snorkel with whale sharks, the biggest and most docile species of shark. Unfortunately it’s also the most expensive excursion on offer and as awesome an experience as I’m sure it is, I couldn’t justify the $400 price tag. Instead I spent an afternoon sea kayaking along the coast, spotting turtles coming up to the surface for air, pelicans grazing the water, and looking at the swampy mangroves growing along the shore.

A break from kayaking

But the main event for me was my scuba diving day. I had been hoping to do some more scuba diving since I did my Open Water course in Thailand, but I when it came to getting in the water I was really quite nervous. I hadn’t dived in five months, I’d never dived with anything less than one-on-one supervision, and I was suddenly hit by the knowledge that I was very inexperienced and didn’t know what I was doing. As I got into the water the feeling got more intense as the current and the swell were much stronger than anything I’d experienced in the still waters of Thailand. Hanging onto the mooring line as the rest of my group started to descend, I decided in a hyperventilating panic that I couldn’t go through with it, turning and explaining to the group behind me that I needed to get back onto the boat. Luckily however they helped to calm me down, reminding me that the surface is the worst part of a dive, and when my guide noticed I was missing and came back up to find me, he was very calming and kept a good eye on me as we began the descent. As soon as I got away from the waves of the surface I felt much better and had a fabulous dive. On this and the following dive we saw a couple of friendly sea snakes, a huge stingray floating overhead, a big reef shark scouring the bottom, as well as some lovely corals and lots of pretty little fishies.

The Ningaloo Reef

After finishing the dives and returning to the hostel, it was sunny and warm enough to sunbathe by the pool, and I spent a while picking the brains of diving instructor Keenan. It was really good to be diving again, great to learn from the pros and improve my skills, and quite elating to have conquered my fear and panic and to have not given up.

Scuba diving

Scuba diving in the Similan Islands

When I realised I’d have nearly a week to kill between finishing my tour in Myanmar and starting my volunteer work in Khao Lak, I thought about learning to scuba dive, very nearly chickened out in favour of snorkelling, but ended up taking a three-day PADI course to become a certified Open Water Diver.

Someone, who as it turns out didn’t know what they were talking about, once told me that scuba diving isn’t really worth the money and effort of learning, because you don’t see much more than in snorkelling and since you control your position in the water with an up/down button, it’s not really like proper swimming. Now that I’ve done both, I’d say although there are similarities in terms of the view, it’s a completely different kind of thrill to be not just looking down at the view, but inside the view, following the currents and really interacting (but not touching, obviously) with nature. As for the second point, while it’s true that there is a control on your kit to help control your buoyancy in the water, it doesn’t turn you into some kind of joystick-controlled submarine; you retain you full range of motion and swimming is most definitely necessary.

Khao Lak is a popular jumping off point for the Similan Islands National Park, one of Thailand and Southeast Asia’s top dive sites. Khao Lak’s main road boasts dozens of diving shops, offering courses, local dives and liveaboard trips to the islands, and there are also a couple of split-level training pools in the town. After watching the first set of training videos I spent the first day of my course at one of these pools with my instructor Cléo. I was lucky enough to be the only student in the class, and I spent the morning practising safety drills, answering multiple-choice quizzes and learning how all the gear works. Scuba divers wear what is basically an adjustable life jacket, with an air cylinder strapped to the back. The mouthpiece that you breath through is connected to the air cylinder, as is a spare air supply and a gauge telling you how much air you have left, and a fourth tube connects the air cylinder to your life jacket, or BCD (buoyancy control device), allowing you to inflate or deflate the BCD as necessary. It’s primarily used for descending and ascending, once you are swimming around you can just swim upwards or downwards as you please, using your breathing to control your buoyancy. Or that’s the theory at least – achieving neutral buoyancy, or hovering in the water, is a tricky skill to master and I’m still working on it.

That evening I watched a few more training videos and early the next morning I prepared for my first dive. The diving boat stays in the Similan Islands, an hour’s speedboat ride from Khao Lak, for the whole season, and each morning the speedboat brings divers and snorkellers across, of whom some stay just for the day and some stay aboard for one or more nights. My first dive was in a shallower area and I practised the same safety drills as the day before. The rest of the dive was spent swimming around looking at the stunning array of fish and marine life. Even at the relatively shallow level of 10 metres, I saw all kinds of wonderful things; it was like one of those big paintings that you look at and think ‘oh yeah, there’s quite a lot of people in that picture’, but then the closer you look the more detail your eye notices. It was almost too much to process, because there’s just so much going on all around you, from the small and camouflaged to the huge to ostentatious. One thing was for certain though, if I’m going to dive regularly I need to sit down and learn some fish species; saying ‘that big turquoise one’ half an hour later when you come back to the surface didn’t really give Cléo enough to go on.

Diving boat


My package included six dives, but only four need to be assessed for certification, so I did my second assessed dive after lunch, and a fun dive (as if the others were a chore) towards sunset. As the day trippers left after the afternoon dive, I got a chance to really take in the beauty of the Similan Islands without the crowds. The chain of nine islands are formed of granite, with smooth weathered boulders forming unique shapes on the shore, like one boulder on island number eight which provides the area with the name of Donald Duck Bay. Two of the islands are off limits to divers as they are protected breeding places for green turtles in the area, but there are plenty of excellent dive sites around the other seven.

Spending the night on the boat with six other passengers, the boat boys and instructors allowed me, as well as getting dinner, breakfast and a comfy bunk in between, to get the know the crew and instructors better, and to find out more about the diving world. The next morning I did an early morning dive, and had a few hours to chill out before the speedboat arrived with the day’s daytrippers. I completed my final two dives and by the end of the day I was starting to get a little better at knowing what to focus on; over the six dives I went down to 18 metres and saw schools of tiny inquisitive silver-coloured fish, cutesy clownfish, big ugly groupers, a furtive octopus, a giant lobster, and lots of weird, prehistoric-looking, giant slug things. I’m still not great at names, but I’m getting better. And also by the end of the day, after completing my four assessed dives and passing the written exam the night before, I was a certified PADI Open Water Diver.

I expected to enjoy scuba diving but I wasn’t prepared to feel so inspired, due in no small part to Cléo, my instructor. As well as being an excellent teacher, she obviously loves being in the water and exploring the marine world. Her stories were inspiring, her enthusiasm was infectious and I can’t wait to dive again.

Photo collage courtesy of Cléo