Whale sharks and other fantastic beasts - Instalment 8 of the CPR Kids Australian Adventure

 Paul and Eva up close with a whale shark

Paul and Eva up close with a whale shark

Exmouth is a sleepy coastal town. 

Despite the creepy giant prawn statue in the middle of town, it has a great feel about it. Forty kilometres south of Exmouth is a stretch of National Park called Cape Range. It is made up of 117,760 hectares and is most famous for its stretch of pristine coast that borders Ningaloo reef. Ningaloo is world renowned for its array of marine life, argued to be some of the best in Australia, some of which was straight off the beach! Although the weather was not great whilst at the Range it made little difference while under the water and we snorkelled as a family seeing turtles, rays, sharks and many fish species none of us had ever seen before. 

“We swam with two whale sharks 8 metres in length” 

One of the most memorable days involved going on a chartered tour to swim with the whale sharks. We swam with two whale sharks 8 metres in length and often less than the specified 2 metre distance regulations as one occasion he swam right toward us. We also swam with manta rays, saw humpbacks as well as a dugong and her calf which was Izzy’s highlight of her life to date. The day had to be one of the most memorable experiences of our adventure, particularly sharing it together as a family.

“…feel a little uneasy whilst travelling at speed with one and a half tonne attached to your rear”

After leaving Cape Range with its protected bays and beaches we headed down the coast toward the isolated little towns of Coral and Shark Bay. The scenery along the road to Coral Bay was dry, flat and desolate. Like most of WA there are no fence lines by the roads so sheep, goats and cattle roam freely along both sides of the road. This can make one feel a little uneasy whilst travelling at speed with one and a half tonne attached to your rear, an equation not compatible with a prompt stop should one of our friends decide to see if the grass is in fact ‘greener on the other side’. 

What stood out most was the lack of road kill. A history of burning and bulldozing, clearing land for pastoral leases has resulted in a heavy price, particularly for our native animals. It is believed that up to 1500 mammals and non-mammals are currently vulnerable or endangered as a direct result of land clearing as they become easy pray for feral cats and foxes. Scientists in Australia estimate that up to 75 million native birds and animals are killed by cats in Australia each night!

“The littoral told a story of millions of different life forms either washed in from the ocean or propelled by means of gravity and water from the land by floods”

To say the West Coast is rugged, is an understatement. Huge waves roll in off the Indian Ocean and hit the coastline with brutal force. We stayed at a working sheep station named “Quobba Station” which had a small stretch of coast protected by a reef. The littoral told a story of millions of different life forms either washed in from the ocean or propelled by means of gravity and water from the land by floods. For a change, today I try to do as my 8-year-old Izzy always does, and I pay attention to the array of these stories, whether it be a delicate coral head, giant clam shell or a precious little sand dollar. 

We stumbled across a little shanty town of corrugated iron sheds, perhaps used by fishermen in a day gone by during the warmer months. They were scattered behind a picturesque turquoise bay protected by a coral reef.  We spent half the day at the beach, a request from Sar to spend a few hours to simply just “be”, given most of our days are spent at pace exploring or driving. This seemed reasonable at first however after snorkelling to a nearby island and struggling to get back with the incoming tide swallowing what little water lay between me and the delicate coral below I became restless and wanted to “keep moving”. With my ADHD/ FOMO kicking into overdrive I was tasked to help Izzy build a dugong sanctuary from sea shells and other jewels found on the beach. Trust me, building a Dugong water sanctuary is no easy feat and a real lesson in patience (something I am trying so hard to be better at while away)!

 Where the red sand meets the sea

Where the red sand meets the sea

The evenings spent by the coast were always memorable. That evening however was something more than special, sitting at the campfire watching Izzy playing with a plethora of animal bones she was carefully arranging on the sand while Eva was danced in front of a snake wood bush, no doubt imagining it was both her stage and audience. Our bellies were full with fish tacos from the Yellow Fin tuna we watched our camp neighbour catch earlier in the day using a technique called ‘ballooning’. This technique involved filling a large helium balloon and casting off the cliff for it to be dragged a few hundred metres off shore. When you get on to something, it’s usually something big and the challenge is not reeling it in before the sharks get to it but pulling it 60 odd metres up a sheer cliff face from the powerful jaws of the Indian ocean below. The milky way painted a bold picture above us, and I reminded myself how incredibly blessed we are to be experiencing this. 

We drove another 70 odd kilometres to our next campsite known as ‘Red Bluff’. The drive was rather unremarkable across pastoral land (mainly sheep and goats), as we headed more inland before weaving our way back toward the coast. However, as we drove over the ridge heading into Red Bluff the deep blue Indian ocean hits us all like a punch in the guts. There was a collective inhale as we looked down over the scene as the camp sat nestled into the bluff and a perfect left hander rolled off the point. Our campsite overlooked the shore, a quick 50 metre stroll down to the water’s edge. 

 

“A 6 foot shadow in the water nevertheless catches my attention”

 

As we set up the camper I’m distracted by the turquoise shore break, 3-4 foot perfect closing out barrels, perfect for a body bash. A 6 ft shadow in the water nevertheless catches my attention. I am expecting to see a rounded dorsal fin appear and playfully ride the wave however this time it simply lurks in the same spot as if waiting for something, perhaps a meal. I have an unhealthy fear of sharks, not enough to keep me out of the water, however enough to constantly sit in the back of my mind whilst in their environment. The locals aren’t too fussed by them and when I asked them the best places to spear, they casually informed me that when you get something on the end of your spear you will have to ‘fight off the ‘bronzies’ if you want to bring your fish home for dinner. Another local chimed in and said “just give ‘em a few pokes with the spear and they usually bugger off”! Sure to say, my spear gun remained safely tucked away in the rear draw of the Hilux whilst at the Bluff…

 The Bluff had a great feel to it, a real sense of community and a collective respect for the ocean. Everyone was there for one reason and that was to appreciate the beauty of the sea and the adventures it provided whether it be diving, fishing or surfing.  We met another family from South Australia who took us under their wing and we felt part of the surfing fraternity even if it was just for a while. They took us to a secret spot protected from the wind and swell where I went diving along some of the ledges for crays while the girls tried surfing for the first time. Unfortunately, we came home cray-less however that evening we had squid linguine with squid rings the size of small plates, caught from along the rock ledge near our camp. I caught zero while a local who arrived after I did and left before, ended up with 6 squid bigger than anything I have ever seen before! I think he felt sorry for me so he gave me a couple. I couldn’t decide if it was fresh chilli it was lacking or simply the fact that I hadn’t caught it myself…

 

Again, the weather pattern predicting heavy showers and high winds was our signal to hightail it ‘out-a-there’ and we made our way to Carnarvon to the shelter of a little cabin in the local caravan park. Carnarvon is the fruit and veg belt of WA, so we stocked up with some fresh produce and headed further south to Francois Peron National Park. On the way we stayed overnight at Hamelin Station, an old sheep station purchased by Bush Heritage Australia, a privately funded group to restore the land to its natural state and bring back those endangered species back to safer numbers. The 300,00 hectares nestles an area known as Hamlin pools, famous for its stromatolites, the oldest known life form on our planet. The area has since become a world heritage site, and is one of the few places across the globe that actually ticks all the criteria required to sit in such illustrious company. To be brutally honest they’re not too much to look at, however without these forms of bacteria that resemble rocks we wouldn’t around today to enjoy them. 

Accessing the Francois Peron campsite required driving 80km down a narrow sand track. Many of the beaches in the park consist of narrow strips of white sand abruptly interrupted by cliffs the colour of cayenne pepper and paprika both contrasted by the water, a thousand different shades of blue. The water temp there had dropped by around 8 degrees from Cape Range, 600 kilometres up the road, and the winds were blowing a seasonally normal gale. This didn’t make for great swimming; in fact, the girls didn’t even get in the water. I think it was fair to say that at Cape Range the beauty was found beneath the surface whilst at Francois Peron the beauty was found from above.

We spent a few nights in the park however needed to make a mad dash for Geraldton as the only garage we could book our car in for a much-needed service could only do it the following morning. We stumbled into Geraldton late that evening shocked at the sight of a traffic light and the following day did the usual 6 loads of washing, x1 blog and restocked with food and fuel. That evening we treated ourselves and went to a cheap and cheerful Italian family restaurant. As we sat staring out onto the cold windswept bay feeling cosy and warm, our bellies full with a mountain of pasta and an average bottle of chianti, the prospect of having to leave to jump into a cold tent was not in any way, shape or form attractive. That’s one of the problems heading back into the big smoke, there is always a sense of wanting more…

I was filled with a sense of sadness leaving the coast for we were also for the first time now heading east, making our way back to Sydney via Uluru. There was a sense of reprieve however as we left the wheat belt surrounding Geraldton as lush green pastures were replaced with a landscape more familiar to us. The roads became straighter and flatter while the earth changed from a forest of green to khaki, brown, orange and then finally red. Eucalypts were soon replaced with acacias and mallee scrub while lush grass traded places with dry rocky outcrops. A sign on the side of the road welcomed us to “The Outback” and a sense of familiarity washed over us as we made our way to the ‘centre’.