Coral Bay is an incredible location on the coast, some 1100 kilometres north of Perth. That sort of distance will put a huge number of people off, but its well worth the drive. You can do it in 12 hours, or it might take you up to 15 hours depending on what you are towing. Coral Bay is known primarily for the Ningaloo Reef, which is a huge reef system that runs along the coast and up to Exmouth. The snorkelling and fishing along this area is unbelievable, as you will see in some of the pictures below. I went to Coral Bay in June/July of this year for two weeks, and had an absolute blast. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for an adventure on the coast.
It’s only in the last few years that Coral Bay has really become comfortable for tourists. Up until mid 2007, Coral Bay ran off diesel generators. It now has full electricity and the range of accommodation has grown considerably. There are now caravan parks, motels, a few houses, a resort and backpackers to stay at. During peak season, most places are fully booked out. It is truly that popular, and for good reason. We booked a full year in advance, as the holiday homes and caravan parks fill up very quickly, especially in peak season.
Getting to Coral Bay
Most people who visit Coral Bay drive up, and tow a trailer or a boat. You can fly into Exmouth fairly easily, and then it is a 120km drive south down to Coral Bay. I would highly advise driving up though, as a car comes in handy. If you have a 4x4, its a good idea to take that, as there is a lot of optional beach driving that can help you get to some great fishing destinations.
To get there, you drive up the Brand Hwy, and then onto the North West Coastal Hwy. Some of the towns that you pass through include Dongara, Geraldton and Carnarvon. Many people choose to do the leg in one go, but you really need more than one driver to do that safely. Sitting at the wheel for long periods isn’t safe, so take your breaks regularly. If you want to break it up, you can stay at Geraldton where there is cheap accommodation. If you have two drivers, doing it in a single day isn’t that difficult (assuming that you don’t have any problems).
Making sure that your car is well and truly road worthy is vital before going on a trip like this. This includes anything that you are towing. We were unfortunate enough to have two blow outs on the way up, which meant our trip was extended by several hours whilst we drove to a town that had an open tyre repair place (from Dongara to Geraldton and back) to get the tyres fixed. The whole trip ended up taking just over 18 hours, including several stops and a 3 hour delay on tyres. We still coped with it fine, but it pays to be prepared. Two spares for the car and the trailer is probably not a bad way to go!
As you get further north you will notice a lot of wildlife that is close to the road. The stations up there don’t have fences for the cattle, meaning you often come across cows and wild goats that are standing in the middle of the road! It pays to drive this section very carefully, as hitting a cow at 110km/h will most likely total your car, if not seriously injure someone. There are a lot of kangaroo’s and birds in the area as well, so watch out! Generally sunset and sunrise are the most dangerous times, but you just need to be keeping a good eye out and pick an appropriate speed to sit on.
This is usually the main reason that people choose to visit Coral Bay. I admit when I first jumped in I was expecting coral that jumped out with colour, which is not really the case. Most of the coral tends to be a brownie colour, with the exception of some which is scattered over the place. The further out you go the nicer the coral gets, but the coral is really not that colourful. Instead, the huge numbers of fish that swim around you all of the time is simply amazing. There are huge fish that you can just about touch, and it makes for some great underwater photography.
If you don’t have a boat or a 4x4, I would highly recommend doing the swim at Coral bay in the bay itself. The best way to do it is to walk out to the point, and jump in. From there, swim out as far as you are comfortable and then just let the current do its job. It will take you around and back into the beach, whilst going over a large portion of the reef and with minimal effort. I have done this several times, and you just pick a different line every time and you will see something different every time. The water at Coral Bay is considerably warmer than Perth water, which makes it very easy to stay in for hours at a time!
If you have a boat, there are plenty of other snorkelling places which are even better to enjoy. Many of the moorings out along the channel are available to use, but you need to move if a tour boat comes along and wants to use it. There is a shark cleaning station out deeper which you can swim around and watch little fish clean the sharks. There are a lot of reef sharks at Coral Bay, and they are generally harmless. The best thing we found to do with a boat is to tie a rope from stern to bow, and have someone sitting in the boat watching where it drifts. Everyone else jumps in and holds onto the rope, and you get towed over some magnificent coral. When you get near the shore you simply jump back in the boat, motor to another spot and jump in again!
If you have a four wheel drive, I would recommend driving along the track south of the boat ramp until you get to five finger reef. On a calm day this has some great scenery as well, and you can swim out several hundred metres if you are confident. There are quite a few spots that you can snorkel south of the boat ramp, but you just have to pick the right area with the right weather. North of the bay in Coral Bay is the breeding section for sharks and turtles, and you are asked to keep well clear of this (part of the beach is closed for turtle breeding season) as it can be dangerous to yourself and harmful to the animals if you interfere.
Coral bay Sharks and Turtles
Before going to Coral Bay I was very anxious about sharks. After seeing a huge number of reef sharks, I got used to them. We saw a huge number of white tip and black tip reef sharks that swim around. They will usually stay well clear of you. Once I did get quite a fright after shooting a fish and having a bigger shark swim very close to me, but they are not usually aggressive. In saying this, be aware, respectful and careful with them.
The turtles on the other hand are totally harmless. They are amazing creatures, and great fun to watch as they swim around the bays and up and down the coast. Some are large and some are quite small. You usually can’t get within about 5 metres of them, as they are very wary animals. There are a few different types, as you will soon find out.
Due to the great fishing and snorkelling that Coral Bay offers, there are very strict rules and guidelines in regards to what you are allowed to do, and where you are allowed to do it. Severe penalties apply for those who disregard these rules. If you are caught fishing in conservation areas, then you can have your boat taken off you, along with all of your fishing gear. This is applicable regardless of whether you are driving a million dollar boat around. It’s not worth the risk, and there are plenty of fish to be caught in the right areas, so don’t break the rules.
There is a ranger station near the fish cleaning area that is manned several hours a week by volunteers that you can talk to. Be aware of what you are allowed to catch, how you are allowed to catch them, areas that you can’t fish or spearfish in, the channels out to sea, the required size of fish and anything else that is relevant to you. The rangers are very helpful, and will give out maps and pamphlets which contain all of the details that you need to know. A large number of fish are not allowed to be caught when spear fishing, and there are areas that you are not allowed to fish or spearfish. Likewise there are areas that you aren’t supposed to drive through in a boat or snorkel in.
Out of all of the places that I have been fishing, Coral Bay has been the best by a long shot. You wouldn’t believe how many fish you can catch without really trying. Having never been up there it took us a while to pick the right spots and catch anything decent, but once we did we caught a heap of fish. After two weeks we came back with just over 25 kilograms of fish fillets (to divide between 11 people). A large majority of that was caught on the charter boat, and they froze it for the two weeks that we stayed up there, for free.
The rangers are very strict in policing what you catch in terms of both size limits and number limits on fish. There are even rules which forbid you from carrying too much fish that is not labelled correctly in your car, so get to know them! You can’t fish in the main bay, but you are allowed to fish at the boa tramp, slightly north of the ramp and many places south of the ramp. A popular place to fish off the beach is Maud’s Landing, which you can drive to along a gravel road in a two wheel drive car. There is a sign pointing to it as you drive out of Coral Bay. You are allowed to drive along the beach if your car can handle it, but be sure to let your tyres down. It’s not hard to get a good feed of tailor off the beach, but GT’s, mackerel, sharks and rays are also not uncommon. At the point south of Maud’s Landing a marine park is marked by big yellow poles, so stick north of that for fishing.
Only having a small boat we often took a few cars to Maud’s landing, and drove the boat up and around. We then went out from there to do some fishing and snorkelling. There are a number of bombies that are out in the middle of the sand patches which are abundant with fish. We had a lot of fun in the mornings using silver slices to catch shark mackerel and golden trevally just out from Maud’s Landing. You just follow the birds and baitfish and you can catch a heap of fish without much effort. We found it to be most fun using very light tackle and playing the fish.
Trawling up and down the reef can get you some huge mackerel as well as other big fish, but you need to be patient. In the south passage you can get a good feed of Red Emperor with little effort. Above all, if you like fishing, go out on a Charter boat. You are guaranteed to get lots of fish and have a great time. If you have a boat that can go out a few kilometres you can get fish very easily, but you need to pick the right spots. The knowledge of a charter boat driver often can’t be beaten!
The big potato cod
Something I was very intrigued by was the huge potato cod that hangs around the boat ramp. It weighs several hundred kilograms, and hangs around the big charter boats when they come in. If you get a chance, go to the boat ramp and have a look for it. Apparently he has been hooked a few times and is a little more cautious these days, but it’s a great sight to see!
Being a town which thrives on tourism, many tours are offered. You can go on quad bike tours, manta ray tours, fishing charter boats, dive charters, glass boat tours and combinations of them all. Sure, they might be a little costly, but they are very well worth it. If you have a four wheel drive you can go to everywhere that the quads go, but it’s still a fun experience. The dive and fishing tours are well worth their money as you are able to see some amazing underwater life and catch some huge fish. You can go on charters which combine snorkelling and fishing together, and this is often a good option. Make sure you don’t leave Coral Bay without going on a tour though, as you will really enjoy them.
Fishing Charter Boats
There is a number of Coral Bay Fishing Charters. They will usually only go out when it’s good weather, and if it’s too rough then you will be rebooked to the next day with good weather. We went on the Mahi Mahi 2, and had an absolute blast. You can choose to pay for a fishing line for yourself, or you can share one between two. We found it fine to share, as you still catch a heap of fish. The charter boat will allow you to take your rods on board, but honestly it’s not worth it if there are a lot of people on the boat. As it is you often have tangles and the guys on the boat prefer just using the Alvey snapper winches. These have thick line, a huge sinker and are very easy to operate.
Most of the fishing is done in about a hundred metres of water, and you can catch a fish within a few seconds of hitting the floor. There are that many fish that swim around down there you will even often catch double headers. I have attached some pictures of the fish that we caught that day, to give you an idea of what to expect. Basically fish are coming in thick and fast all day long. It takes a little while to get out to the fishing spots and the Mahi Mahi 2 trawls on the way out and back in. We were fortunate enough to catch a Wahoo on the way out, which was fun. We also saw a heap of dolphins and whales swimming around, which was fun.
I think most people caught about 6 decent sized fish each on the boat that day, and almost every day that is normal. Bernie, the skipper of the Mahi Mahi 2, knows the area very well and is more than willing to lend a hand and have a chat. If you get sea sick, make sure you work out a way to prevent it before you go. Whether that means taking travel calm, drinking ginger beer, wearing sea sickness bangles or whatever it is, deal with it before you get on the boat! The charters will pick you up from the shops in the morning and drop you back in the afternoon.
If you are feeling rich, you can hire the boat out with the crew overnight, or to go game fishing for the day. This is more expensive, but worth it. There is some huge Marlin, Mackerel and Mahi Mahi that get caught regularly at Coral Bay, which makes for an entertaining time.
Coral Bay Accommodation ranges from holiday houses, a resort, caravan parks or the backpackers. The holiday houses are booked out many months in advance, especially for the best seasons. Coral Bay Houses has a list of the holiday homes and their location, which is handy to use. Most of the houses are not that new, and you can expect to pay prime dollars to stay in them. They usually charge around $800 - $1600 dollars a week. This is not too bad value if you go with a large group, but it sure isn’t cheap to rent compared to other holidays!
Alternatively you can stay at the backpackers which are fairly new and cheap. The Coral Bay Resort is more expensive again, but it has some great rooms and a brilliant view. When we went up, we stayed in the Bayview Caravan Park and had a great time. We rented the biggest chalet there and a tent site, and just split up to sleep in both areas. The caravan park is close to the beach, has a pool and tennis courts and was more than enough for what we wanted. Be aware that it is guaranteed to be full in peak season, so you need to pre book. There is also another Caravan park, so shop around.
In the car park before you walk into the Bay there is a few tables set up for cleaning the fish. People regularly bring in fish throughout the day, and the charter boats go there when they come in (late afternoon) with their catch. You can see some huge fish, and it’s the best place to clean the fish as there is running water and bins to throw away the waste. It’s not uncommon to see fish bigger than a metre long on the tables either!
Coral Bay Boat Ramp
The boat ramp at Coral Bay is only fairly new. Boats used to be launched off the beach, but now a boat ramp makes life easy. It’s only a few minutes’ drive from Coral Bay, and makes for a simple boat launch. There is a channel which runs out from the ramp to the north passage, and to the south passage. Be sure to watch where you drive the boat, and to stick in between the markers as the coral can be very shallow. Some of it even sticks out of the water and can do some serious damage if you aren’t careful. On rough days it may simply be too hard to get out the south passage, but the north one is usually ok if you are careful.
The weather in Coral Bay can be absolutely brilliant, but it can also be windy and horrible. Unfortunately even in the best seasons you may get a bad few weeks where it is windy and poor weather for doing most activities. We went up in June/July and had reasonable weather, minus a few days lost to winds which just blow and blow. It warms up towards the end of the year, but also tends to get windier. You really need to pick the time based on what you want to do at Coral Bay.
Having just bought a spear gun before going to Coral Bay, I was well and truly ready to try my luck in the water. There are a number of fish that are friendly to divers, but quite a few are not allowed to be shot, so be careful. As a simple rule, a fish that doesn’t have a tail shaped like “<” at the back cannot be shot. Rounded or straight tailed fish are protected and you will get in big trouble for shooting them. Of course, picking the fish that is the right size can be a challenge too. I found many times that there were so many fish swimming around you would just keep switching targets, rather than picking a fish and going for it. In saying this, we managed to get some nice sized spangled emperor, golden trevally and snapper.
Even if you are only interested in spear fishing, make sure you dive in the marine park (without a gun) just to see the fish swimming around. I jumped in the water and was instantly surrounded by huge GT’s, spangled emperors and other reef fish. You are allowed to spearfish at 5 finger reef, as well as a few other places off the shore. The bombies just off Maud’s landing proved to be quite fun for spear fishing, and we even saw a Mackerel over a metre and a half swim by. At that stage without a float I decided not to shoot it! Spear fishing with a scuba tank is not permitted in Coral Bay.
The bakery has fresh food that is baked daily and is quite tasty. The resort also has a restaurant which overlooks the beach and has some impressive food. Another restaurant/cafe is located near the petrol station has some nice food as well. There is only one main store where you can buy your food, and the paper is usually about half a day late. There is also a water sports store and the usual touristy shops, but it’s a very small town.
Can I hire a boat?
You used to be able to hire a boat at Coral Bay, but this is no longer an option. If you don’t have a boat, you either need to rely on tours or hire one from Kalbarri or Exmouth and tow it up or down. Just shop around and find the best deal. You don’t really need one bigger than 6 metres, unless you plan on going out very far offshore. A 6 metre boat will get you outside of the reef most days, which is all you really need.
Fish feeding happens at 3:30pm most days. A volunteer comes down and feeds the big fish that come up to the shore. They get so close that you can almost touch them, but it’s not advisable! This is a good experience to watch, especially for the younger kids. You are allowed to feed the fish with the food they provide, but you are not allowed to feed them anything else you bring. It is done where the glass boat is moored, in the main bay. If you can snorkel, jump in the water nearby and you can swim amongst the fish as well.
Whale Sharks and Manta Rays
One of the main reasons that people visit the Ningaloo Reef is to see the Whale Sharks and Manta Rays. Humpback Whales also visit Coral Bay each year. The Whale Sharks are in Coral Bay between March and July, The Manta Rays are usually spotted between May and November, but these dates vary from year to year. These creatures are simply amazing. Some of the whales can reach up to 12 metres long, and when you are swimming with them it’s simply incredible.
Ningaloo Reef is just over 260 kilometres long. It is popular for Dolphins, Humpback Whales, Turtles, Manta Rays, Dugongs and a massive variety of coral, fish and sharks. It truly is an epic adventure to swim with these creatures, and something that only a portion of the population ever gets to enjoy. If you ever get the opportunity to visit the Ningaloo Reef in Coral Bay, snap it up. If you love the coastal environment then Coral Bay will be one of the best holidays you ever go on. I love going to Kalbarri and Wagoe, but this just takes Western Australia to another level.