When you go on an eco-tour you always expect to see some wild things. Whether or not that expectation becomes a reality is another matter altogether. I have been to reefs before expecting to see coral; and on these trips I have indeed seen coral – but when you are expecting the bachelor pad from Shark Tale and instead you are getting a large scale version of your year 6 diorama on fungal disease, it is more than a little disappointing.
Before visiting Ningaloo Reef in June this year I had defiantly accepted the fact that eco-tourism just ‘aint what it used to be. Gone were the days when you could see a wild animal that didn’t have a burger ring wrapped around its neck or a piece of lego lodged in its throat. In fact, as a kid I was convinced that eco-tourism was an enterprise based solely on wooden boardwalks…nothing more. I was so sure of this connection that when I visited the St Kilda Mangrove in Victoria I kicked an empty happy meal wrapper straight onto a nesting fairy penguin in order to clear and preserve the pristine boardwalk. Go figure.
This year I decided to get back on the bio-diesel band-wagon and give eco-tourism one last crack. My destination? Coral Bay in Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia. Ningaloo is world renowned for its abundant wildlife and pristine coral reefs – which by my experience meant that if I was really lucky, and looked really hard, I might see a starfish. Or at least an old thong that looked a little like a starfish. Enough to get the heart rate racing.
My travel agent had suggested I spend a few days aboard the ‘Shore Thing’, a luxury sailing catamaran chartered by an eco-tour company called Sail Ningaloo. It was a great deal, and an even greater pun, so on the second night of my stay in Ningaloo I boarded the ‘Shoe Thing’ for an eco-adventure on the reef. Radical.
Being Australian, I’ve seen a lot wildlife and can safely say in relation to any kind of animal-watching event: this isn’t my first rodeo. I grew up on the beach as well so lets just say I’ve seen my fair share of ocean-creatures. And an who lot of a seagulls. Quickly after boarding, however, my rodeo became more of an awkward pony ride in comparison to the real deal, Ningaloo Reef. In just two days I saw more natural sea life than most people see in their entire lives. Let me list just a few: turtles, manta rays, whale sharks, tiger sharks, reef sharks, other sharks I didn’t want to get too close to, killer whales, whales that don’t kill, baby whales, dugongs, dolphins, fish, more fish, like seriously a lot of fish, nudibranchs, sting rays, eels, starfish (not a thong!). Not only did I see all of these spectacular creatures, I also swam with the majority of them including the majestic whale shark that grows to over 7 metres long. It is not uncommon on chartered boat tours in Ningaloo to spot something from the deck and within seconds be snorkelling within touching distance. What is more, the coral in Ningaloo looks like actual coral. Not fungus. Not skeletons. Real-live-healthy-looks-just-like-in-the-pictures coral.
Just two days with Sail Ningaloo and my faith in eco-tourism was well and truly restored. Not only did I see species that I was sure I would have to tell my future-kids about when explaining the word ‘extinct’, the friendly staff on board explained the concerted efforts that companies such as theirs are making towards conserving such a precious paradise. I must congratulate Sail Ningaloo and all the other eco-tour companies I came across for their success in allowing tourists to see the extraordinary Ningaloo Reef with the upmost respect for and protection of the natural environment. I take my goggles off to you all.