When you think you know everything

I am reminded that when you think you know something, you know nothing Jon Snow.

IMG_5819About six years ago at Osprey Bay we went for a snorkel to the right of the boat entry point and saw nothing but sea grass and three fish. We declared the area barren and religiously snorkelled a small circle to the left every year since.


FAIL. Turns out I am terrible at taking photos underwater with something with no viewfinder. Most shots are on this weird angle and miss the main subject completely.

And then there’s my dodgy underwater filming (nod to The Blair Witch Project for unintended style inspiration)…y

This trip we had a chat with an American couple who said they had seen 40 turtles to the right. Say whaaaat? I figured that if I divided that by ten, it would be about right. Off we went, and presto! proceeded to bang into eight turtles more interested in sea grass than us. You literally had to swim around them in one metre of water. It was mating season and they were fuelling up for what appeared to be a game of turtle Stacks-On* at sunset.


FAIL. A case for not giving me the underwater movie camera.

We chatted to another couple who said neighbouring Sandy Bay was great snorkelling too. Back when we knew everything, we wrote it off as all sand and kite surfers. Apparently not. It teems with amazing coral and abundant fish-life just waiting for us; Moray eels, stonefish, and octopus a plenty. The strong current means crystal clear water at hightide, and very few other people with adequate kicking power.


Two Octopus holding tentacles (awwwww!) and hanging out with their friend (do you think they know it’s coral?)

I’ve always been super jumpy with fish over 1.5 metres like sharks, sting rays, and even manta rays, no matter how many times I’m told they are harmless, but by this stage I was spending five hours a day in the water. The nerves had to go; it was time to make friends with the reef sharks.


Waz testing a hands-free approach

At dawn and dusk, Waz would generally fish while I would tour the coral. There were always reef sharks hanging around with intent, circling me with their beady Mona Lisa eyes. I settled on a new strategy: to swim toward them. And thus, my love of sharks was born.

The well-kept secret that is Ningaloo is showing signs of a security leak, thanks to WA Tourism’s successful campaigns in Europe and Asia. If you fancy a bit of fish time or simply white sands and turquoise water, go soon. While it is more difficult to access than the Great Barrier, it is already much busier than it was six years ago, and of course the ever present threat of global warming means every year is precious. You won’t be bothered by President T either (only The Orange One would give himself a nickname), who will be kicking back at Mar-a-Lago safe in the knowledge that the phenomenon is a hoax invented by the Chinese, and dead when Florida and Mar-a-Lago is underwater.

An absolutely awesome young teenager from the camp across from us was travelling Australia with her family. She loved the water as much as I do and appeared every time I got the snorkelling gear out. Despite the worst goggles in Christendom, and just a bikini (I’d turn white and feel nothing after 20 minutes without a wetsuit) she never tired of it. She was handy with a loom, (everyone with a child aged between eight and 15 would know what this is) and sold key rings in AFL team colours to campers and gave me our camp mascots.

Our own tentacle holding Octopus camp mascots created and gifted by the lovely L.

She also had her own fishing gear and knew all the fisher person speak. She, along with many other camp kids we meet, is going to be an amazing adult.


Munty (our name) the resident one legged Corella who has perfected a cute head tilt and suitably dishevelled appearance for snacks.

For those travelling to Exmouth to see the Whalesharks, Cape Range offers fantastic snorkelling from the beach:
Oyster Stacks – most variety, tidal limitations, and a bit of current
Turquoise Bay – the most instagrammable
Lakeside – has the big things
South Mandu – an amazing drift 20 metres from shore


Why did the lizard cross the path?

And now, for everyone’s favourite segment: What’s on the menu at WOKA?**

Bug and grass fed Chicken, tenderly embraced by prosciutto that once roamed the same pasture, kept company with chargrilled vegetables – a Symphony in Yellow – and finished in Spanish spice.

*A game where one person is ‘it’, someone yells “Stacks ON!” and everyone else jumps onto the person that is ‘it’.

**WOKA – Wazza’s Outdoor Kitchen Australia

Fear and reward

Lakeside beach

Lakeside beach

I am quietly finning along, snorkelling for the third time that day at Lakeside, on the Ningaloo Reef in the magical Cape Range National Park. If this rings a bell, it is because I harp on about the place incessantly, there is so much life out in the water. Along with Turquoise Bay, it is a favourite with day-trippers. Borne by tour buses, they amble to the spot with the snorkel marker, march directly out for around 30 metres, flop about for 20 minutes, then retire to shore to smoke, look bored with precision, and burn a new layer of ‘it sucks to be my family back in Europe’ into their undernourished frames.

Turquoise smile

Turquoise Bay smile – that little lump on the horizon is the reef


It was at Lakeside that I had an epiphany in 2008. With nothing but the rasp of parrotfish beak-on-coral in my ears, my brain found a space to discover I actually wanted to be a photographer. (And a marine biologist – but that ship had sailed). Snorkelling or diving is the only time I truly switch off. Underwater, where air is generally absent, is ironically when I feel most able to breathe. The eternally blue space, without walls or fences, represents endless possibility for me.

So, I am quietly swimming in and around the rocky outcrops, following a fish that completely changes its colour and pattern as I get close or back off, a peeved turtle, 4m ray, and pausing to watch a plague of parrotfish engulf a patch of coral, the tiny territorial resident fish dashing out and back nervously. Just when it could not get any better, a huge school of mackerel and other silvery fish with wide eyes swept past and then started circling me, gaining pace as they went round. I decided to join their circling, and as I went round and round was thinking “Choice! They think Im their bro! I’m a mermaid!”. Amazed they cared not a whit as I whipped by the other fish and matched their crazy changes in direction, I was at once silver and fishy. Then it occurred to me. They are commonly known as bait-fish. And a school of darting bait-fish are probably being chased. Not that those three reef sharks and their homies, Trevor Trevally, and Barry Barra, liked the cut of my gib, but it’s safe to say I found myself ashore with no recollection of the breathless flail between realisation and landfall.


not my pjs

view to the west

When we returned to our camp, we shared a beverage with our lovely Swiss neighbour, J, a fellow water-baby with designs on the outer reef. He had travelled for some months around WA in his wagon, sleeping in the back, and reliant on a dwindling collection of camping ephemera. As days rolled by he realised he only used one plate, cup, knife, fork and spoon. Subsisting happily on long-life wraps, honey, nutella, and canned goods, his camp stove, multiple devices of convenience and esky (chilly bin) found new homes with the Belgians that packed every other camp site.

J wanted buddies to go and explore the outer reef. He had gone out on his own but was worried he may be…ahem…taken, and no-one would know. Fortified with a zesty cider from Harcourt in Victoria, I found myself consulting tide and moon charts and committing both W and I to an outer reef expedition with the excitement I always have when an adventure of any kind is afoot, and drive I have to never miss out.

Cape Range National Park

Cape Range National Park

The following day, in the last 30 minutes of an incoming tide was the only opportunity in the next 7 days, when the tide would be high enough to swim over the reef edge. J knew the way and so three small figures swam out to the reef, quickly invisible to those on shore. The thing about a reef is that waves from the outside hit the edge, rise up and then smash down. Along with a titan tidal-pull, I found myself swimming two strokes forward, getting drilled by excitable waves, then dragged back 4 strokes, enjoying a nasal flush along the way. I don’t think it is a spoiler alert to say we made it, and the silence on the other side was astounding. The water clarity, unmatched. A long shelf of volcanic rock and an amazing variety of coral sat around 15 metres below us and ran out about 40 metres before dropping off into Predator World. As we followed the edge of the reef, we swam over enormous cracks in the reefs surface, so deep you could only see fish in the first few metres framed by blackness. Think awe meets terror. Leaving a sacrificial layer of dermis on the way back over the reef edge, we plotted to do it the next day, knowing full well the ideal conditions to go over the reef, had past.

Again at dusk, three figures headed out, this time for an elusive gap in the reef that we could sneak through. It was a much longer swim and after about a kilometre, I found myself musing on the relative benefits of such activities. There are bitey things out there, but I figure the risk versus reward profile points in the right direction. I never take the ocean for granted, and I accept the side of scaredy-cat that comes with the incredible beauty I get to breathe in.

The welling surf and sinking sun loomed large in my overactive mind.  Stuff incredible beauty inhalation, I waved the boys on and with a feeling like there wasn’t enough air in the sky, swam to shore with an urgency that just skirted fish-in-distress. It is great to be alive.