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A rock formation called Nature’s Window overlooks a gorge in Kalbarri National Park. Just north of the park is Shark Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site, home to beaches, sharks, dolphins and Ningaloo Reef.

ALEX HUTCHINSON • New York Times ,

Australia's other great reef

  • Article by: ALEX HUTCHINSON
  • New York Times
  • April 5, 2013 - 1:49 PM

After a hair-raising, tire-spinning, engine-overheating, 2 ½-hour drive through soft, shifting sand in temperatures well over 100 degrees, we reached the end of a thin peninsula jutting into the ocean’s void. There, near the westernmost point in Australia, a tableau more stunning than the heat stretched out below us.

On either side, the coastline fell away in tricolor stripes: azure sky, red dune cliffs, blindingly white beach. The water was perfectly transparent, and from a cliff-edge platform we peered down into another world, a child’s primer of aquatic life in the Indian Ocean. A pod of dolphins frolicked; huge manta rays cruised below the surface like undulating black shadows; dugongs and sea turtles drifted; right below us, a cowtail stingray skimmed along; and everywhere you looked, patrolling the shoreline and lurking behind rocks, were sharks, sharks and more sharks.

I was halfway through an 11-day road trip up Australia’s unsung west coast, with my wife, Lauren, and her parents, Frank and Anda. We’d flown to Perth, the only major city on that side of the continent, and rented an all-wheel-drive RAV4 for the trip. Our goal: Ningaloo Reef — the “other” great reef, a 160-mile-long stretch that hugs the coast starting about 700 miles north of Perth.

On opposite coasts

The reef that Ningaloo is “other” to is, of course, the Great Barrier Reef, on Australia’s more developed east coast. Two years ago, Lauren and I had visited the Great Barrier Reef and left with mixed feelings. It is undoubtedly impressive — it’s the world’s largest living structure — and attracts 2 million tourists a year. But as a result, long stretches of the coast are now crowded and overdeveloped, and the reef’s best spots are an exhausting two-hour boat ride from shore. Ningaloo promised the opposite: an empty coast and a teeming reef, with all the weird and wildly colored tropical sea creatures you could shake a snorkel at — all within wading distance of your hotel’s beach.

In a series of near-empty national parks, we hiked along coastal cliffs and marveled at peculiar rock formations and deep river canyons cutting through the parched desert. Then, three days into the trip, we reached the edges of Shark Bay, named in 1699 by the British privateer William Dampier. “Of the sharks we caught a great many,” he noted in his journal, “which our men eat very savourily.”

Our first stop in Shark Bay, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, was Shell Beach, whose high-wattage white “sand” is actually a 30-foot-thick layer of crushed cockle shells. We tried to be impressed by the stromatolites, rocky-looking lumps in the bay’s hyper-salty shallows that are actually examples of one of the oldest life-forms on Earth — bacterial organisms that, billions of years ago, generated the oxygen that allowed complex life to emerge. (The ones in Shark Bay are estimated to be “only” a few thousand years old.) The whale sharks, at up to 60 feet long the world’s largest fish species, migrate along this stretch of coast between March and July. But Shark Bay’s most reliable year-round tourist attraction was ready to greet us on cue the morning after we arrived. With several hundred other tourists, we gathered on the beach at Monkey Mia to hear a talk from a ranger while a dozen wild dolphins frolicked impatiently behind her. They swam up one at a time to take a fish from a volunteer just a few feet in front of us; the other dolphins lolled in the shallows and peered back at us with one eye out of the water.

At last, the reef

The last leg of our northward push brought us to Coral Bay, a minuscule outpost at the south end of Ningaloo Reef with a hotel and a few campgrounds. En route, we screeched to a halt just long enough to gather a couple dozen windfall mangoes lying along the side of the road. Their sweetness was so irresistible that we stopped in the same place three days later on the way back.

Once at the reef, Frank and Anda opted to start with a turbocharged Zodiac boat tour that would whisk them to three prime snorkeling spots. Lauren and I, looking for a more peaceful option, joined a kayak tour.

We paddled out through gentle surf for 25 minutes to reach a mooring point, then donned our snorkels and slipped into the bath-warm water. For the next hour or so, we followed our guide through a maze of staghorn and blue-tipped coral, swimming alongside a Technicolor array of tropical fish, rays and sea turtles. Throughout, we kept a nervous eye on the black-tip reef shark that circled us — totally harmless, we knew, but somehow still scary (in a pleasant way).

The kayak tour was great, but I still wanted to test the full promise of the reef and the contrasts with its more famous sibling to the east.

The next morning, we walked a few hundred yards up the beach, around a narrow point, and waded into the water. I was still pulling on my flippers, trying to avoid stepping on the rays that were burying themselves in the sand along the shoreline, when Frank gave us a wave: A few dozen feet off the beach, he’d already spotted a green sea turtle.

As we drifted farther into the water, we once again entered the coral jungle. As schools of tiny blue fish flitted around my head, and giant square-headed mahi-mahi drifted past without a glance in my direction, I soon had the sense that I was invisible.

When I lifted my head, I saw empty water and unbroken coast, with no signs of civilization except, in the distance, the beach at the end of the dead-end road across from my hotel, where my book awaited alongside a bowl of fresh mangoes and a refrigerator full of cold beer. At that moment, there was no doubt in my mind which reef is greater.

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