The Perfect Place for A Fringe Dweller

I have always felt like an outsider. This is not a lament or a statement to garner sympathy, it’s a simple observation. I feel different and people perceive my difference as something a little weird or strange. If people don’t immediately ostracise me for my differences, I’ll spare them any further weirdness by keeping a low profile. A work colleague refers to my personality as ‘underneath the radar.’ To humorously emphasise her point, she’ll often use her smartphone to blare the actual eighties song, Underneath the Radar by Underworld when I walk past her desk.

Outsider is perhaps inaccurate. It conjures up images of James Dean from Rebel Without a Cause or Marlon Brando from The Wild One. Those were portrayals of outsiders who were cool, something I’m not. A better term is Fringe Dweller. A Fringe Dweller is someone who looks like an ordinary person, but their mind demands an experience of life different from the norm. This outlook makes choosing a holiday destination tricky. As a Fringe Dweller, I’m painfully aware that most travel destinations now resemble each other. The same hotels, the same restaurants, the same attractions. Sameness is Kryptonite for a Fringe Dweller.

A Fringe Dweller is someone who looks like an ordinary person, but their mind demands an experience of life different from the norm

After much research, I settled on a place called Coral Bay. “Where’s that? I’ve never heard of it,” a common response when I shared my travel plans with others. Almost 1,200 kilometres north of Perth, Coral Bay is the furthest place I could visit from Sydney while remaining within Australia. As a destination it aligns with my passion, the ocean and its denizens. Just off the coast of Coral Bay is a unique marine environment, Ningaloo Reef. Unlike the Great Barrier Reef, Ningaloo is a fringing coral reef, close to the shore – the perfect place for a Fringe Dweller.

The Ningaloo Reef is 260 kilometres long, making it one of the longest fringing reefs in the world. It’s also the only fringing reef located on the western side of a continental land mass. Its location, just above the Tropic of Capricorn, adds to its unique qualities. Ningaloo is located further south from the equator than a tropical reef system is normally found. The Leeuwin Current, a stream of tropical water that flows from the north, down to the southern waters of Western Australia means tropical and temperate marine creatures can both be found on the Ningaloo Reef.

I felt this blackboard mocking me after I failed to see a Whale Shark on the 9th of June.

One of the most impressive Fringe Dwellers can be found at Ningaloo. From March to August, the Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus) visits the reef in response to the mass coral spawning that occurs in Autumn of each year, influenced by the lunar calendar. This event kickstarts a huge food chain, making Ningaloo Reef a desirable destination for the world’s largest fish. Yes, the Whale Shark is a fish. The word whale is used to convey its size, anywhere from 5.5 to 10 metres in length. Like many whales, they are also filter feeders, siphoning enormous amounts of water to feed on planktonic life forms. It was my goal to swim with one of these giants of the sea.

To see a Whale Shark requires a boat. I had booked a place on one operated by Ningaloo Reef Dive. Their operation works in sync with the pilot of a spotter plane. The pilot flies up and down the coast, looking for the unmistakable outline of a Whale Shark. When found, the pilot radios the boat with the location of the giant fish. When I arrived in Coral Bay, wind and rain were pounding the area, so I was confined indoors. When the weather improved, the spotter plane runway was underwater, so my first day on the boat was postponed until the aircraft could safely take off.

I decided to look around the town instead. No, scratch that. Coral Bay is not really a town, it’s a location. A single street flanked by the beach, hostel and supermarket on one side and a couple of caravan parks on the other side. It didn’t take me long to explore Coral Bay’s entirety, so I did what any self-respecting Fringe Dweller would do. I looked for the hidden and unglamorous areas. I discovered a narrow trail just outside the almost-town and followed it along the top of the sandy hills that overlook Coral Bay. Several wooden crosses made a striking claim on the first hill, daring me to walk further. I didn’t want to disturb the dead, but my curiosity was piqued. I soon found myself looking at a small pet cemetery. Magpie-larks or peewees flitted about the crucifixes as I looked south towards the wind turbines in the distance. Coral Bay is responsible for its own power, which comes from the wind, supplemented by diesel generators on the other side of these hills. A few businesses also have solar panels on their roofs to help carry the power load.

I found this pet cemetery on the fringes of Coral Bay.

There was an undeniable hypnotic quality to the spinning of the wind turbines that only increased as I made my way towards them. Soon the air was filled with a deep, mellifluous hum. The noise seemed to rearrange the molecules in my body, aligning me to the energy of this place. With each rotation of the massive blades, the non-stop busyness of Sydney and the east coast was shaved away from me. This spot on the hill, on the fringes of Coral Bay and beneath the turbines was populated with birds of prey. Large osprey flew overhead, and small kestrel danced in the wash of air coming off the large blades. I no longer felt resentment about my boat trip being postponed, just acceptance.

A kestrel flies by a wind turbine on the outskirts of Coral Bay, Australia.

Acceptance is a quality that would help keep me sane while I tried to see Whale Sharks. Yes, I had booked time on the Whale Shark boat but that didn’t mean I’d immediately encounter one. The experience would not be like ordering my morning long black at the local café. How comfortable would you be with the possibility of not receiving your coffee, after you pay for it? The runway was now clear for the spotter plane to take off and I could go out on the water. Despite the shadowing presence of the plane, my first day out with Ningaloo Reef Dive uncovered zero whale sharks. The pilot did spot something though — a large Manta Ray. A filter feeder like the Whale Shark, the angelic ray gently glided half way between the sea surface and sea floor as it nourished itself. A tangled mass of wetsuit clad snorkelers gazed down in wonderment at the impossible creature. To get a better look, I separated from the crowd. Unencumbered by buoyant neoprene, I dived down. Soon I was looking up at the manta and it was looking down at me. Manta Rays have the largest brain to body mass of any fish. I could feel an intelligent soul appraising me as I met its gaze. I may not have seen a Whale Shark, but I was not disappointed with this encounter.

Snorkelers look down on a large Manta Ray as I look up.

Ningaloo Reef Dive offered to take me out a second time, no extra charge, to try and find a Whale Shark. A generous offer, yet I found myself paralysed with doubt. What if I chose the wrong day? The offer did not extend to a third time. By committing to a day, I felt like I was playing roulette and placing all my money on a single number. “I’m here for a while. Can I get back to you with a day?” I asked. They assured me I could, and I felt some relief in deferring the decision.

To take my mind off the big fish, I booked a day on another boat, one that did not offer Whale Shark tours. The boat, Utopia, operated by Ningaloo Marine Interactions, offers guests all the best elements of Ningaloo Reef without the expectation and pressure of finding the elusive Whale Shark. Frazer McGregor, Utopia’s Skipper, displayed an uncanny ability to spot marine life from his perch at the helm. All without the aid of a spotter plane. In no time, he located a Humpback Whale escorted by dolphins, between the reef and the coastline. The young whale dived below the boat and in a spectacular display, surfaced beside our port side.

After this encounter, we ate lunch on the aft deck as the light from the noon sun sparkled like diamonds off the blue-green ocean surface. After our meal we motored south, back towards Coral Bay. Over a shallow stretch of water, Frazer eased back on the throttles and drew our attention to a large shadow forward of the vessel and beneath the surface. “That’s a Tiger Shark,” his matter of fact observation. I was transfixed, looking down at the dark form of one of the ocean’s most impressive predators. I wasn’t quite prepared for the Skipper’s next words. “Now, who here would like to get in the water with it?” Despite my shock, I scrambled to the rear of the boat, madly reaching for my mask, fins, and camera. I was no longer in control of my actions, I was watching myself take my place on the aft landing with a handful of other snorkelers. On Frazer’s signal we all slipped into the water and watched the large, stripy fish cautiously inspect us. My excitement delayed the pressing of my camera’s shutter. Fortunately, Utopia’s photographer, Peter, captured a superb photo of the Tiger Shark before it swam off.

A Tiger Shark between Coral Bay and Ningaloo Reef. Photo by Peter Wandmaker.

As I lay in bed that night, I felt intoxicated. Not from alcohol, but from joy. I’d come to Coral Bay to swim with a Whale Shark. It hadn’t happened yet, but I’d already encountered a Humpback Whale on the surface and a Manta Ray and Tiger Shark below the surface. Each of these fantastic marine interactions pointed to the probability of seeing a Whale Shark. I was optimistic, but I still could not commit to a date for my second Whale Shark tour. I was painfully aware that people saw Whale Sharks for a couple of days after my first attempt, followed by another day of none. Pressure! I once again deferred my decision, choosing to have a leisurely day on land, finished with photographing a Coral Bay sunset.

Sunset over Coral Bay, Western Australia.

My time here on the fringe of Australia was running out. I had to choose a day for my second Whale Shark attempt. I chose Friday. Finding a big fish on a Friday seemed appropriate, even poetic. Ningaloo Reef Dive weren’t taking any chances. Their Skipper, Stu, pointed the boat in the direction of where they last saw Whale Sharks. A long, long way north of Coral Bay. We’d started at 8am. By noon the spotter plane and sun were directly over our boat, but no Whale Shark was to be seen. Lunch was prepared and placed buffet style on the table in the centre of the rear deck. In my mind, each mechanical bite of my tasty pasta salad increased the unlikeliness of seeing the massive fish. I stole furtive glances at the crew. I thought I detected disappointment in their faces. I certainly felt it. The spotter plane would soon run low on fuel and need to return to Coral Bay.

While I’m not someone who radiates positivity, I like to always leave room for possibility. I closed my eyes and visualised the distinct form of a Whale Shark. I imagined myself looking down on it in the water column. I worked hard to make the picture as clear as I could, trying to maintain its coherence for as long as possible. I took a deep breath and the feeling of disappointment subsided. Another bite of my pasta salad and the boat lurched forward as Stu suddenly applied a lot more power to the engines. The spotter plane had spotted a Whale Shark! After thirty minutes of hard motoring, Stu eased back on the throttle and we were drifting near the area the pilot had seen the big fish. Soon I was in the water with the other guests, watching a Whale Shark approach us. First, the wide rectangular mouth, followed by the generous length of a 6 metre (20 foot) long fish. The moment was here, and I drunk it in like a parched man who discovers an oasis after days of wandering in the hot sun.

I took my place beside the massive shark. While it cruised at a leisurely pace, I had to kick constantly just to maintain pace with it. Between taking photos, I gazed at the huge rear caudal fin. Its rhythmic side to side motion reminded me of the revolution of the wind turbine blades on the edge of Coral Bay. The distinct markings on the upper body of a Whale Shark are hard to fathom. Imagine the intricate and careful dot work of an Indigenous Australian artwork applied to a flesh and blood animal. The Whale Shark is a creature straight out of The Dreamtime. For almost an hour, Ningaloo Reef Dive’s band of adventurers shared the waters with this magnificent and impossible fish. On the return leg of our trip, the prevailing mood was the warm glow of gratitude.

One big fish! A Whale Shark, encountered north of Coral Bay, Western Australia.

The following day, I opened my laptop, connected my external drive, and began to sort through my photos. My camera was set to continuous shooting mode and I’d ended up with a lot of images. As I looked at my pics I felt content and I didn’t feel the need to see anything else. However, when would I next be in Coral Bay? Ningaloo Reef was still calling to me. I booked one final boat trip. Again, with Ningaloo Reef Dive, but this time only to see the Manta Rays. I’m glad I did. Manta Rays are normally solitary animals, but my final day in the water bore witness to a procession of three large Manta Rays. The lead Manta, ‘Batty’ repeatedly performed loop-the-loops for my camera. A spectacular ‘aquabatics’ display.

My self-identification as a Fringe Dweller had lead me to the most fringe place I could find. The fringing reef of Ningaloo, off the coast of the remote location of Coral Bay, isn’t the easiest place to get too. If you do make it, spending time as a Fringe Dweller here—even if that’s not in your nature—will leave a memorable mark on your life. I promise.

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