Coral Bay is a small beach resort town in the Gascoyne Region of Western Australia, with a population in 2016 of 207. The big attraction is Ningaloo Reef, a 300-km fringing reef with its crest about 1 km offshore in this area, enclosing the placid lagoon of Bill's Bay. Coral Bay in particular is known for its tours to swim with manta rays. Unfortunately as of mid-2022 most of the famous just-off-the-beach coral gardens are dead (see details below), but there are still amazing snorkeling spots farther from land (accessible by tour or to more adventurous snorkelers) and outside of town. Unlike Exmouth, known for its backpacker parties, Coral Bay is quiet and family-oriented and has a noise curfew. Serious rowdiness, drunkenness or similar misconduct will get the offender run out of town. On the other hand, its easy walkability and beautiful beach right next to the accommodations make it a nice place for a chill getaway.
The Thalandji are the aboriginal dwellers of this area. Early European settlement from 1884 was some 3 km further north at "Maud's Landing" - little more than a jetty and a shed for shipping supplies in, and wool and sheep out. Farming was difficult in this hot arid scrub, and it remained an isolated undeveloped place until 1968, when water sports became popular and road links improved. Then the Coral Bay Hotel opened, to found the present small town.
All of Ningaloo is a protected marine park with restricted activities, and Bill's Bay is a "green zone" with no boats permitted except a couple of glass-bottomed sightseeing boats. So the corals within the lagoon are protected from much natural and human damage and are superb, within easy snorkelling distance from shore. One monster coral is believed to be 4000 years old.
The climate is dry tropical, and by road from the south you pass the sign for the Tropic of Capricorn, latitude 23°26ʹ south. (That means that the noon sun is directly overhead Coral Bay on midsummer's day, Dec 21, and almost directly overhead for a few days either side.) Fresh water is limited and expensive. It's drawn from boreholes - expect a salty taste on your lips after having a shower.
Coral Bay's Coral Reefs
Coral Bay is famous for being along one of the most accessible parts of the UNESCO World Heritage Ningaloo Reef, which rivals the Great Barrier Reef of eastern Australia for scenery and diversity (it's the country's second largest after the Great Barrier). Though the crest of the reef here is about a kilometer offshore, the back lagoon (shallow area between the reef crest and the beach) is filled with coral growth almost right up to the beach. Unfortunately, the coral near the beach went through a massive die-off in April 2022, and is now almost all dead in the areas most easily accessible to swimmers. Damage farther out, where tour boats and more intrepid independent snorkelers go, varies from location to location, with some very good living coral gardens still to be found.
Tour guides will be quick to remind you that brown coral doesn't equal dead coral - this is true, as many coral species are naturally shades of brown or gray (in healthy parts of Ningaloo you'll usually find some purples, blues, and greens among them). But observant snorkelers will be able to tell the difference between healthy brown coral, whose surface is covered with an intricate pattern of coral polyps or their sleeping holes, and dead coral, which is covered with a layer of brown algal muck (and sometimes fallen over broken).
Interestingly, this die-off wasn't one of the usual "bleaching events" commonly reported on in other places such as the Great Barrier Reef, which are caused by water getting too warm for the coral's symbiotic algae - certainly correlated to global warming. Coral Bay's die-off, which has happened several times in recorded history, about 20 years apart, was instead caused by a coral spawning gone wrong. Basically, too many of the corals tried to reproduce all at the same time during the wrong weather, and without enough currents to bring in fresh ocean water, they smothered in their own sperm. Thousands of fish died along with them, all within a period of days or weeks. A similar event happened in the 1980s, and a smaller one in the early 2000s, and it may be up for debate whether climate changed has contributed or not, but this latest die-off seems to be the biggest yet.
On the bright side, even the dead coral gardens near the beaches have a decent variety of colorful tropical fish, so the issue is more that it's a little sad, not that it's boring. And you should be able to see some of the healthier parts of the reef if you take a boat tour. For tips on the best places to find live coral and increased biodiversity while snorkeling from shore, see the "Do" section of this article below.
The nearest airport is Learmonth, 40 km south of Exmouth and 120 km north of Coral Bay. Skywest and Qantas fly daily between Learmonth and Perth. Shuttle transfer to Coral Bay is available (Coral Coast Tours 0427 180 568, reckon 80 mins and $100 pp), but must be booked in advance.
You can bring your own light aircraft into Coral Bay (YCOY) airstrip, with the landowner's permission as it's the Cardabia Station's private strip. The surface was upgraded in 2009 but there's no landing lights or Avgas, just a bit of rope to tether your Cessna against the winds.
Integrity Coaches run three times a week between Perth and Exmouth, and will drop-off and pick-up at Coral Bay town and Learmonth Airport if pre-booked - see Exmouth (Western Australia)#Get in for details. The northbound buses continue from Exmouth to Port Hedland and Broome.
Perth is 1140 km away and the buses do it in 30 hours by changes of drivers, but driving yourself allow at least two days, preferably three. Follow North West Coastal Highway 1 north past Carnarvon to Minilya then branch off down the Exmouth road. A few km later, a sign marks the Tropic of Capricorn. Eventually you reach the turnoff left for Coral Bay; follow it for 12 km to town. All these roads are tarmacked.
From Exmouth it's 150 km, simply head south past the airport until you see the Coral Bay turn-off.
From north coast towns such as Karratha or Port Hedland, take the NW Coastal Highway south, and turn off for Exmouth along Burkett Road. Then south along the Exmouth-Minilya Highway to the Coral Bay turnoff.
As you enter town, Banksia Ave turns off left to a 24-hour filling station (unstaffed) and the boat-launching area 2 km south of town. The main drag (now called Robinson Street) continues past a little shopping arcade, a couple of cafes and a caravan park, to dead-end on the shore outside the Ningaloo Reef Resort.
From Ningaloo Reef Resort at the road's end, to the shopping arcade at the edge of town, will take most of ten minutes to walk.
There's no car or bike hire here, you'd need to pick up from Exmouth.
- Beaches: The main beach right in town is very beautiful, maybe the most beautiful around, and good for shallow-water play. Paradise Beach around the point is more rugged but much quieter (can be very windy). There's also a popular beach at Fiver Fingers Reef 5km south of town, accessible only by 4WD (see "Do > From Shore > Snorkeling" below)
- The View: Coral Bay is fairly flat, so there aren't a lot of views, but the "Look Out Point" perched on a high dune just past the public parking lot at the end of the road gives a decent overview of both the main beach and Paradise Beach.
- 1 Shark Sanctuary is the north end of Bill's Bay, also known as Skeleton Bay. In spring (Nov-Jan) the shallows act as a nursery for dozens of young tiger sharks. View them from shore, as wading in only scares them into deeper water. You want high tide, a still day (this area is breezy, and choppy water obscures the view) and not too late in the afternoon (as the glare of the westering sun also obscures them). It's an easy 1-2 km walk but wear beach shoes as some parts are stony, and small children may need carrying.
- 2 Maud's Landing was the settlement's original landing area. Nice beach but breezy and no coral, dogs welcome.
- The solar eclipse of 20 April 2023 is only 99% here - that 1% spoils the main show. To reach totality you either need to head up the main highway north at least as far as Learmonth Airport (set off early as tailbacks are likely) or be on a boat venturing out 30+ km to reach the track offshore.
The beach around the bay is sandy with shallow entry, and the lagoon is calm. The tidal range is only about a metre so the currents are seldom more than a gentle onshore drift, and the absence of motor boat traffic or jet skis adds to safety. But there are no lifeguards, and watch out for jellyfish (not usually a big problem, especially in the winter high season (roughly June to August). Much of the area around the beach is actually too shallow to swim, but you may find a decent strip of deep-enough water between the beach and the edge of the coral growth, or above the coral growth in deeper parts (be careful not to hurt yourself - though the coral here is mostly dead, it's still very hard and sharp!).
Coral Beach is a popular place for snorkelling from shore. If you don't have your own equipment, you can rent it from the Ningaloo Reef Dive and Snorkel shop in the shopping arcade.
For the best corals, walk around the headland south for 200-500 m, "Paradise Beach" on some maps, then enter the water and drift-snorkel back to the bay. Any further south you risk boat traffic, and north end of the bay (called "Skeleton Beach") is exposed to the winds and gets choppy. In spring this north end is also a nursery for reef sharks, see above. Unfortunately all the coral near Paradise Beach and the main town beach here is dead as of mid-2022 (see the "Understand" section above), but there are still lots of colourful and interesting fish, including some stingrays in the sandy string along Paradise Beach.
Experienced snorkellers can still find impressive living coral gardens by swimming beyond about 500 m straight out from the point of Paradise Beach, or out to the white mooring buoy southwest of the point. Do not attempt this if you're not comfortable floating for hours without touching the bottom, and stay aware of currents (when we did it during a rising tide, there was a northward current running parallel to the coast). In some areas, you'll also be in glass-bottom boat territory, and the crews can reportedly get grumpy about swimmers in their way, but there's no rule against it. Do be careful not to get hit though! Luckily, no other boats are allowed in this area. To completely avoid boat traffic, go in the late afternoon after the tours are over.
For more casual snorkelers, and perhaps the experienced ones as well, it might be more worthwhile go to Five Fingers Reef five kilometers south of town, where coral growth is less dense but mostly alive, and a good variety of wildlife is visible right from shore, almost all within the first 100 m. The bad news is that you can't drive here without a real 4WD vehicle - for the last few kilometers beyond the boat landing, the road is an unpaved sand track (the most hazardous part is on the loop back, where you have to drive over a large dune of deep, soft sand). However, in decent weather it's walkable (an hour or two each way from town, or shorter if you park at the boat landing), but on hot days think twice and bring lots of water. Hitchhiking is also doable - despite sounding isolated, Fiver Figners is a popular place for afternoons at the beach. The "Quad-Trek" ATV tours also go here, but you better ask about the itinerary if you're hoping to have time to snorkel.
The "five fingers" of Five Fingers Reef are a row of coral-built ridges just underwater, running perpendicular out from the shore, and most of the good snorkelling is between them. It's common to see reef sharks, stingrays, and turtles here, as well as a greater variety of colorful fish than in town. Don't bother to swim a few hundred meters out to the denser part of the reef - that area is mostly all one species of table coral, in shallow water and with a much lower diversity of fish.
Kayaking and stand-up paddle-boarding
These are available for rent starting at $20 per hour. Kayak Adventures, the hire shop, is by the caravan park (or at the car park at the end of the road?).
Line fishing from shore is permitted in Bill's Bay, but not fishing from a boat or spearfishing.
From a boat
Any boat-based activity, except for the glass-bottomed boats, will involve a minibus pick-up at the shop in town, then a ride down Banksia Ave to Monck Head jetty ("the boat landing") 2 km south.
A good way to see the coral, especially for visitors too young, frail or disinclined to snorkel, though they tend to get good reviews even from people who do snorkel. Extended trips of 3 hours include snorkelling, the one hour trip without will do fine for non-swimmers. The boats leave from the shore at road's end, booking is in the arcade or the caravan park, reckon $50 per adult for the one hour trip. The lagoon is placid so you won't need sea-sickness tablets. See "Understand" above for information on the health of the reef - glass-bottom tours should take you to some of the still-healthy spots.
Snorkelling and diving
Boat tours are one of the best ways to really see why Ningaloo Reef ranks as a world heritage site. The quality, variety and quantity of coral and marine life is impressive: turtles, dolphins, mantas and reef sharks are common. The sheltered lagoon enables hard coral to thrive in shallow water close to shore, whereas on most shores (without a barrier reef) wave action wrecks anything shallow and only soft pliable species survive. Though the 2022 coral die-off (see "Understand" above) has done great damage to many parts of the reef, there is little evidence of other common coral reef scourges such as bleaching, human damage, trash, or invasive species.
These boat tours generally include snorkel equipment (including wetsuits) and some light refreshments. "All-day" tours (which run from about 9AM to 3PM) normally include lunch. Of the several tour operators in town, the two cheaper ones are probably Ningaloo Coral Bay (aka Bayview, with office at the reception to the Ningaloo Coral Bay caravan park) and the Ningaloo Reef Dive and Snorkel shop in the shopping arcade. These two have similar prices, with Bayview also offering a 10% discount for customers of the backpacker's hostel. The dive shop takes snorkellers and divers out on the same tours, so there's a chance that they'll be catering a little less to snorkellers, but the sites they go to are supposed to all be easily snorkellable. These two operators offer the full wildlife experience, but higher-priced operators may offer extra comforts, such as a bigger boat or a nicer lunch.
Most boat trips stay within the lagoon, visiting reefs a few hundred metres out that are beyond easy shore-swimming range. The water is shallow, seldom deeper than 10 m, and currents are light. So these trips are suitable for indifferent swimmers and novice and trainee divers, and experienced divers will surface from a one-hour dive with most of their air tank unused. The higher energy sites are found at the cuts, where open ocean water funnels through gaps in the reef into the lagoon, back and forth according to the tide. Rufty-tufty divers and big marine beasts tend to prefer these sites.
Not every tour is offered every day, and tours can easily fill up days ahead, so try to book in advance if you're only going to be in town for a short time.
Swimming with Manta Rays
Coral Bay's specialty is the opportunity to snorkel with manta rays, harmless ocean beasts that make their home within the lagoon north of town. Because tour boats cooperate with a spotter plane to find where the mantas are each day, it's generally possible to swim with mantas every single time, though it's not guaranteed, and it's not unheard-of for the manta segment to be called off if the weather turns bad. You don't need any special skills to swim with the mantas, but you are expected to be a reasonably good swimmer, as you need to swim fast to keep up with the rays. If you think you might need an extra boost of speed, you could consider renting bigger fins from the dive shop before your trip, since some of the tours with other companies only include short fins.
"Half day" manta ray tours usually run from about 9AM to 1PM and include one offshore reef snorkeling site in addition to the mantas. "Full day" tours continue until about 3PM, including two reef sites and lunch, and the guides will try their best to find some other cool wildlife for you, like sharks and turtles. In season, you may get a bit of bonus whale-watching thrown in as well. Half-day tours start from about $160 per adult, and full day tours from about $200.
Swimming with Whale Sharks
Exmouth up the coast is better known for whale shark tours, Coral Bay has them too. Whale sharks congregate around Ningaloo Reef from late March to July. They're on many people's bucket list and tour places are restricted, so book early and expect to pay over $400 per person. Spotter planes guide the boats to whale sharks that are close to surface and appear suitable for encounter. The boats manoeuvre ahead then drop snorkelers in, to fin like fury as the whale shark effortlessly trucks on by and out of sight. Don't encumber yourself with a camera in the water unless you're really slick, which the boat photographer will be, and she'll take better shots. Ningaloo Marine Interactions are based in the arcade.
Swimming with Humpback Whales
Ningaloo Reef is one of the only places in the world where tour operators can take you out to swim with humpback whales. These tours may not always be offered, and generally don't guarantee that you get to go in the water with the beasts, so ask carefully. Expect to pay over $400.
Reef Snorkeling only
Some operators also offer tours that don't involve chasing manta rays, whale sharks, or whales, and these tend to be a bit cheaper (think around $100 per adult). These should still take you to good parts of the coral reef, where you'll see colorful fish and quite possibly sharks or turtles.
ATV group tours
Guided "Quad-Trek" tours with ATVs (4-wheel motorbikes) along smaller roads into the bush that 2WD cars can't reach. Usually 2 hours long, these tours take you around sand dunes to snorkel, see turtles, or just see the sunset. You'll be driving your own vehicle, with a guide at the front leading the way and looking out for the novices. A valid driving license is necessary, prices start around $75 per bike. Coastal Adventure Tours and Coral Coast Tours are both based in the arcade.
Coral Bay is surrounding by arid dunes, with a variety of desert plants and wildlife, but next to no shade. If you're really into nature and interested in checking it out, there are obvious tracks and trails between the vegetation all over the area. Bird specialties include the striking blue-and-white White-winged Fairywren (though the colorful males can take awhile to find even for experienced birders). Common Wallaroos (aka "Euros"), a common type of small kangaroo, are commonly seen in the late afternoon and early evening, even right at the edge of town (the back entrance to the People's Park caravan park is a good spot). Watch out for snakes and the midday heat.
- Coral Bay shopping arcade, which contains most of the town's shops, is arranged around a pleasant courtyard right on the main street. There is a dive shack, boutique, convenience store, bakery, photo shop, ATM and a supermarket in the complex. Foodworks is the closest thing Coral Bay has to a supermarket, open M-Sa 7:30AM-6:30PM, Su 7:30AM-3PM.
- Coral Coast Supermarket next to Fin's is open 7:30AM-6PM. It has less of a selection than the arcade.
- Coral Bay Shells & Boutique is a craft shop at 44 Robinson St, open daily 8AM-midnight.
- Caltex filling station is south on Banksia Drive (behind the caravan parks), self-serve 24 hr, card only.
Coral Bay is generally considered an expensive place to eat. You'll be hard-pressed to find dinner for under $25
- Shades cafe and bar (formerly "Sails") is within Ningaloo Beach Resort, open M-Sa 8AM-8:30PM, Su 8AM-7PM.
- 1 Fin's, 30 Robinson St, ☏ +61 8 9942 5900. Daily 8AM-9PM. A tiny cafe serving great seafood, BYOB. Has burgers for $15.
- Reef Cafe, 64 Robinson St (opposite shops), ☏ +61 8 9942 5882. Daily noon-10PM. Decent range of food, including pizza
- Coral Resort Bakery is within the shopping arcade, open daily 6AM-5:30PM.
Coral Bay's water comes from salty underground wells, and much of the town's running water is too salty to drink. Special freshwater taps, where the water actually tastes quite good, are provided at certain points in the accommodations (there's one on the outside wall of the Bayview complex, around the right side at the back by the carvan park's showers).
- Bill's Bar, 46 Robinson St (in shopping arcade), ☏ +61 8 9948 5156. Daily 11AM-midnight. Relaxed place with burgers and similar bar food, pet friendly, sometimes has live music. The closest thing you'll find to a proper pub. Bill's bar also contains the town's main bottle shop, where you can buy your own alcohol to take back to camp or the hotel with you (there may be another one behind the resort at the end of the road).
- Shades within the Reef Resort serves non-residents.
- This is a small resort that soon fills up at popular times, and free-camping is strictly prohibited. There are exactly four places to stay, the latter two of which are owned by the same company:
- 1 Ningaloo Reef Resort, 1 Robinson Street, ☏ +61 8 9942 5934. The comfiest option in town, though it looks more like a decent motel than a fancy resort. "Beachcombers" are studio units for up to four, self-service apartments take six. ("Castaways" take two but are not available in 2022.) Plus pool, bar, Shades Cafe and ATM. Beachcomber double $350.
- 2 People's Park, Robinson Street (next to Reef Resort), ☏ +61 8 9942 5933. Camping and caravan site with mostly powered pitches, less cramped than Bayview but costs a bit more. Open all year; also cabins and villas. No pets. Pitch $70.
- Ningaloo Coral Bay Backpackers, Robinson St (next to shopping arcade), ☏ +61 8 9948 5100. Mostly good reviews for this hostel with dorms, lots of private rooms, swimming pool, and laundry. Spacious and fairly relaxed, if a bit impersonal and disorganized. Kitchen and lounge close at 9pm. Often no wifi, and never after 3:30pm. Owned by the same people as the Reef Cafe down the street, which you're encouraged to visit for all-day wifi access. Dorm $35 ppn and up, room $60 ppn.
- Ningaloo Coral Bay Caravan Park (aka Bayview), Robinson St (across from shopping arcade), ☏ +61 8 9948 5100. The more crowded of the two caravan parks, and the cheapest place to camp. Unpowered sites from $50.
As of Aug 2022, Coral Bay has 4G from both Telstra and Optus. The mobile signal extends up to the junction with the main highway; after that it's dead until you approach Learmonth Airport. Optus, being the newcomer and less popular our here, actually has much faster internet than Telstra at the moment - Telstra signal gets particularly bad in the evening when hundreds of caravans are trying to stream Netflix all at once through the town's single cell tower. There's also signal from both carriers at least as far down the coast as Five Fingers Reef.
As of Jan 2022 there was no signal from Vodafone. 5G has not reached this area. Reef Cafe and Fins have decent wifi. Check with your accomodations before assuming that there's wifi where you're staying.
- North the road leads past Learmonth Airport to Exmouth. To go further north towards Karratha, Onslow, Port Hedland and Broome, take this road then turn east onto Burkett Road to rejoin the North West Coastal Highway - you don't have to backtrack to Minilya.
- South via Minilya, the main places of interest and overnight stopovers are Carnarvon, Shark Bay and Monkey Mia, and the softer pastoral country between Geraldton, Greenough and Dongara. After two or three days (or one very long day with at least two drivers trading off), Perth looms into view.