Exmouth is pronounced "EX-MOUTH" - without shortening the vowel sound. Exmouth is a small town of around 2500 people (2016), with a population that doubles with the temporary workforce associated with the 4 month tourist season. It has supermarkets, coffee shops, dive shops and a couple of fashion stores.
It is surrounded by endless beaches, national parks, and arid beauty. You can always find a beach and a reef to have nearly to yourself.
Even in the peak tourist season it has a sleepy small town feel. Outside of the tourist season it is even quieter.
The Exmouth area was visited by pearlers and whalers from the late 19th century.
The area became a focus of attention during World War II, with the northwest of Australia considered to be under threat from Japanese invasion. Operation Potshot was launched in 1942 to establish a military base from bare earth, and the U.S. and Australian forces established bases in Exmouth Gulf. At one time up to 1000 U.S. servicemen were resident in the area, with a supporting airbase, anti-aircraft guns, and a radar unit installed. By 1943 the threat had eased and most of the troops were withdrawn, but the base was maintained as a forward airstrip with fuel supplies. The base eventually became what is today RAAF Learmonth.
Permanent settlement of the region is relatively recent, with the first town established to support the U.S. Naval Communications Station in the 1960s. Australian naval forces now run the transmission station, and also have a base in Exmouth.
Exmouth is just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, at latitude 22° south. That means the midday sun is directly overhead (as near as) 20 days before and 20 days after midsummer, and pretty close to overhead from November through January. The climate is usually dry from June through January, and the landscape is arid.
Most rain falls from February to May: not much in annual total, but it can come down in a deluge, when even the main highway may flood. Do not attempt to cross moving water (the depth indicators at the creeks show how deep it can get), and stay off dirt roads in the wet.
- 1 Learmonth Airport (LEA IATA) (40 km south of Exmouth, 1 km off the highway to Minilya). This is a dual use RAAF base and civil airport 40km south of Exmouth.
There are two Qantas flights to & from Perth Mon-Sat and one on Sunday, flying time is just under two hours.
Car hire desks at the airport are usually staffed to meet the Perth flights but you can't rely on this: you need to book your car hire in advance, and they'll meet and greet. There's an extra charge for this, as they're bringing the car from town.
A minibus transfer to town, which must be pre-booked, costs $35 adult and $25 child. See Coral Bay page for transfers to that resort, 110 km away.
The airport terminal is bright and modern, and has a licensed cafe open for departing flights, and a small souvenir shop. Mobile phone reception at the airport is scratchy. The civil airport shares its facilities with RAAF Learmonth. The entrance to the air force base is further south along the main highway.
- Exmouth Aerodrome (EXM IATA), ☏ . An airstrip for private aviation 10 km south of town. It's a sealed runway and there are landing lights, but it may be awash in wet weather, and there's no fence to keep out animals. Call ahead on before flying in. There's no fuel available.
Integrity Coaches run three times a week between Perth and Exmouth, where the bus stop is by the Visitor Information Centre. They leave Perth Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays around 8AM, reaching Exmouth around 3PM next day. They'll drop-off and pick-up at Coral Bay town and Learmonth Airport if pre-booked. The Tuesday-to-Wednesday bus continues north to Broome and on the other two days it continues to Port Hedland. The southbound buses leave Exmouth Tu F Su around 1:30PM, reaching Perth by 8AM next day.
Even though the town is small and it is possible to go around on foot, everything is fairly spread out. Walking from one side of town to the next may prove a fair trek, especially in the summer. You'll certainly need your own wheels for exploring the sights along the coast and Cape Range park.
Car hire is available from Avis, Hertz, Europcar, Budget. Allens car hire is a local operator.
Most of Exmouths sights are reached by going north, following the main street Murat Road as it leaves town:
- Naval Transmission Station is 10 km along. At the time of its construction it was the tallest structure in the southern hemisphere, and still remains the second tallest. Get up close to see the ladders to see the scale of the installation. There is no visitors centre, but the towers are easily visible from the road.
- Vlaming Head Lighthouse is further as the road bends west. The lighthouse is no longer operating, having been replaced by a light from the transmission station. It's a popular place to watch the sun set over the ocean (which you can't do in Exmouth town, which is on the eastern side of the peninsula and the sun sets behind the hills). Also at the top of the hill is the remains of a radar dish installed for Operation Potshot in 1942, and destroyed by a cyclone in 1945.
- Cape Range National Park (standard park fee of $13 per vehicle) is 50 km down the road. This 50,000 hectares of arid land has wildlife including kangaroos, emus, and the weird but hardy Blind Cave Gudgeon, and there are beaches where turtles haul ashore to lay eggs. The park road (by now heading south) is tarmacked and suitable for 2WD as far as Yardie Creek.
- South from Exmouth has less to see, but there are dirt roads leading off to access the more easterly parts of the park, and notice the Potshot Memorial on the main highway approaching Learmonth Airport.
While Exmouth does not have much to offer in terms of nightlife or cosmopolitan atmosphere, the surrounding area is very unique. The ocean around Exmouth is teeming with life in the Ningaloo Reef, and the Cape Range National Park offers unique sights for landlubbers.
The Ningaloo Reef, near the Exmouth town, is sometimes less than a few hundred meters off the coast. The reef is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Several small dive companies and resorts offer dive trips to various locations on the reef. There are many attractive dive sites not far off-shore in Lighthouse Bay (near Vlamingh Head lighthouse). Excursions are also offered to the Point Murat Navy Pier. It is only possible to dive the Pier with a licenced operator as a certified diver. Another popular diving destination are the Muiron Islands, approximately 7 nm off Point Murat. These islands are a natural reserve and a popular breeding ground for sea turtles. The islands' coastline offers spectacular coral formations and an abundance of wildlife.
- Snorkeling The entry of the Cape Range National Park situated only few kilometers from Exmouth gives access to the Ningaloo Reef beaches. The most iconic is Turquoise Beach where you can drift along the reef (be careful not to get caught by the strong rip, look for signs) and see hard coral and abundant marine life: turtle, octopus, shark, sting rays under the boulders, etc. but there are several other beaches along the coast.
- Whale Sharks can come into the bay as early as mid-March, and depart sometime during July, sometimes as late as the end of July, depending on the water temperature and food supply. The most likely months to see them are therefore April and May. It is possible to book day-tours with the local dive shops to see and swim with the sharks. Spotter planes are used, so chances of actually finding one (or several) are very high. The day tours generally snorkel at one location initially, moving on to the whale shark diving locations once the spotter planes have reported. It is possible to put on snorkeling gear and swim with the sharks, but since these are a protected species you have to follow the rules, and the dive is quite regimented. Expect to wait on the boat while the boat operator lines it up with the oncoming shark. You then dive in when told, and get to swim along 3m each side of the shark for 5 minutes or so. You usually have 4 or 5 opportunities to do this. Dive boat trips seem to cost around $400-$450 per person. Whale Sharks are harmless to humans, and feed on plankton. They are the largest fish in the world, and an average sized one is 7.5m, but they be up 14m (45ft) in length. There are only a few licensed tour operators able to take visitors out to the reef to swim with the whale sharks. Note also snokelling is the only activity allowed scuba diviing is not allowed. These tour operators include: Kings Ningaloo Reef Tours, Whale Shark Dive and Ningaloo Blue. These are also the tour operators which operate spotter planes and you will have more of a chance of finding the whale sharks and enjoying this amazing underwater experience.
- The bay is also a popular breeding ground for Humpback Whales. In autumn and spring the bay is virtually crawling with whales. It is possible to book Whale Watching tours with local operators to appreciate these magnificent mammals. If you're driving a boat yourself, be very cautious. You wouldn't be the first to hit one.
Fresh seafood is usually plentiful in Exmouth. You can buy from the supermarkets, as well as direct from the factory out by the airport.
There are two dive shops selling equipment.
There are two IGA supermarkets next to each other downtown. Ningaloo IGA seems to be most frequented by visitors, and Exmouth IGA by locals. There is a good range, and they are both open from 7AM until 7PM every day of the week.
There is also a fashion boutique.
There are ATMs for cash withdrawals available in both IGA supermarkets.
Take your pick of one of the restaurants in town, or one of the pubs. Bookings are a good idea at the restaurants during the season.
There is a caravan out the back of the Potshot Hotel, which serves burgers and chips in the open air. There are a couple of take-away places and cafes.
Expect to pay a premium for eating out in Exmouth. Wages are high, and food costs expensive. A Chicken Parma which may cost you $15 in Perth may cost you $35 or more here.
- The BBqfather, Murat Rd Exmouth (opposite Visitor Centre). Mainstream Italian as well as BBQ; licensed.
There are several small pubs in Exmouth where it's possible to have a beer (or many).
The Potshot Hotel holds a Friday-night disco in its "Bamboo-bar," which is lovingly known as the "Bimbo-bar" by the locals. This is the only night when anything happens in Exmouth, so you'll find everyone here usually on the far end of the intoxication spectrum. For this reason it is also highly advisable not to book any dive tours on Saturday mornings (tour operators will often run late, wobble and complain about mysterious headaches and food poisoning).
Camping is prohibited outside of campgrounds and the national park. There are a number of campgrounds and caravan parks to choose from, including the Lighthouse out on the point.
The Potshot resort is the most up-scale lodging downtown, offering motel-style rooms and apartments. The newly build Novotel in the Marina area out of town is probably the most upscale in the area.
There are many holiday villas and houses. The Osprey Villas are new, upscale villas. The Exmouth Villas are budget oriented. Both villas are rented through multiple agencies and owner websites.
- Ningaloo Lodge, Lefroy St (Left onto Maidstone Cres just before the filling station, and immediately left again onto Lefroy.), ☏ . Pleasant motel with pool, close to TIC and Italian restaurant
Mobile phone reception is patchy in the areas surrounding Exmouth. Only Telstra and Optus operate in the area, with Optus only having 2G services. The transmission is seemingly from a tower to the north of town. Reception is non-existent at the airport to the south, there is good coverage around town, and areas to the north as far as the naval base, and then patchy reception further afield.
The only through-road out of town goes south. Stay on it to reach the airport, the turn-off for Coral Bay after about 130 km, then after another 80 km it joins the Northwest Coastal Highway just south of the Minilya Roadhouse. Further south lie Carnarvon, Geraldton and a choice of onward routes to Perth.
However if travelling NE towards Onslow, Port Hedland and Broome, turn left at about the 80 km mark onto Burkett Road, which cuts east across Bullara and Giralia Stations to the NW Coastal Highway. This saves 200 km on going all the way round via Minilya.