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The town of Exmouth on the North West Cape of Australia was a magical place where Twinkies and other American goods were once sold, according to Kristy Bryan-Smith, manager of Exmouth Visitor Centre.
Bryan-Smith grew up in a small town in Western Australia (WA) five hours south of Exmouth in the 1970s and had found out about it from friends who had shopped at its American goods store. When in “Little America,” as it was nicknamed, folks had to drive on the “other” side of the road. There was even a baseball diamond.
Exmouth was founded in 1967 to support the nearby U.S. Naval Communication Station Harold E. Holt, which was created so the U.S. could communicate with nuclear submarines in the Southwest Pacific and Indian Ocean. The area’s adventure possibilities were not marketed, but they were noticed.
“Exmouth isn’t really a resort, but with recreational facilities comparing favorably to those at any large stateside base, one wonders, ‘Why not?’,” write Doug Cunningham and Bob Cowan in the April 1979 edition of All Hands, the official magazine of the U.S. Navy. “Practically everyone is into fishing, diving, snorkeling, shelling and swimming.”
Following the end of the Cold War, the Americans left the area, leaving the maintenance of the base to the Royal Australian Navy, which now contracts out the work.
The Americans’ departure could have been the end of this remote town, but Exmouth will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year, due in large part to the discovery of whale sharks in the 1990s. The slow-swimming gentle giants were found off the coast in nearby Ningaloo Reef, Australia’s largest fringing reef whose northern gateway is a short drive from Exmouth.
“I was in WA when they found a whale shark, and it made national news,” said Suzanne Fisher, marketing manager for Australia’s Coral Coast, which includes Exmouth and Ningaloo Reef. “I vividly remember they didn’t know what it was: ‘Is it a shark? Is it a whale? Will it eat you?’”
Since then, Exmouth has been steadily transforming from a well-kept secret to a universally celebrated — albeit still off-the-beaten-path — water-tourism destination. Five years ago, the 1,493,752-acre Ningaloo Coast was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in part for the many whale sharks that aggregate seasonally in its waters. And, according to WA’s Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW), whale sharks are great tourist bait.
In 2015, some 20,670 tourists descended on the reef in search of whale sharks, and this year saw a record-breaking increase with 24,078 passengers. And most swimmers return happy, as the area claims the world’s highest reliability rate — a 92 percent sighting rate for the 2015 season and a 98 percent success rate for 2016. All operators offer a no-sighting policy, which ensures that if whale sharks are not spotted, clients can rebook for a future date or join the next available sailing.
Travelers can also be sure that the vulnerable-to-extinction mammal is treated as a protected species in WA and that proceeds from the swims go toward conservation and research.
“We do it right, and we do it well,” Fisher said. “We are big on conservation here, and there are many strict laws about swimming with mammals.”
For example, licenses to operate are strictly limited, and only 10 people are allowed to swim with whale sharks at a time. There are 15 local tour operators that offer the activity and, as a result, the small town of 2,500 people triples during the high season with enthusiastic active types from all over Australia and Europe who are employed by the town’s tour operators, restaurants, hotels and bars.
Exmouth in the North West Cape of Western Australia is known for its whale shark swims. // © 2016 Coral Coast
Now that swimming with humpbacks is also possible, the eco-tourist destination has the potential to draw more visitors. // © 2016 Tash Press
Novotel Ningaloo Reef is the first luxury property in Exmouth. // © 2016 David Kirkland Photography
Near Exmouth is Ningaloo Coast, home to Australia's largest fringing reef and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. // © 2016 Coral Coast
The area is known for its water sports, from stand-up paddleboarding to surfing. // © 2016 Coral Coast
Guests should also look out for wildlife such as the black-footed rock wallaby. // © 2016 Coral Coast
Emus, kangaroos and others can also be found. // © 2016 David Kirkland
Water wonderland Cape Range National Park offers limited camping at Osprey Bay campgrounds. // © 2016 Coral Coast
Sal Salis, also in Cape Range, offers romantic glamping in addition to included tours. // © 2016 Tourism Western Australia
Whale shark season is from March to July, which corresponds with Australia’s winter. When it’s raining in Perth (some 780 miles away) and snowing in Melbourne, weather averages 75 degrees Fahrenheit in Exmouth. Sun-seeking workers and vacationers from Australia, Europe, Japan and, in small but hopeful numbers, the U.S., can be seen intermingling onboard catamarans, at bars and on beaches.
Such is the story of Darren Cossill, general manager and part-owner of Novotel Ningaloo Resort, the town’s first and only luxury beachfront property.
“I came here 20 years ago in the beginning of my travels through Australia,” he said. “And I’m still here.”
Cossill, who started out as a dishwasher and moved up over the years, couldn’t decline the opportunity to help develop the first high-end property in Exmouth, where tourist infrastructure continues to become more sophisticated.
Around these parts, you can hear some whispering that Exmouth has more tourism product than nearby Broome.
Just consider Exmouth’s newest offering. As of this summer, the town’s whale shark operators received licenses to run trial swims with humpback whales — a rare experience in water tourism (also offered in Tonga and the Dominican Republic). Since humpback whales usually migrate along the WA coastline from August to November, the activity — if approved by WA’s environment minister for next year — might be able to extend the region’s tourist season.
As with the whale sharks, DPaW is regulating the experience (currently, swims are capped at five people) and monitoring the impact of interaction on the humpback whales. A decision should be made by early next year regarding the possibility of a 2017 humpback swim season.
But sailing the open sea in pursuit of whale sharks and humpback whales isn’t the only eco-adventure on offer. From November to February, guided tours are available to witness the nesting of green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles, and manta rays can be found year-round. Private-charter fishing trips are especially popular among Americans, who come in pursuit of finding all six of Australia’s billfish species. And those who like to surf can do so off the Ningaloo Coast from July to October.
Another must-do is a drive past the old U.S. Navy base to Cape Range National Park. The 124,000-acre water-baby wonderland offers postcard-ready beaches, limestone ranges, canyons, 31 miles of striking coastline and possible encounters with red kangaroos, emus, echidnas and black-footed rock wallabies. Since Ningaloo Reef is a fringing reef, marine life swims right up to the shore — arguably the most significant differentiator between Ningaloo and the Great Barrier Reef, its more popular (and more marketed) cousin.
Highlights of Cape Range include Turquoise Bay, voted one of the world’s best beaches for its glassy water and white sand as well as its coral reefs located right off the shore. There’s also Oyster Stacks, another straight-to-snorkel opportunity where the distance between parking and snorkeling is a two-minute walk. And then there’s the cherry on top: Yardie Creek, which offers a marked trail to the top of its gorges. Here, hikers have an unobstructed view of the red-rock cliffs of the outback contrasting against the ocean.
There’s nothing in America like it.
How to Get ThereQantas flies one to two, two-hour flights daily from Perth Airport to Learmonth Airport, about a 20-minute drive to Exmouth. Getting from the West Coast of the U.S. to the North West coast of Australia is an adventure in itself.
Car RentalsReserve a rental car (or “hire car,” as the Aussies say) from Budget Rent A Car in advance. Driving is delightful outside of Exmouth, which is largely (and beautifully) undeveloped. Navigate cautiously and look out for kangaroos.
Where to Stay for Families and FITsNovotel Ningaloo Reef in Exmouth is a beachfront 68-room property offering a gym, a pool, a bar, Mantaray’s restaurant and a range of room types, including one- to three-bedroom apartments.
Where to Stay for Luxe CouplesSal Salis safari camp in the dunes of Cape Range National Park recently added seven new tents, including a honeymoon suite, for 16 total tents. The glamping resort now operates its own boat and offers guests exclusive whale shark and humpback whale swimming excursions.
Who to Book WithDown Under Answers (DUA), Swain Destinations and Qantas Vacations all package trips to the area. DUA is currently promoting a trip to the region with a whale shark swim in partnership with Emirates.
Exmouth Visitor Centrewww.visitningaloo.com.au
Tourism Western Australiawww.westernaustralia.com