Covid-19 is now dominating our every thought, our plans and our actions, but here on the North West Cape we find ourselves in the privileged position to escape, forget about the pandemic, and take back control of our lives for a few hours of the day. With isolation weighing heavily on the global population we had better hope we have found ourselves with family and housemates that aren’t so intolerable that we are driven into a state of total madness.
Squabbles amongst our friends are inevitable in times like these as we live in one another’s pockets, becoming more and more agitated by the sound of someone chewing their food too loudly, or slurping on their peppermint herbal tea which is apparently “good for their digestion”. Sometimes we need to wipe the slate clean and press the reset button, at which point we call upon the sea to give us a helping hand.
The remarkable ability of nature to lay our differences to rest is unparalleled in this world. So, whilst abiding by the relevant social distancing regulations, myself and three of my housemates set out to spend some time on the water and leave our troubles and anxieties behind.
Rising before the sun, we gather our dive equipment, fishing rods and some food, and load up the old pacemaker boat before attaching the trailer to the Ford Ranger and making our way across the Cape towards the local boat ramp. As we drive, the mandarin sun peels over the eastern horizon, shedding light on the vast Indian Ocean for where we are destined.
Conditions are prime as the soft offshore breeze strokes the surface of the sea, barely leaving a ripple as we slide the old fibreglass hull, with more cracks in it than an egg on Easter, into the drink. A gentle swell rolls in and kisses the side of the boat before we begin to putt through the leads; the only sound is the gargling of the two-stroke outboard.
The Ningaloo Reef is a lengthy ribbon of coral that runs approximately 300 kilometres south towards Carnarvon from latitude 22°S. As we travel, we make for a wide gap in the reef towards the azure water beyond that’s bursting with energy as birds swoop and fish rise. Shards of light pierce the blue and shine onto vast coral structures teaming with fusiliers and chromis, indicating a good place to stop for a dip. After dropping the reef pick, we all plunge into the drink which is clear and fresh on our skin. In a realm unaffected by covid, we watch coral, reef fish, sharks and turtles go about their daily business, with nothing more on their minds than the present moment: an ignorant bliss that, for an hour or so, we are able to join them in.
Back on the boat and we set-off in search of the next wonder. Had it not been for the emergence of coronavirus, we would be slaloming around a number of tour boats on the hunt for whale sharks. In fact, I would have been on one of those boats working as a guide and photographer, taking customers out to swim with the largest fish in the ocean. As it is though, we are all but alone on the water as we look for whale sharks whom, none the wiser of the current global pandemic, continue to aggregate along this stretch of coastline to feed.
While we search for a 10-metre-long shadow below the surface of 70 million square kilometres of Indian Ocean, schools of tuna smash baitfish all around and we think it rude not to wet a line and see if we can haul anything in for dinner. It isn’t long before one of the reels begins to fizz as a fish strips line, sending all four of us into a frenzy of excitement. The small, unwitting tuna doesn’t take long to land, and we pop it on ice before continuing our search for a big spotty fish.
With the help of the drone we manage to find a barrel rolling manta ray to swim with. She’s feeding and seems totally unperturbed by our comparatively clumsy presence as we swim alongside her for half an hour in 15 metres of water. While we swim, several milkfish feed in the same current line, gulping at ctenophores and salps that have amassed at the top of the water and I can’t resist but to shoot one with my speargun; it’s a hefty 115cm and will give us plenty of meals, saving a few trips to the shops during the lockdown.
Following another hour or so of fruitless trolling, we spot our spotty friend the whale shark and, after winding in the fishing lures, I drop Tom, Trish and Jess in its path for them to swim with it before swapping my boat driving duties with Jess and having a swim myself.
We could be somewhere in the cosmos as beams of light ricochet off tiny jellies, comb jellies, and salps that look like stars in the dark blue water. The shark itself, lighter in colour than the surrounding water, and with an intricate spot and stripe pattern of its own, resembles the milky way. We enjoy the company of this seven-metre-long giant for approximately an hour; all the while he slowly meanders through space, guzzling vast volumes of plankton-rich water and idly peering at us with his marble-sized eyes.
As an unsolicited puddle of water begins to appear on the deck of the pacemaker, no doubt from one of the several fractures in the hull, and erring on the side of caution we make for the sanctuary of the lagoon inside the main structure of the reef.
The sheltered waters shine turquoise as we skip along the surface before dropping the anchor next to a couple of bommies for a bite to eat and to wet the whistle. A couple of cold cans and some left over dinner fill a void and, satisfied, we continue with our eco-tour.
No sooner have we picked up the anchor than we spot a large shark cruising through the shallow waters over the sand flats of the lagoon, a stark black shadow against the white sand. “Get ready for a tiger shark swim!” I suggest. We’re now 40 metres ahead of the shark and Tom, Trish, and Jess, cameras in hand, gently slide into the water and I cut the motor of the boat. As it draws nearer, I can see that it isn’t a tiger shark at all but a great hammerhead. Jess squeals with the realisation. I don’t know if she’s more excited about her first hammerhead swim or the detail that I’ve made a mistake in its identification; either way we all share in the thrill.
Enough for one day, we head back towards the boat ramp, but the reef hasn’t finished with us yet as another large black shadow slowly coasts past the boat. There’s no mistaking it this time and again I shout: “get ready for a tiger shark swim!” Again, 40 metres or so ahead of the shark I cut the engine and the three of them sit on the port gunnel before sliding in. They get just a glimpse of the tiger as it veers away at the edge of their vision. We thought we’d try one more time and the look on Tom’s face is one of horror when I hand Jess the bloody tuna that’s been sitting in the esky; I think they might get a better look if they incentivise the shark with a dead fish. It’s not to be though as the shark once again banks away on the edge of their vision, so we call it day.
With the boat on its trailer and in-tow, we head back to Exmouth and back into lockdown but with a renewed sense of optimism, not worrying about what happened yesterday or what might happen in the days to come but taking a leaf out of the book of the reef, we enjoyed each other’s company in the present. And, for the next few days, noises of chewing and slurping seem less irritating as we have been reminded just how fortunate we are to spend our lockdown on the doorstep of one of the planet’s flourishing coral reef systems in The Ningaloo.