One of Western Australia's most beloved and far-flung coastal towns is sandwiched between opposing natural wonders. On one side, it's a stepping stone to Cape Range National Park, itself a beautiful mixture of rugged red limestone ranges and canyons veiled with blankets of green growth and lined by turquoise beaches. When in season, wildflowers add extra pops of colour to the already picturesque setting. Cape Range's main attraction, Yardie Creek, stuns year-round with its towering cliff faces, best viewed onboard a scenic cruise.
Boats are also used as a springboard to dive into Exmouth's most famous site, Ningaloo Marine Park. The World Heritage-listed site is a rare place in the world to swim alongside ocean giants inclusive of whale sharks and humpback whales. For the faint of heart, there remain plenty of other marine-based activities to partake in.
Exploring Exmouth, however, wasn't always so playful or centred around nature, and this becomes obvious when delving into its origins.
The hamlet just off the Coral Coast Highway is borne from the Cold War, miles away from where two superpowers — the United States and Russia — once grappled over their differences.
And although that war thankfully never escalated further, the growth of a tiny blip on the map was propelled by the Australian alliance with the United States, and which allowed Exmouth to prosper as the north-west's major tourist destinations — even if its journey from a 'Little America' some 1250km north of Perth, to become the west coast's premier ocean safari park did have to veer sharply from right to left.
THE ORIGINS OF EXMOUTH
The special relationship between the two countries would be the driving force for establishing Exmouth, with easier access to the region's spectacular sceneries producing a perfect by-product for years to come.
The far-flung American connection to the Exmouth Gulf dates back to WWII in 1942, when the area became a vantage point for the Australian and United States Navy and Air Forces establishing Operation Potshot, a strategic airfield and submarines base.
The devastating war hit closer to home in 1943 when Japanese bombing raids descended on the Exmouth Gulf, remarkably leaving no destruction on both sea and land.
Fast forward to 1963, and with the threat of the Cold War exacerbated, the Australian and US governments agreed to build an elaborate communications network to assist military intelligence. The Harold E. Holt Communications Station opened in 1967 with 13 transmitter towers becoming the North West Cape's outback skyscrapers.
It's bizarre to think that along Western Australia's vast coastline, global landmarks would stand in the shadows of the station's tallest tower, the rudimentary-designed Tower Zero. The world's tallest Very Low Frequency (VLF) transmitter stands at 387m and is higher than the Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building. Twelve other slightly shorter towers surround the second tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere, all built to withstand regional cyclone winds up to 500km/h — not something I wouldn't wish to see wobbling around in the wind!
Between the 1960s and ‘70s, Exmouth was constructed to support the station and house US Navy personnel's families. It would become a slice of America in the Pilbara, populated with aspects of American culture everywhere: green dollar bills, bowling alleys, baseball fields, and right-handed Cadillacs cruising down the handful of left-side traffic streets. Residents didn't hold back with tradition, turning the Town Oval into a sea of blue, red, and white for Fourth of July festivities.
In 1992, the United States parted ways with Exmouth, withdrawing military personnel and control of the infrastructure passed on to private contractors. The departure signified the end of a unique blend of Australian and American influences co-existing in the Pilbara, and ignited a determination in the town to rework itself.
A TOWN IS BORN
It seems as though every town needs a giant mascot perfect for roadside selfies, and Exmouth has two — the first of which is a big prawn, and the second of which is a whale shark, ironically appearing smaller than the town's most famous resident. I could forgive the tiny oversight because I got the message loud and clear upon my drive into the town centre: Exmouth is big on the sea, and it wants everyone to see it that way.
Today, the laid-back town stands as an open-air ticket booth promoting spectacular marine experiences in the natural amusement park that is Ningaloo Reef.
Ningaloo is the world's largest fringing reef system, stretching 260km along the north-west coast and boasting all sorts of blue hues bleeding into each other. Unlike the Great Barrier Reef, which is victim to industrial developments and runoffs, Ningaloo Reef has continued to prosper. Its untapped remoteness and warm-water currents from the north are wonderfully advantageous, as these conditions encourage reef-building corals and permit over 500 tropical species to thrive.
The flourishing sea has positive flow-on effects on the land also. Thanks to the outback union of the last century, a few structures remain highly important to Exmouth's growth.
With a population that balloons from 2500 to 6000 in its high season, Learmonth airfield — built in the 1940s and still used as an air force base — doubles as a regional airport. Popular lodge Potshot Hotel Resort has become a lasting tribute to the past, with the former military-era inn catering to travellers conscious of their budgets.
Perhaps more excitingly, Exmouth's Cold War era-built Exmouth Navy Pier has inadvertently become a mecca for divers.
Located 14km from Exmouth, the T-shaped pier spanning 100m was originally constructed to help transport resources used to build the town and naval base, inclusive of its 13 radio towers. Public access to the pier was initially prohibited to the pier as it formed part of the US naval base. In hindsight, this 50 year closure period served both the sea and avid divers well — Exmouth Navy Pier is now regarded as one of the world's top diving sites.
The thrills of Ningaloo do not come cheap, but they are ones that will unquestionably be locked in your memory forever.
Exmouth Navy Pier is just one of the many ecological wonders to experience as part of Ningaloo. Its status as the only operational naval base in the world allowing commercial access to divers makes it feel almost like a top-secret spot. You will need your passport to pass through a mandatory checkpoint. Flashing my passport in the outback so I could dive the coast did feel a little strange, and I must also admit that I felt a bit rebellious entering defence grounds, but it was good to brush the dust off my passport it had been accumulating since the onset of the pandemic.
It can be a bit of a mad rush to make the dive. Once in, however, there is something swimming amidst the chaos of the underwater Ningaloo universe — bursting with colour and amazing sealife — that gives me a very peaceful sense of repose.
Over 200 fish species can be spotted zig-zagging their way around, including grey nurse sharks, moray eels, sea turtles, barracudas, carpet sharks, potato cods, and large schools of trevally fish to name a few.
Towards the end of my dive I spot the pier's infamous plump resident, the BFG, or Big Friendly Grouper. Happy to hang out a few metres below sea level, the calm and doe-eyed giant didn't seem to care much for curious divers like me attempting to get the perfect photobomb.
Most other popular dive spots along the reef are known to have waters that sparkle with excellent visibility. Exmouth Navy Pier does not quite join these ranks due to tidal movements, but its nutrient-rich waters and soft corals make traversing its 12m depths well-worth the whirlwind trip.
Exmouth undoubtedly attracts those who are willing to substitute human diving buddies for the company of water giants. Over the years, swimming with whale sharks has become one of Exmouth's most popular drawcards, and for good reason — it is one of only a handful of spots in the world to attract such mass visitations.
Many tour companies offer snorkel tours to see the world's largest fish between mid-March and mid-July. Despite 'shark' forming part of their name and the fact they can reach up to 11m in length, there is zero risk of harm. Uninterested in the snorkellers passing by to get a closer look, in favour of feeding on endless plankton, whale sharks can be likened to the ocean's enormous vacuum cleaners.
The tours may be on the pricey side — over $400 per adult, depending on company — for a chance interaction, but Ningaloo Reef holds a 97 per cent interaction rate, putting the odds of being in the presence of these gentle giants in your favour.
One particular moment with a whale shark gave me chills — seeing its flipper swoosh from left to right was a mesmerising spectacle. Almost hypnotic, I couldn't get enough — I was under its spell and wanted the moment prolonged. I tried to keep up with its leisurely speed, but a burst of swimming soon wore me out.
My next adrenaline rush — swimming with humpback whales — was a little more suspenseful. Over 40,000 humpback whales migrate along the west coast each year, with Exmouth's short season spanning roughly from early August to October.
Humpback whale tours operate in similar nature to whale shark tours, though there are measurable differences. Forget about seeing eye to eye with these creatures, as it is stipulated that a certain distance between the whales and snorkellers must be strictly maintained. Just seven swimmers, at a maximum, are allowed to be in the water among the whales at any given time. Despite their size, humpback whales are also much more difficult to spot, thus there is a lower success rate of swimming in close proximity to these creatures. Despite this lower success rate, swimming with Humpback whales will set you back roughly the same amount as a whale shark encounter.
My gamble paid off — for the most part. I may not have been swimming as close to the humpback whale to get a better view of its underwater sojourn, but I did get my kicks seeing it as I stuck my head out of the water and saw the whale surfacing at a very safe, faraway distance.
TOAST OF THE TOWN
Two supermarkets, surf shops, wellness stores, trendy cafes, and a buzzing brewery restaurant ensure Exmouth's main thoroughfare is more than adequate. A special mention goes out to its bakery, Ningaloo Bakehouse, with queues outside the door well-justified for its indulgent surf and turf pie.
Speaking of main staples, every remote town must have a good pub for a well-deserved cold one, and it's even more refreshing if it's brewed on the premises. Self-described as 'beer in a shed,' Whalebone Brewing Company is a rustic darling on the coastal craft brewery scene best known for its massive beer garden under fairy lights and stars — perfect for those balmy nights. Whalebone also knows how to put on a stellar show, if seeing Western Australia's indie rockers Spacey Jane play to a sold-out crowd is anything to go by.
Another place for a beverage is Cadillacs Bar and Grill. The bar pays ode to America, positioning itself as both a country music bar and a museum of trinkets.
Away from the town's waterholes lies another place where people choose to cap the day off in Exmouth. A 15-minute drive north of town, Vlamingh Head Lighthouse is a good spot to catch a blissful sunset over the ocean. It's easy to tell when peak hour traffic occurs in the area, with cars snaking around the road leading up to the lighthouse something of a dead giveaway.
Fold-up chairs, picnic hampers, and stubbies in tow — the masses come prepared to make the most of a low-key happy hour. Lucky locals and travellers alike, myself included, soak up the impressive views overlooking the Indian Ocean and the sprawling township of Exmouth. Those with sharp eyesight can make a game out of trying to spot breaching whales on the ocean's horizon.
As I stood taking in the view from the top, I conjured in my mind a view of the town at the height of its American influence. In my mind's eye, it looked vastly different, with just a small settlement surrounded by vast sandy plains and unexplored seas. Any Uncle Sam relics may be long gone, but the stars-and-stripes influences of yesteryear still underpin the town. Most importantly, though, a steady influx of marine explorers ensures that Exmouth will continue to prosper.
RAC EXMOUTH CAPE HOLIDAY PARK
Ph: (08) 9949 1101
NINGALOO CARAVAN AND HOLIDAY RESORT
Ph: (08) 9949 2377
Ph: 04256 702 437
NINGALOO WHALE SHARKS (INCLUDES HUMPBACK WHALE SWIMS)
Ph: 1800 994 210