Mega Fauna = Big things!
The Whale shark is the world’s largest living shark, they are believed to have a life span of around 100 years, reaching sexual maturity at around 30 years of age (8m in length). They can grow up to 12-14 metres in length, even being recorded at large as 18 metres! In the Ningaloo the average size whale shark is around 4-8 metres long, and the majority are male. It is still mystery where most of the females are, as other aggregations around the world are also primarily male and a similar size to those in the Ningaloo.
Whale Sharks swim and feed in the waters around the Ningaloo Marine Park from March to September before disappearing from the area for another year, although there are occasional sightings of them year-round. Whale sharks are filter feeders, feeding on plankton and other small organisms such as krill, squid larvae and small fish, which they scoop up in their huge mouths.
Although filter feeders, whale sharks do have teeth, 300 rows in fact. They are situated right at the back of their mouth and can use them for grinding up tiny fish they may swallow.
Many researchers believe that whale shark movement patterns could be a food-driven migration pattern. Whale sharks are generally encountered singly, but aggregations of over a hundred animals have been seen in areas of high food concentration. For example, whale sharks appear at locations where seasonal food ‘pulses’ occur; at Christmas Island, off Western Australia, the appearance of whale sharks is linked to a red land crab migration event. In Belize, whale sharks feed on snapper spawning events. Here in the Ningaloo, it is linked with the coral spawning in early March.
Whale sharks can be identified by three prominent ridges along each side of their body and a distinct pattern of white spots and stripes against a dark blue/grey background. The skin on the back of the whale shark is thicker and tougher than that of any other animal in the world and the spots and stripes on the whale sharks provide camouflage in the surrounding blue of the water by breaking up their outline.
Like whale sharks, manta rays are filter feeders and have a large toothless mouth, which they use like a sieve to scoop up plankton and krill. The word ‘Manta’ comes from the Spanish word blanket or cloak, and you can see why!
Unlike stingrays, manta rays do not have a sharp barb, making them safe to swim, snorkel or dive with. In the Ningaloo, mantas can be seen from May to August, sometimes in great numbers and as a result it is not unusual to see them on a scuba dive.
Manta rays are ‘cartilaginous elasmobranch’ fishes. This means they are a close relative of all sharks and rays.
Manta Rays are fish which means they don’t breathe air, but use their gills to breathe underwater, as a result Mantas must keep moving continuously and can never stop and rest, in order to keep water flowing over their gills. Both Oceanic Mantas, and their slightly smaller cousin, Reef Mantas, visit the Ningaloo every year to feed, and we commonly see sightings of both, The oceanic mants can grow to an incredible 7m across! These wings enable them to swim at rapid speeds, occasionally leaping out of the water and landing with a slap.
Like Whale Sharks, Mantas have a patterning that is unique to each individual. On their underside you can often see this pattern of patches and spots. This allows us to identify individuals, monitor their movements, age and feeding patterns, and even name them!
Humpback whales travel through the Ningaloo between June and November as part of their annual migration.
The Humpback whale is one of the larger species of whale and the most active. They can often been seen slapping their tails and pectoral fins on the surface of the water or fully breaching out of the water and landing with a huge splash.
The humpbacks travel this area after spending the summer months feeding in the Antarctic waters, they then begin the long journey through winter up past the Ningaloo, towards Broome and the Kimberly to then travel back down. During this journey the females will give birth while the males escort them, and as they have a long gestation period the males then mate again immediately with the females. Watching the humpback calves play in the water and learn from their parents is an incredible experience.
Flora and Fauna
The flora of the Cape Range Peninsula is incredibly diverse with over 630 plant species recorded. It is much more diverse than other arid and semi-arid areas in Western Australia and is known to have twice as many species as other similar areas within the same biogeographic region. Many species in the Cape Province are at the end of their geographic range and are hence considered extremely important from an ecological perspective. The peninsula is also a region of biogeographic overlap and therefore has a diversity of species from temperate, arid and tropical botanical provinces.
Fauna in the Cape Range will not disappoint. Look out for kangaroos on the journey through the National Park as they are many about, particularly at night or dusk, Black-footed Wallabies hide in the gorge faces and Echidnas rustle through the tall grasses. Other animals you may see on your journey include plenty of reptiles; snakes and lizards including the beautiful Perentie, are often seen, as well as thorny devils and even the occasional dingo.
The bird life in this region is incredible. Many species of waders can be spotted hiding around the mangroves, birds of prey soaring overhead such as the Osprey, Sea Eagle and Wedge-tailed Eagle, Bustards and Galahs rummage in the tall grasses, and of course seabirds such as the Shearwater bomb next to our boat. Emus are also often spotted throughout the National Park and also strolling through Exmouth town, especially in the summer, which is quite a sight. The Emu is the largest bird native to Australia and can reach up to 2m in height.
These are but a few of the incredible flora and fauna in the region that you will see throughout the area if you have a day off from diving!