RLS Trip to Ningaloo, WA. August 2022

This August for the second consecutive year, the Reef Life Survey team made its journey up to WA's stunning Ningaloo Reef! This year, the team was fortunate to score sunny skies, gorgeous corals, and plenty of fish.
By WA RLS volunteer diver, Elle Haskin
September 01, 2022
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Famous for its local megafauna, accessible marine encounters, and chilled-out coastal towns, the Ningaloo Reef system is arguably one of the most pristine reef systems remaining in the world, spanning 260km. This August for the eighth time since 2008, the Reef Life Survey team made the journey up the north-west coast to stunning Ningaloo Reef! The team began surveying this region in 2010, followed by further surveys in 2012, 2015-17, 2019 and 2021, with a break in 2020 due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. This year, the team was fortunate to score sunny skies most days, providing the means to warm up quickly after each survey, off-gas, and re-fuel in the sunshine.

There was a bit of anticipated concern amongst the team to see the state of the inner reef at Bills Bay after news that a recent de-oxygenation event had hit Coral Bay in April. While we learnt during our exploratory snorkel that the inner lagoon had up to 100% coral mortality in some areas, we were relieved to see the outer lagoon sites were pristine and booming with stunning corals, and thousands of fish. Phew!

Our team consisted of eight divers and included two new tropical recruits who travelled from Sydney and Perth. Both took to the diverse tropical surveys like fishes to water (pun intended) and spent each dive in awe of the wonders of experiencing Ningaloo on SCUBA! It was great to finally be able to welcome eastern RLSers to WA after a long travel hiatus due to Covid-19. The team consisted of Rachel, Claudia, Elle, Josh, and long-time RLSers Rick, Paul, Kevin and Yanir.

Peacock Mantis Shrimp (Odontactylus scyllarus) Photo by Josh Moloney

We resided at the Murdoch University Research Station for 9 nights of delicious home-cooked meals, great chats, parrot-fish schooling, and hundreds of IDs! Each day, we split into two groups, filling both the Research Station vessel, ‘Get-Nudi’, and the recently unveiled ‘RSS Greg’, named after Rick, of course! We celebrated RSS Greg’s first RLS trip appropriately, with a bottle of champagne (which we responsibly consumed rather than smashing on the boat - safety first!). Get-Nudi was skippered by Rick and Rachel, with Kevin and Elouise aboard as crew. While transiting across the sand-flats, the Get-Nudi team were lucky enough to spot from the vessel: tiger sharks, dolphins, and too many humpback whale breaches to count, all during the consumption of peanut butter sandwiches and snake lollies. 'RSS Greg' was captained by Paul with Yanir and Josh on board, and was equally populated with snacks, laughs and incredible Ningaloo sightings.



Stout Moray (Gymnothorax eurostus) Photo by Kevin Smith

This trip had many incredible highlights including tiny, yet stunning, reef jewels; referring to beautiful coral gobies, sea slugs and cryptic fishes, as well as three new species which have never been recorded on our Ningaloo surveys before; the Ornate Prawn-goby (Vanderhorstia ornatissima), Guam Scorpionfish (Scorpaenodes guamensis), and Hawaiian Ladyfish (Elops hawaiensis). Most remarkably, out on the back reef, while swimming along their transect, Kevin and Elouise were lucky enough to see a Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) pass between them and the reef wall. To say they were excited would be an understatement, and to top it all off, more humpbacks were seen just off the back of Get-Nudi only moments after the team surfaced! Other memorable highlights included Banded Frogfish (Halophryne diemensis) – which were spotted twice over two consecutive days, and Mantis Shrimp (Odontactylus scyllarus)- stunning, and super strong!

Overall, the team completed 65 transects over 27 sites in total, with 270 fish species on Method 1 searches and 140 macro-mobile invertebrate and cryptic fish species spotted on method 2. Overall a great success!

As usual, the Frequency Explorer received a workout, as did the brand new image recognition tool, "ICHTHY-WHAT" , developed by Yanir. 'Ichthy-what' was incredibly effective at helping the team (especially the new tropical recruits) to identify some more difficult fish species, coming in particularly handy after long days when brain activity was sub-optimal at best. This tool was great for identifying those “I just don’t know where to start” fish photos, where a little internet power, a half-decent photo, and Yanir’s magic programming would do the hard yards for us! Thanks for the epic programming, Yanir! If you haven't had a chance already, please check it out here.


A huge thank you to the WA Reef Life Survey Coordinator Paul Day for his continuous efforts to manage our team and make this trip such a fantastic adventure. And to Kevin Smith for providing us with an incredibly well-fed, fun, and seamless trip – we appreciate all the background work you did to help make this trip such a success. Year after year Paul and Kevin provide the WA team with a great time! Another huge thanks is owed to Rick Stuart-Smith, who not only answered (at least) a million parrotfish, damselfish, goby and blenny ID questions, but did it with endless patience and a smile. He was also responsible for managing the Get-Nudi team and getting our newest tropical trainees up to scratch, while showing them a new-found appreciation for the diversity that Ningaloo Reef holds.

Outside of the RLS team, we also have many thanks to give! For our cosy accommodation at the Murdoch University Coral Bay Research Station, we thank Frazer McGregor. We also are hugely grateful to the wonderful staff at Ningaloo Reef Dive for always greeting us with a smile and filling up an unruly number of tanks each day. We also thank Dive Ningaloo (Exmouth) for their tank fills – your ongoing support is invaluable!

These surveys were supported by funding from the Western Australian Government’s State NRM Program (www.nrm.wa.gov.au).


After 9 days of incredible fun, the team can’t wait to come back next year!



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