Exmouth (Western Australia)
Exmouth is pronounced "EX-MOUTH" - without shortening the vowel sound. Exmouth is a small town of around 2500 people, with a population that doubles with the temporary workforce associated with the 4 month tourist season. It has supermarkets, coffee shops, dive shops and a couple of fashion stores.
It is surrounded by endless beaches, national parks, and arid beauty. You can always find a beach and a reef to have nearly to yourself.
Even in the peak tourist season it has a sleepy small town feel. Outside of the tourist season it is even quieter.
The Exmouth area was visited by pearlers and whalers from the late 19th century.
The area became a focus of attention during World War II, with the northwest of Australia considered to be under threat from Japanese invasion. Operation Potshot was launched in 1942 to establish a military base from bare earth, and the U.S. and Australian forces established bases in Exmouth Gulf. At one time up to 1000 U.S. servicemen were resident in the area, with a supporting airbase, anti-aircraft guns, and a radar unit installed. By 1943 the threat had eased and most of the troops were withdrawn, but the base was maintained as a forward airstrip with fuel supplies. The base eventually became what is today RAAF Learmonth.
Permanent settlement of the region is relatively recent, with the first town established to support the U.S. Naval Communications Station in the 1960s. Australian naval forces now run the transmission station, and also have a base in Exmouth.
Exmouth is just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, and has distinct wet and dry seasons. Rain is very rare in the months from May to December, with the highest rainfall in January-April.
- Learmonth Airport (LEA) is a dual use RAAF base and civil airport 40km south of Exmouth.
- Skywest fly at least daily to Perth, some flights have a stop in Monkey Mia.
The car hire companies charge an additional fee to drive a car out to the airport for you.
The airport terminal itself is bright and modern, and has a licenced cafe open for departing flights, and a small souvenir shop attached to it.
Don't count on mobile phone reception at the airport when you arrive.
- Greyhound offer service to Perth and Broome 5 days a week. Buses top at the visitor centre.
- Several "backpacker" buses also stop in town.
Even though the town is small and it is possible to go around on foot, everything is fairly spread out. Walking from one side of town to the next may prove a fair trek, especially in the summer.
Car hire is available from Avis, Hertz, Europcar, Budget. Allens car hire is a local operator.
While Exmouth does not have much to offer in terms of nightlife or cosmopolitan atmosphere, the surrounding area is very unique. The ocean around Exmouth is teeming with life in the Ningaloo Reef, and the Cape Range National Park offers unique sights for landlubbers.
The Ningaloo Reef, near the Exmouth town, is sometimes less than a few hundred meters off the coast. The reef is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Several small dive companies and resorts offer dive trips to various locations on the reef. There are many attractive dive sites not far off-shore in Lighthouse Bay (near Vlamingh Head lighthouse). Excursions are also offered to the Point Murat Navy Pier. It is only possible to dive the Pier with a licenced operator as a certified diver. Another popular diving destination are the Muiron Islands, approximately 7 nm off Point Murat. These islands are a natural reserve and a popular breeding ground for sea turtles. The islands' coastline offers spectacular coral formations and an abundance of wildlife.
- Snorkeling The entry of the Cape Range National Park situated only few kilometers from Exmouth gives access to the Ningaloo Reef beaches. The most iconic is Turquoise Beach where you can drift along the reef (be careful not to get caught by the strong rip, look for signs) and see hard coral and abundant marine life: turtle, octopus, shark, sting rays under the boulders, etc. but there are several other beaches along the coast.
- Whale Sharks can come into the bay as early as mid-March, and depart sometime during July, sometimes as late as the end of July, depending on the water temperature and food supply. The most likely months to see them are therefore April and May. It is possible to book day-tours with the local dive shops to see and swim with the sharks. Spotter planes are used, so chances of actually finding one (or several) are very high. The day tours generally snorkel at one location initially, moving on to the whale shark diving locations once the spotter planes have reported. It is possible to put on snorkeling gear and swim with the sharks, but since these are a protected species you have to follow the rules, and the dive is quite regimented. Expect to wait on the boat while the boat operator lines it up with the oncoming shark. You then dive in when told, and get to swim along 3m each side of the shark for 5 minutes or so. You usually have 4 or 5 opportunities to do this. Dive boat trips seem to cost around $400-$450 per person. Whale Sharks are harmless to humans, and feed on plankton. They are the largest fish in the world, and an average sized one is 7.5m, but they be up 14m (45ft) in length. There are only a few licensed tour operators able to take visitors out to the reef to swim with the whale sharks. Note also snokelling is the only activity allowed scuba diviing is not allowed. These tour operators include: Kings Ningaloo Reef Tours, Whale Shark Dive and Ningaloo Blue. These are also the tour operators which operate spotter planes and you will have more of a chance of finding the whale sharks and enjoying this amazing underwater experience.
- The bay is also a popular breeding ground for Humpback Whales. In autumn and spring the bay is virtually crawling with whales. It is possible to book Whale Watching tours with local operators to appreciate these magnificent mammals. If you're driving a boat yourself, be very cautious. You wouldn't be the first to hit one.
- Naval Transmission Station is on the road north ten minutes from town. At the time of its construction it was the tallest structure in the southern hemisphere, and still remains the second tallest. Get up close to see the ladders to see the scale of the installation. There is no visitors centre, but the towers are easily visible from the road.
- Potshot Memorial is near the airport, around 1km towards Exmouth town. There is no information about the WWII operation at all, so it could only be worth a visit if you were passing anyway.
- Vlaming Head Lighthouse is on the road north, follow the signs to the Cape Range National Park at the Naval transmission station. The lighhouse is no longer operating, it has been replaced by a light operating from the transmission station. It is nice and popular place to watch the sun set over the ocean (in Exmouth town, the sun sets over the range, being on the eastern side of the peninsula). Also at the top of the hill is the remains of a radar dish installed for Operation Potshot in 1942, and destroyed by cyclone in 1945.
- Cape Range National Park The Cape Range National Park is about 50km drive from Exmouth. The park covers over 50,000 hectares of arid land. Wildlife found there includes the typically Australian kangaroos and emus, but also the more unique and lesser known Blind Cave Gudgeon (Milyeringa veritas). The gudgeons are amazing little creatures which are completely blind (they appear to have evolved without eyes) and can survive in virtually any environment-- from highly toxic fresh water to pure sea water. In the park there are also several beaches where sea turtles come to lay their eggs. These are sign-posted and stands will provide some more information on the turtles.
Fresh seafood is usually plentiful in Exmouth. You can buy from the supermarkets, as well as direct from the factory out by the airport.
There are two dive shops selling equipment.
There are two IGA supermarkets next to each other downtown. Ningaloo IGA seems to be most frequented by visitors, and Exmouth IGA by locals. There is a good range, and they are both open from 7am until 7pm every day of the week.
There is also a fashion boutique.
There are ATM's cash withdrawals available in both IGA supermarkets.
Take your pick of one of the restaurants in town, or one of the pubs. Bookings are a good idea at the restaurants during the season.
There is a caravan out the back of the Potshot Hotel, which serves burgers and chips in the open air. There are a couple of take-away places and cafes.
Expect to pay a premium for eating out in Exmouth. Wages are high, and food costs expensive. A Chicken Parma which may cost you $15 in Perth may cost you $35 or more here.
There are several small pubs in Exmouth where it's possible to have a beer (or many).
The Potshot Hotel holds a Friday-night disco in its "Bamboo-bar," which is lovingly known as the "Bimbo-bar" by the locals. This is the only night when anything happens in Exmouth, so you'll find everyone here usually on the far end of the intoxication spectrum. For this reason it is also highly advisable not to book any dive tours on Saturday mornings (tour operators will often run late, wobble and complain about mysterious headaches and food poisoning).
Camping is prohibited outside of campgrounds and the national park. There are a number of campgrounds and caravan parks to choose from, including the Lighthouse out on the point.
The Potshot resort is the most up-scale lodging downtown, offering motel-style rooms and apartments. The newly build Novotel in the Marina area out of town is probably the most upscale in the area.
There are many holiday villas and houses. The Osprey Villas are new, upscale villas. The Exmouth Villas are budget oriented. Both villas are rented through multiple agencies and owner websites.
Mobile phone reception is patchy in the areas surrounding Exmouth. Only Telstra and Optus operate in the area, with Optus only having 2G services. The transmission is seemingly from a tower to the north of town. Reception is non-existent at the airport to the south, there is good coverage around town, and areas to the north as far as the naval base, and then patchy reception further afield.
- The only road out of town goes South, back to the Northwest Coastal Highway
- If travelling east to Onslow or further, at Bullara, there is the Burkett Road that at 80 km length, cuts out going all the way to Minilya (close to 200 km extra)
- On the Minlya Exmouth road about 140 km south is Coral Bay, and another 80 km south is the Minilya Roadhouse on the highway.