Michelle Wheeler is a science journalist based in Perth, Australia.
Western Australia’s Exmouth Gulf is home to more fish species than Ningaloo Reef, according to a review of the area’s environmental values.
The once-in-a-generation review found the gulf—which is next to the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef— is home to at least 63 species sharks and rays, 15 species of sea snakes and five species of turtles.
It is home to blue whales, killer whales, dolphins, and manta rays that swim with tourists at Ningaloo Reef and Coral Bay, according to the review.
Exmouth Gulf sits in a remote corner of Western Australia, 1200km north of Perth, and while the adjacent Ningaloo Reef enjoys World Heritage listing and status as a marine park, the gulf is not protected.
The review’s release comes as a proposal for a controversial pipe bundling facility at Exmouth Gulf sits with WA’s environmental watchdog.
The review is likely to inflame tensions between supporters of the development and conservation campaigners, who want to see the Ningaloo Marine Park extended to encompass the gulf.
Under the Subsea 7 development proposal, pipe bundles would be launched in the gulf up to three times a year to carry services to offshore gas fields.
Conservation campaigners fear that these pipe bundles would risk coral beds and affect the marine species in the gulf.
Oceanwise director and the review’s lead author Ben Fitzpatrick says there are 850 species of fish in Exmouth Gulf, compared to 550 at Ningaloo Reef.
He says the gulf has mangroves living at the extreme of their range, undisturbed vistas, fossil corals reefs and subterranean stygofauna—animals that have adapted to living in underground waterways.
“It’s actually got globally-unique ecosystem values, in that these things don’t occur anywhere else,” Fitzpatrick says.
In writing the review, the research team compiled all the literature on Exmouth Gulf.
A dozen scientists also spent two weeks in the field, surveying the gulf on foot, from a boat, with drones and using underwater cameras.
Blanche D’Anastasi, a West Australian sea snake expert from James Cook University, says she was blown away by what the team discovered.
“It turns out that Exmouth Gulf is a global sea snake biodiversity hotspot in its own right,” she says.
D’Anastasi says the area is incredibly abundant and pristine, even compared to the Great Barrier Reef.
“It’s epic wildlife everywhere, every day,” she says. “Everywhere you go there is something incredible to look at in the land or sea.”
The review was endorsed by the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management, which says it concurred with the recommendations of previous state and federal governments that Exmouth Gulf should be inscribed as a World Heritage Site and zoned a marine park.
Fitzpatrick says the review shows we still have a lot to learn about Exmouth Gulf.
“This whole exercise has revealed just how little we know about the place,” he says.
The review received funding from the Marine Foundation of WA businessman Jock Clough.