The first documented European landing on the Ningaloo Coast was made by the Dutch Captain Williem Janz of the Mauritius in 1618 near the tip of what is now known as North West Cape. To put that into perspective, this was 150 years before Captain James Cook and his HMS Endeavour arrived on the east coast at Botany Bay!
Australian Captain Phillip Parker King later visited in 1818 while surveying the northern coastline of Australia, and named Exmouth Gulf in honour of his hero, Viscount Exmouth, formerly Sir Edward Pellew...the man author C.S Forrester would one day base his Horatio Hornblower series of novels around.
In the years that were to follow, pearl luggers visited the area from Broome and a small number of pastoralists operated large sheep stations along the coastline. Very little changed on North West Cape until 1942, during World War II, when the US Navy established a submarine base under the code name Operation Potshot. This facility only served as a permanent base for a short period of time, but continued to operate as a refuelling facility.
Royal Australian Navy and Air Force personnel operated early warning radar and anti-aircraft guns in support of this base, and the area was actually bombed by the Japanese during the war, although no damage was sustained. Following the war, oil exploration saw a short period of increased activity in the Cape Range.
Operation Potshot also saw the construction of a little known landing field on the western shore of Exmouth Gulf. In the 1950s, the landing field was further developed as a military base and named RAAF Learmonth in honour of Wing Commander Charles Learmonth DFC/Bar, who, while leading No.14 squadron on 6 January, 1944 was killed in a flying accident off Rottnest Island.
In the mid-1960s, the Australian Federal Government gave its support to plans by the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Val Hancock, to redevelop Learmonth as a 'bare base', due to its proximity to Indonesia. The major work was undertaken by No. 5 Airfield Construction Squadron between 1971 and 1973.
In 1963, an agreement was reached between the Australian and US governments to establish a VLF communications station on the tip of North West Cape as a consequence of the rapidly escalating Cold War and the need to establish a communications system with nuclear warhead equipped, US submarines. The town of Exmouth was created to support this facility - which was eventually named the Harold E Holt Communications Station - and both were officially declared and opened in 1967.
Many of the streets in Exmouth are named in honour of Australian and British servicemen who took part in World War II. Streets are also named after early residents, and navy or military operations or craft. This gesture recognises the importance of naval/military history to the town of Exmouth.
American and Australian defence forces withdrew their military personnel in 1992, leaving the VLF station in the hands of civilian contractors and ending the joint American/Australian makeup of the Exmouth township's population. This altered the town's major reason for being, largely triggering the rapid development of Exmouth and the Ningaloo Coast as an eco-tourism destination. Today, tourism is the major industry that sustains the township of Exmouth.
The landing of the schooner Maud in 1884 is the earliest recorded European activity in the Coral Bay area. This landing site is slightly north of where the Coral Bay townsite lies today, and is known as Maud’s Landing. In 1896, a town site reserve was gazetted, but it wasn’t until 1915 that Maud’s Landing was officially proclaimed a town.
The Coral Bay site was originally known as Bill’s Bay, after local pastoralist, Charlie French built a very basic holiday camp here for his wife, Ruby May 'Billie' French. Back then the campsite was known as 'Billies Bay', a name which became corrupted to 'Bill's Bay' throughout the late 1950's and 60's when the area started to become increasingly popular with adventurous travellers. In 1968 formal settlement began with the establishment of a hotel, caravan park and service station. The hotel was named the 'Coral Bay Hotel' in reference to the beautiful coral reef in the bay area, and subsequently the settlement took on its current name of Coral Bay.
The construction of a sealed road into Coral Bay in the 1980s, plus a reputation as home of possibly the easiest to access, most pristine coral gardens in the country is what fuelled Coral Bay's development as a tourist destination, and the township continues to exist solely on tourism to this day.