Swimming with marine mammals in the wild is such a special experience. You are enveloped completely in another living creature’s territory and they are free to decide if they’ll tolerate you or not. Which is what makes it all the more meaningful when they choose to hang around.
Australia has no shortage of awe inspiring marine wildlife, and as such offers a number of alternatives through which to enjoy these creatures up close without threatening them or their environment.
SEA LIONS, BAIRD BAY, SA
“Unfed, untrained, totally wild — a place where the lions of the sea and their close friends, the bottlenose dolphin, will choose to interact with you on their own terms.”
So says the website of Baird Bay Ocean Eco Experience. Located on the Eyre Peninsula, Baird Bay Ocean Eco Experience is a family business that has been operating since 1992, making it SA’s first tour operator offering sea lion and dolphin encounters. Tours run twice a day and provide both sea lion and dolphin encounters for double the marine mammal action. Tours cost $150 for adults and $75 for kids under 15.
HUMPBACK WHALES, SUNSHINE COAST, QLD
The first operator offering humpback whale swims in Australia, Sunreef was only approved to do so in 2014, making this particular marine mammal encounter a brand new experience in this country. Up to 20 swimmers are allowed in the water at a time, but it’s up to the whales whether they come over to check things out. Sunreef reports they do have days when the whales will be a bit shy and guests may not see them from the water, so your trip may end up being a whale watching tour instead. If the boat doesn’t see any whales either, Sunreef offers the opportunity to rebook with a 50 per cent discount.
The three-hour tour is $128 per person including wetsuit and snorkel hire, and departs from Mooloolabah.
GREAT WHITE SHARKS, PORT LINCOLN, SA
For the very brave, the best place to come face-to-face with the ocean’s most fearsome predator is in Port Lincoln, SA. Calypso Star Charters runs all-day Shark Cage Diving tours from the Port Lincoln Marina, which depart first thing in the morning and cruise for two hours to the Neptune Islands. Six divers enter the cage at a time (no need for dive certifications and no age limit) and spend approximately 45 minutes underwater — depending on conditions and shark activity.
The tours include breakfast and lunch, plus morning and afternoon tea, and start from $395.
BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS AND AUSTRALIAN FUR SEALS, PORT PHILLIP BAY, VIC
Operating out of Sorrento on the Mornington Peninsula just 90 minutes from Melbourne, Polperro offers intimate and environmentally responsible encounters with wild bottlenose dolphins and Australian fur seals on Port Phillip Bay.
Once a pod is found, guests are asked to slip quietly into the water and grab hold of a trailing line, before being dragged along slowly and waiting for the dolphins to approach. It’s all on the dolphins’ terms, but they are invariably inquisitive creatures.
The Polperro Dolphin Swim costs $135 per person and kids of all ages are welcome to partake.
WHALE SHARKS, NINGALOO REEF, WA
Whale sharks are gentle giants, and are more interested in the plankton floating at the ocean’s surface than they are in you. Indeed, the sharks we encountered at Ningaloo Reef, WA, on our daytrip with Exmouth Diving Centre, were remarkably unfazed by the presence of 10 floundering, graceless humans in the water with them.
The tour will cost you $385 per adult, or $1200 for a family of four, but this is truly a bucket list experience that is worth every penny.
MANTA RAYS, CORAL BAY, WA
The gentle giant of the ray world, manta rays eat plankton and krill, and can have a massive wingspan of up to seven metres. Along with their distant relative, the whale shark, the best place to see manta rays in Australia is at Ningaloo Reef in WA.
Ningaloo Reef Dive runs manta ray tours from Coral Bay, which include a swim with the mantas plus two snorkels or dives, and lunch. Tours start from $175 for snorkelers.
SEA TURTLES, BYRON BAY, NSW
While there’s a very good chance of spotting a green or loggerhead sea turtle on any snorkel or dive tour on the Great Barrier Reef, opportunities exist further south, too. Byron Bay Dive Centre runs snorkel tours out to Julian Rocks Marine Reserve, a unique site where you can swim with tropical species found on the Great Barrier Reef as well animals from Australia’s deep Southern Ocean. Julian Rocks is home to three different species of sea turtle, as well as rays, hard and soft corals, friendly wobbegong sharks and hundreds of species of fish.
Julian Rocks is just a five-minute boat ride from Byron Bay. Tours cost $65 per person, and depart three times a day.
Check out the full feature in issue #86 March 2015 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine.