ENCOUNTERS WITH WHALES
Beyond a mile long strip of pearl-white sand, beyond rolling breakers and the
ragged line of surfers bobbing on the swell, a Southern Right whale and her
calf idle up the coast of South Australia's Fleurieu Peninsular towards
Encounter Bay. Whale-spotters reach for their binoculars as a massive head
breaches the surface: the female is spy hopping, checking to see if any other
whales are nearby.
It is a blustery but sunny winter's day at Boomer Beach and the locals are
kitted out in chunky knits, although by my reckoning a winter's day Down Under
feels a lot less chilly than a decent spring day in Britain. As if to prove it,
my daughter, who has been hardened off on summer holidays on the east coast of
Scotland, strips to her swimsuit and prances into the sea. The sky is a clear
and boundless blue, the air sparkles, and the spectacle of these giant
creatures so close to the shoreline sets the pulse racing.
We track mother and baby from beach to beach, scrambling from the car at
regular intervals when the whales stop to play. They are cruising towards
Granite Island, the site of the old whaling station that nestles within the
serene blue scoop of Encounter Bay. The shadow of the calf remains tucked close
to the mother's side, while a hundred metres offshore, surfers paddle madly
through a band of calm water to catch the next wave. The mother's giant flukes
are steel grey against the sky. Every now and then we lose sight of them until
a huge head nudges the surface and a sudden spout of water gives us their
The whales arrive in a great annual migration from their summer home in
Antarctica to the protected bays and coves along the southern coastline. In the
nineteenth century they were hunted almost to extinction here by the gangs who
manned the early whaling stations and newspaper reports of the time describe
the waters of Encounter Bay tinted red with blood. Centuries of hunting have
drastically reduced the numbers of all whale species and Southern Right whales,
like the two we are tracking, are still rare and endangered. Since the
International Whaling Commission's ban on commercial hunting, the whales have
gradually returned to their traditional breeding grounds at the head of the
Great Australian Bight, where, in winter, as many as 150 adults will congregate
to search for a mate, give birth, and raise their calves.
The first Whales appear around mid-May and sightings continue well into
September and October. Around thirty species are known to visit, but the
Southern Rights love the coastal inshore waters and are perfect for land-based
watching. If you decide to try for an even closer look, boat cruises and light
aircraft whale watch flights are available. You may even strike it lucky and
spot a whale from the window of a steam locomotive, if you ride the Cockle
Train. This 150 year-old line with its classic railcars chuffs around Encounter
Bay and across coastal dunes and surf beaches between Victor Harbor and the
town of Goolwa on the shores of Lake Alexandrina.
For details of the latest sightings, call in at the Whale Information
Centre in Victor Harbour. Measuring up to the Centre's life-sized whale murals
gives the whole adventure a sense of scale and is only slightly less awesome
than standing on the windy cliffs to watch the real thing. The centre also
offers visual displays on the history of whaling, with original whalers' tools
on show and all the information you'll ever need about whales and dolphins.
The Centre's Coordinator Dr Elizabeth Reid is passionate about the work carried
out by volunteers at the Centre, "We have a mission to educate, entertain and
inspire people about whales and the marine environment," she says.
Our last sight of mother and baby is from the lookout at Rosetta Head. The
flawless sweep of Encounter Bay glitters in the afternoon sunshine and we
decide to round off the afternoon with ice cream and a trip across to Granite
Island on the horse tram.
Whale watching is a unique opportunity for a close-up look at the world's
largest mammal in its natural habitat and the beauty of South Australia is that
you can manage it from the comfort and safety of some of the world's finest
beaches. By the time we head back to our hotel we are almost overdosed on
sunshine and fresh air, but definitely inspired by this close encounter with
one of the natural world's most mysterious creatures.
Don't forget to pack:
A hat and sunscreen: The sun is strong, even in winter.
Warm lightweight jacket: Many cliff top vantage points are unprotected from the
Binoculars: you'll want to zoom in for a closer look.
Whale Watch Hotline Number: 1900 931 223. Call to get help in tracking the
whales while you're on site.
Whale Information Booklet: the Whale Centre information leaflet contains tips
on identifying different species and interpreting their behavior.
Getting There: Airline Network booked our Singapore Airlines flights from
London Heathrow via Singapore to Adelaide. Victor Harbor is around an hour from
Adelaide by car.
SA Whale Centre
: Located in the centre of Victor Harbor, it opens daily from 11
am - 4.30 pm.
Seafarer II Whale Watch Cruises
The Cockle Train
: operates scenic and whale watching flights from July to September.
: the island is home to a colony of around 2,000 tiny Fairy
Penguins. Guided Penguin Tours are conducted at sunset every night except
Christmas Day and New Years Eve.
Miles of unspoilt coastline make whale watching a private adventure.
Whale tail sculpture near the Information Centre in Victor Harbor.
Whale Information Centre
The Centre will advise where the whales are and provide a map.
Inside the Whale
Life-size murals put the whales into perspective