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South Australia - Whale watching


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 position.

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 weather.

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.

Useful Contacts :

SA Whale Centre : Located in the centre of Victor Harbor, it opens daily from 11 am - 4.30 pm. www.victor.sa.gov.au

Seafarer II Whale Watch Cruises : www.graniteisland.com.au

The Cockle Train : www.steamranger.com.au

Whale Air : operates scenic and whale watching flights from July to September. www.whaleair.com.au

Granite Island : 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. www.graniteisland.com.au


Photographs:

1. Jetty Watch
Miles of unspoilt coastline make whale watching a private adventure.

2. Whale Tail
Whale tail sculpture near the Information Centre in Victor Harbor.

3. Whale Information Centre
The Centre will advise where the whales are and provide a map.

4. Inside the Whale
Life-size murals put the whales into perspective

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