Phillip Island

Winter whale-watching along the Victorian coast

While the idea of going for a swim in Melbourne’s cold winter waters might seem like a nightmare for some, hundreds of others have recently flocked to our shores for a welcome winter holiday. For a few short months each year, the Victorian Coast becomes home to some of the world’s largest and most majestic creatures - whales.

The whales are migrating up to 10,000 kilometres from the colder Antarctic waters where they’ve spent the summer feeding, to the shallower, warmer waters of New South Wales and Queensland. On their way north along the eastern Australian coast, a handful visit the Bass Coast between April and November each year to calve and rest.

That’s right – they’re in our backyard, and they’re easier to see than you might think.

Last month, I went on a four-hour whale-watching cruise around Phillip Island, only an hour-and-a-half drive from Melbourne. I spend the first hour of the cruise eagerly looking out to the horizon – is that a whale? No, it’s another buoy. Finally, a promising blow in the distance indicates we’ve found what we were looking for, and the boat heads in the direction of the sighting.

Humpback Whales seen from a distance.  Image: Ella Loeffler

Humpback Whales seen from a distance. Image: Ella Loeffler

The vessel approaches the whales, abiding by strict regulations under their permit – they must keep a 100-metre distance at all times. It is up to the whales if they choose to approach the vessel any closer, although often they do, in which case the engine is turned off.

Coming up for a few breaths, the Humpback Whales give us a good look before they disappear underwater for several long minutes with a flick of their tail. They leave only a ‘footprint’ – a distinct, clear patch of water that’s left on the surface - and an excited energy in the air as we wait for them to reappear.

Every year, two main species of whale – the Humpback Whale and the Southern Right Whale – are welcomed by the Bass Coast. Humpbacks have a characteristic white underside and a dorsal fin, while Southern Right Whales are generally black, and are smaller but heavier than humpbacks. Occasionally, Orcas (or Killer Whales) also come for a visit to feed on seals, but the crew tells us that on the days when Orcas are spotted, there is nothing else in the water.

Whales leave only a ‘footprint’ – a distinct, clear patch of water that’s left on the surface after they disappear.  Image: Ella Loeffler

Whales leave only a ‘footprint’ – a distinct, clear patch of water that’s left on the surface after they disappear. Image: Ella Loeffler

Wildlife Coast Cruises, together with the Dolphin Research Institute, contribute to the Two Bays Whale Project, which relies on citizen science to build a database of whale sightings. In 2017, an estimated number of 458 individual whales were sighted in Port Phillip and Western Port Bays. These figures are promising, especially considering the dark history of industrial whaling, which saw whale numbers plummet dangerously close to extinction. But it seems that these populations have bounced back, highlighting the importance of continued research and protection of these species.

'Ten o’clock!' calls the crew, pointing to the resurfaced pair of humpbacks, as everyone huddles to one side of the boat. Watching the whales, I feel a child-like exhilaration I haven’t felt in years. Everyone else on board seems to share the same feeling – all you can hear are awestruck exclamations and camera clicks.

Commentating on the loudspeaker, the crew at Wildlife Coast Cruises are careful not to anthropomorphise, highlighting that we really don’t know much about the behaviour of these captivating yet cryptic creatures. But it’s hard not to see these animals as playful, curious beings. One of the crew members hangs off the back of the boat, slowly clapping his hands – apparently, this attracts whales.

At one point, we find ourselves surrounded by three small pods of Humpback Whales, all in different directions. Seemingly jealous that the attention is not on them, a large group of fur seals arrive, playing in the water around the boat. A minute later, there are dolphins swimming along the bow, catching a free ride. Pelicans, albatrosses and gulls fly past – I don’t know where to look, overwhelmed by the abundant wildlife.

Fur seals are a common sighting off the coast of Phillip Island.  Image: Ella Loeffler

Fur seals are a common sighting off the coast of Phillip Island. Image: Ella Loeffler

Dolphins can also be spotted on the whale-watching cruises at Phillip Island.  Image: Ella Loeffler

Dolphins can also be spotted on the whale-watching cruises at Phillip Island. Image: Ella Loeffler

When things calm down again, we’re watching a pod of three whales lazily swimming along. The crew tells us that they only exhibit breaching behaviour (jumping out of the water) five to ten percent of the time, and not to get our hopes up. But just as we’re about to head back in, one of the whales flings itself out of the water, landing with a huge splash; the sheer size and force is incredible. No one really knows why whales breach – it could be to clean themselves, or as an act of aggression. Or it could just be a playful leap. Either way, it makes a wonderful end to our cruise as we head back to Rhyll jetty.

There is still much debate over why whales breach, but it is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular events to witness in the natural world.  Image: Ella Loeffler

There is still much debate over why whales breach, but it is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular events to witness in the natural world. Image: Ella Loeffler

The cruises at Phillip Island run between June and August, and have finished for the year. But if you’ve missed out, don’t worry – what comes up must come down, which means you can catch the whales returning through Wilsons Promontory from September to November. And Jess from Wildlife Coast Cruises promises a good show at the Prom – 'we had a 100% success rate for sightings last year with up to 50% of cruises sighting breaches.'

If you’re looking for a new way to experience our beautiful coastline, a whale-watching cruise is a great chance to get outdoors and see some of the spectacular wildlife Victoria has to offer.

Ella Loeffler studied a Bachelor of Arts and Science at Monash University, combining her love for literature and animals. She is currently completing her honours in Zoology at Deakin University, where she is researching the foraging ecology of the critically endangered Eastern Barred Bandicoot. She is passionate about wildlife conservation, and hopes to continue working in threatened species management.

This article is an honest review and has not been sponsored in any way by Wildlife Coast Cruises or affiliates.

Banner image courtesy of Wildlife Coast Cruises.

The walks and wonders of Phillip Island

Last year I explored Phillip Island and its nature and conservation reserves, each location providing insight into the significance of this popular coastal destination. During my short stay of a few days, bushwalking and taking photos of the landscapes and the wonders within them were high on my priority list.

Bushwalk One: Rhyll Inlet State Wildlife Reserve

This reserve is situated within the Western Port RAMSAR Site, and is of international significance. RAMSAR sites are related to The Convention on Wetlands, which is an intergovernmental treaty for their protection. Within this RAMSAR site, saltbushes (Beaded Glassworts or Sarcocornia quinqueflora) are present, as well as many other floral species and a variety of birdlife.


Bushwalk Two: Churchill Island

Located on the south-east side of Phillip Island, Churchill Island was also of interest to me. Although holding more of a historical significance relating to European settlement, there are a few leisurely walks that showcase its rugged coastline and its range of flora and fauna. Found amongst tree branches was a bright orange lichen, in strong contrast to the background of green foliage. The twisted branches of ancient Moonah Trees are an impressive sight, whilst looking out onto the grazing pasture of Scottish Highland Cattle is a somewhat unusual experience on this walk.


Bushwalk Three: A beach walk along the coastline

The coastline of Phillip Island is rugged yet beautiful, and provides the perfect opportunity to investigate the small wonders hiding amongst rocks and sand. Discoveries include barnacles on the side of an orange, sun-glazed coastal rock, a delicate sea sponge submerged in sand, and a fragile wildflower found casting shadows next to a coastal cliff-face. 


Bushwalk Four: Phillip Island Nature Park

The final destination on my list before leaving the island was Phillip Island Nature Park, home to the Little Penguin colony. The nature park provides a vital conservation area for the penguins. Education, research and restoration practices are all part of the conservation efforts being being made to protect this iconic species. Boardwalks provide observation areas with views across the landscape as well of the wildlife (providing a glimpse of penguin burrows).


Although only a short getaway, my time on Phillip Island provided many great photo opportunities and glimpses of the area's incredible landscapes, flora and fauna.

Until next time.

Christine Slade has completed a Bachelor of Environmental Science, and is in her final year of a Masters of Environment and Sustainability at Monash University. She is interested in engaging the public with the environment through photography, and to also raise awareness of conservation practices. She hopes to work in environmental consulting or education.

All images courtesy of Christine Slade.

Top Five Places To Escape to Nature Around Melbourne

This is a guest post by Lucy Ruthnum. 

As a backpacker who has now lived in Melbourne twice, I've loved getting out and exploring the city and far beyond. Not being much of a city girl, I've noticed Melbourne really has a fantastic balance of modern, built-up areas interweaved with beautiful sprawling parks that really help to make the skyscrapers feel less claustrophobic and imposing than they do in English cities. It's easy to wander around the city and quickly find yourself leaving the busy streets behind to get lost in lush, green woodland.

Having lived in both South Melbourne and Southbank, I've been lucky enough to live with Albert Park right on my doorstep - a perfect place to run around the lake of an evening, or to gather with friends for barbecues or to watch the Grand Prix. Just behind sits the Royal Botanic Gardens, huge endless parks that stretch across the city with all kinds of treasures tucked just out of sight. 

Fancy getting a bit further out of the city? There are so many amazing places right on your doorstop in Victoria that it would be a shame not to! Here are my top five places to escape into nature around Melbourne.

Wilsons Promontory National Park

Just a couple of hours drive out of Melbourne and you'll feel like you've entered another world. Wilsons Prom has everything from forest and mountain, to marshland, river, beaches and even sand dunes. You'll want a weekend to explore at your own pace so pack up the camping gear, the beers, and bring your best mates for a weekend you won't forget. Definitely don't miss seeing the view from Mount Oberon Summit, sunset from the beach at Tidal River campsite, and The Big Drift sand dunes.

Great Ocean Road

The absolute must-do when you go to Melbourne, the Great Ocean Road is the perfect road trip to take with your buddies, whether you're on a budget or fancy a big blow-out. There are plenty of luxury escapes to take your breath away, or do like my gang did and just pack a tent, hire a car and take advantage of the many free things to see and do. There are so many hikes, beaches, viewpoints and more to explore - don't miss Bells Beach during the surfing competitions, Twelve Apostles at sunrise, and the Round the Twist lighthouse if you're a 90s kid. Camp in Cape Otway National Park for an amazing experience and take a break from driving at Loch Ard Gorge for spectacular views. And on your way home, take a detour through the Grampians National Park!

The Grampians National Park

A perfect trip to do on your way home from the Great Ocean Road, you can see the highlights in one to two days. Taking you up into the mountains, don't forget a jumper for that fresh mountain air. Stay in the Halls Gap campsites - they're great for a campfire, and nice and sheltered from the wind. Don't miss the Pinnacle Viewpoint and take the walk through the canyon; The Balconies and MacKenzie Falls are also ideal for those perfect photographs.

Dandenong Ranges National Park - 1,000 Steps

One I only ticked off my list last week, this national park is easily within reach for those without a car as you can get the train from Flinders Street to Upper Ferntree Gully, and then walk from there. It takes just a few hours to get out there and complete the walk, so it's perfect if you just fancy spending an afternoon in nature. The 1,000 Steps are the big attraction and although they'll definitely have you huffing and puffing, they're not as daunting as they sound. You'll see runners of all shapes and sizes taking them on over and over again as they sprint up and down. Pack a picnic to enjoy at the top then take a different path down to enjoy a different pace of walk. 

Phillip Island

The last one I have to tick off my list, I'm excited to be finally visiting Phillip Island next week where I plan to overdose on nature, especially seeing wild penguins down by the shore. This is one that can be done in a day, either by an organised day trip or by just hiring a car with your mates and heading off independently. Home to some seriously beautiful beaches, there will be plenty to explore and it will be a perfect day escape from city life.

Lucy Ruthnum is an award-winning travel blogger who has been travelling full time for three years, exploring the world and seeking adventures. She fell in love with Melbourne a year ago and couldn't resist coming back to live here a second time. You can read about more of her adventures over on Absolutely Lucy or by following her travels on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

All images courtesy of Lucy Ruthnum.  

Public Perception: An Evening in an Urban Penguin Colony

‘There – is that one? I can hear something.’

’I can’t see anything yet. Anyway, how is this even a thing? Did you know this was here?’


Talking to visitors, you’d think the establishment of a penguin colony in one of inner Melbourne’s more popular waterfronts was a new and novel thing. But the curving pile of the St Kilda Pier breakwater has been host to the little penguin (Eudyptula minor) since at least 1974, when the first permanent breeding pairs were documented.[1] Anecdotes place them on site even earlier, with fishermen sighting penguins stopping on the rocks only two years after the breakwater’s construction for the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. It’s well known amongst ecologists that the little penguins of Victoria’s south coast and Phillip Island enjoy the high food availability and sheltered waters of Port Phillip Bay; the only surprise in some having established a colony was how quickly they did it.

From just two pioneering nesting sites the colony now has over 1000 birds, although there could be as many as 1400. For tourists and locals alike, it’s an excellent chance to see a large population of a species adapting to the urban environment. While conservationists more often see negative effects from dense human infrastructure – such as changing daily rhythms caused by light pollution or behaviour shifting to accommodate the noise and rush of cities – some species persist, making use of their surroundings and benefiting from the changes humans have made. The little penguins of St Kilda have been found to spend a good deal of their foraging time in the shipping channels of the bay, using the artificial formations to corral their prey. However, inhabiting an area of heavy traffic also means exposure to oil and pollutants, and concerns are still raised over access to the part of the colony not fenced off from public access.

A three-week-old penguin chick at the St Kilda colony.   Image:

A three-week-old penguin chick at the St Kilda colony.


During the long hours of summer, evenings on the breakwater promenade are punctuated by the fluoro yellow vests of Earthcare St. Kilda volunteers. Aside from checking that everyone is behaving as they should, one of the goals of the group is to raise awareness and appreciation for the little penguins. Red-filtered torches in hand, they answer questions and point out the best spots to wait for those foraging penguin parents to swim ashore.

See that V-ripple in the water, between the yachts? Get ready to spot!

Inner-city residents around the world have been found to feel separated from their country’s natural landscape, the places beyond the ring roads. It’s a feeling among the St Kilda volunteers that, by helping people to see that there is a more appropriate way to appreciate the animals cohabiting our urban spaces, this perceived separation between the human and the wild can be closed a little further. By fostering that fascination, we can help move toward a more understanding society and a more considered discussion on conserving our green spaces.

Of course, this fascination with our more charismatic cohabitants doesn’t always have the best results. During the early and mid-20th century, little penguin rookeries on the Summerland Peninsula of Phillip Island were facing pressure from increased visitors and new housing developments. Tourism advertisements from the period promote the evening penguin march as a must-see attraction, and photographs show that avoiding disruption was a low priority. Already at risk from foxes and dogs, the stress and habitat disturbance from the human presence led to the state government partitioning the little penguins in dedicated reserves.  

An early 20th Century photograph of 'Penguin Beach' on Phillip Island.  Image: State Library of Victoria

An early 20th Century photograph of 'Penguin Beach' on Phillip Island. Image: State Library of Victoria

The 1920s saw the first crowds of tourists viewing the penguin parade by torchlight.    Image:

The 1920s saw the first crowds of tourists viewing the penguin parade by torchlight. 


Even after the creation and subsequent expansion of the beachfront reserves, habitat fragmentation from the housing developments was still found to be too disruptive. In the 1980s, a land buyback program began with the aim of removing all permanent residences and infrastructure, returning the whole peninsula to as pristine a condition as possible[6]. In this instance, the separation of human and wild spaces was necessary.

So, what does this mean for colonies like the St Kilda penguins? An increasing human population and an increasing shift toward urbanization mean that cities will be growing larger in the future. Animals that fail to adjust will be edged out, and not just geographically – without their physical presence as a reminder, there’s a risk that planning departments will simply forget about them.

Animals persisting in urban spaces - such as beachside penguins, rooftop falcons, or bats in the Botanic Gardens - remind us that we still exist in and are still part of the natural world. Partial separation keeps a reservoir of the population safe; those out in the open remind us of what we could lose.

‘Look there, that one’s getting fed! By that saltbush, can you see?’

’Oh. They vomit into its mouth? Gross.’


Banner image of Phillip Island Penguin Parade is courtesy of

[1] Eades D (1975) Fairy penguins (Eudyptula minor) breeding on St Kilda Pier. Bird Observer 519:12

Paul Jones

Paul works in science education and has been a teaching member of Monash University's Department of Biology since 2010. He is interested in community engagement and sustainable urban development.