Western Port Bay

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.

Point Leo Dreaming

It’s no secret that with greater education our appreciation and understanding of those we live with and the world in which we live is enhanced. With regards to understanding the environment, we’ve hit a stumbling block – the disconnect with nature is becoming more apparent in our modern lives and the language of science often seems to be spoken in an alien tongue. The challenge before us all is to reconcile these differences by actively seeking involvement in nature and making science more accessible to the general public.

As a marine biologist, I love nothing more than working with communities because of the opportunity it presents for us all to share our collective knowledge and experiences in nature. Importantly, I’ve found that it’s not just nature that benefits from this, but the community itself. When working together, nature becomes the conduit by which new friendships are forged and existing bonds are reinforced. Nature becomes part of the community’s identity, and a permanent reminder of the successes of both the individual and the whole. There is no better example of this than at Point Leo, a small coastal community on the southern coast of Western Port Bay, Victoria.

Point Leo, or Bobbanaring as it is known to the indigenous Boonwurrung tribe of the Kulin people, has drawn people to its shores for over 8000 years. Point Leo has always been a popular coastal retreat with a right-handed point break that has been the cornerstone of Point Leo’s iconic surf culture and community since the 1950s. At only one hour from Melbourne, Point Leo’s drawcards of sand, surf, coastal woodlands and rich biodiversity have seen its popularity grow over the decades with more and more Melburnians turning to Point Leo as an ideal coastal daytrip or laid-back weekend of camping.

Paddle boarding is another popular pastime enjoyed at Point Leo.  Image: Emma Walsh  

Paddle boarding is another popular pastime enjoyed at Point Leo. Image: Emma Walsh 

Recognising the increasing rates of visitors year after year, a significant challenge was put before the Point Leo community of how to best manage this increase in demand alongside the preservation and restoration of the local environment. Consequently, they decided that the best way forward was to welcome and educate visitors about the environment in the most effective and engaging way possible. Through a chain of serendipitous connections, I remember receiving an email from Monash University asking if Wild Melbourne would like to take part in the redevelopment of the Point Leo campgrounds, providing the necessary expertise to educate the public. It was a no-brainer - I let the Wild Melbourne team know and we all jumped right in and relished the chance to share our passion for nature.

Coffee in our hands, hearts on our sleeves, Chris, Emma and myself first sat with Tony Walkington (Manager/Ranger of the Point Leo Foreshore Park and Reserve) and discussed ideas about how best to make an educational experience rewarding, enriching and most of all, fun! We had BIG ideas and there was no shortage of them, but the challenge was going to be fitting it all into the budget. Point Leo is entirely self-funded with no financial assistance from government, but with the additional financial support from Monash University we felt confident we could deliver.

I won’t lie, the project had its challenges and we had a few hiccups (more like awkward burps, actually) along the way. There were delays in delivery, late nights getting drafts approved, several weekends sacrificed and sleepless nights hoping that it would all pan out as we had envisioned. But it was during these lows, the power of collaboration and a shared experience shone through and made it all possible.

Red-capped plover's nest.  Artwork: Amellia Formby

Red-capped plover's nest. Artwork: Amellia Formby

Everyone had the opportunity to give back to the community and the environment in one way or another. Local carpenters made it possible to up-cycle a rotting boat into both a table and a sand-filled, interactive representation of the shoreline. Milly Formby, zoologist and artist, brought to life an intimate moment in the lives of the red-capped plover in her pencil-and-gouache illustration. Paul Ikin, illustrator extraordinaire and keen surfer, turned our imaginations into reality by designing and illustrating Point Leo’s interpretive ‘surf’ boards. A local who collected fungi even helped keep the visitor centre’s terrarium constantly evolving with the seasons. But, if you ask me, it was the mural painting that was by far the most humbling and rewarding experience.

On a brilliant summer’s weekend in January, we painted with holidaying campers from all over Melbourne, transforming a bleak toilet wall into a bright and colourful seascape. I’ll never forget hearing the voices of paint-spattered children playfully arguing about who was better at identifying the species on the wall. I remember smiling and thinking, ‘It worked! The kids are learning and they don’t even know it!’ Frankly, in that moment, our purpose was achieved – everyone laughed, sang, made new friends and bonded over a shared experience, creating a memory unlikely to be forgotten. Nature was healing and all we had to do was get out there.

Point Leo is no longer ‘just a playground.’ Education through unique and fun, interactive experiences has strengthened it as a place of reconnection with the land and sea. I believe that this reconnection, even if in the most minor ways, makes for a portable experience whereby visitors’ memories and experiences encourage stewardship of the environment beyond Point Leo’s shores. The hope is that when your memories of Point Leo echo in your daily life, you’ll briefly stop, smile, breathe that little bit deeper and take note of the natural wonders around you that you’ve missed on every other day.

I regularly think of Point Leo in some way, shape or form. It’s the crisp, salt air filling my lungs. The crunch of sand beneath my heels. The rhythmic rumble of waves as I sleep. The smiles and greetings of those walking by. I’m forever grateful that by giving to the land, I received much more than I could have ever imagined.

If you would like more details about our interpretive and interactive displays at Point Leo, please visit http://wildmelbourne.org/services/community-works.Wild Melbourne would love to help showcase your local community's natural beauty and have its story told.

For more information about Point Leo Foreshore Park and Reserve, visit www.pointleo.com

Leonardo Guida

Following a childhood love for sharks, Leo recently completed his PhD at Monash University investigating the effects of fishing on shark and ray populations. He is Director of Community Operations for Wild Melbourne.

You can find him on Twitter at @ElasmoBro.

Banner image courtesy of Leonardo Guida.