THE brand-new 47-seat ‘sea sprinter’ pushes back from Cowes Jetty and is soon speeding westward towards Australia’s largest seal colony. I’m on board Phillip Island Nature Parks’ Ecoboat Tour. The monitor at the front of the boat shows we’re travelling at 27 knots but the sea is calm and the ride is smooth.
There is something fascinating about looking inward at the coast. It gives a sense of how people live. The upturned ‘tinnies’ tucked beneath the tea-tree at the back of a beach, hundreds of recent plantings by local volunteers, homes on cliff-tops taking in the view.
The boat slows to a stop at McHaffie Reef and Grossard Point where our ranger guide
Cara explains how these places were named for their links to the early European settlement of Phillip Island. Unexpectedly, a seal pops its head out of the water
just a few metres from us.
We continue along the coast to Cat Bay where Phillip Island’s penguin colony begins. The remains of an old pier still stand where tourists came ashore to stay on the Summerland Peninsula in the 1920s.
The boat speeds past Point Sambell and Cowrie Beach and soon the Visitor Centre, perched high on the cliff at Point Grant, comes into view. As we cruise slowly around the large Round Island of the Nobbies, Cara describes the geology and history of the area. We stop near a large cave that excites the imagination of one of the passengers who asks, “Did the sealers live in there?’”
We make our way across the narrow stretch of water to Seal Rocks, home to some 30,000 Australian fur seals. At first I see several groups of a few dozen seals scattered over the rocks. As the boat drifts closer, my eyes adjust. I realise that what I thought were rocks are seals. There are seals everywhere.
My ears tune in to the commotion. The place is alive with the sound of thousands of seals calling to each other.
It is the end of the breeding season. This year’s pups and last year’s juveniles frolic in the water near the edge of the rocks. They move in constant fluid motion, swimming side by side, wheeling around each other, then clamour onto a rocky outcrop. Then they’re off again, disappearing beneath the water and reappearing somewhere else.
The adult seals are sprawled all over the two basalt islets that make up Seal Rocks. While some pay no attention to the water acrobatics, others are raised up on their front flippers with their necks upstretched. These are the cows listening and answering the calls of their pups.
Cara explains that each pup has a distinctive call. They continually cry out to their mothers as they play. They sound like baby lambs. Their mothers bellow like cows.
Most of the males are out at sea fattening up for the next breeding season. I spot one massive male stretched out lazily near a gutter where the water rushes in between the rocks. A female’s face is resting on his back. Many more surround him. Some lift a flipper in the air to cool themselves while basking in the afternoon sun.
The boat moves slowly around the landward side of the two islets while we watch, take photos and learn about the seals and their behaviour, knowledge that has been gathered from decades of research.
Cara doesn’t overwhelm us with information, but rather encourages us to ask questions. We take advantage of her offer. “What is that stone hut used for?” “What are those birds preening on the rocks over there?” “Do the bull seals have a harem?” “Do the bulls fight to reclaim their territory each year?”
Drew, our one-man crew, lowers a camera to capture the underwater action but I’m completely content with my view from the side of the boat.
It is a unique experience to be so close to the seals and better still that they don’t seem bothered by our presence.
I booked the one-and-half hour ‘Adventure Tour’ rather than the one hour ‘Express Tour’ so after about 25 minutes with the seals we leave them to themselves and move across the water to the rugged south-west coast of Phillip Island.
Smooth sloping cliff-tops draped with bright-green vegetation descend to sheer rock faces that end abruptly on gnarled rocky platforms. Bold headlands sweep around to Pyramid Rock while Cape Woolamai makes its mark against the sky at the far end of the island.
Narrow pathways are etched into the side of the steep bluffs. It is astounding to envisage thousands of little penguins making their way up and down those steep inclines every day.
The boat nudges in close to the Blowhole. There’s no spray blowing out today but when there’s a big swell running, I can imagine how exciting it must be from this vantage point.
The afternoon sun glistens on the water as we return along the coast to Cowes. The sea has been quiet today so our skipper, John gives us a thrill by doing a ‘donut’ as we approach the jetty. It has been a great trip and even more so for knowing that the proceeds go to conservation on Phillip Island.
Linda Cuttriss travelled on the ecoboat tour courtesy of Phillip Island Nature Parks.