Adventure on the high seas

By Justin Walker 4 June 2020
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The world’s oceans have been the backdrop for some of history’s greatest adventures. And we reckon there’s still plenty of maritime excitement to be had, too. Here’s a selection of our favourite forms of oceanic excitement in Australia’s states and territories.

NSW: Go wild about whales

From May until November, the NSW coastline is the place to be to spot whales. Nothing beats watching these majestic mammals as they make their way up (and down) the NSW coast on their migratory path. For Sydney-siders, it’s just a matter of jumping on a whale watching cruise out of the city to see whales cruising past North and South heads – and if you’re really lucky, you may even spot some in the harbour itself, either from the shore or even from the famous Manly Ferry.

Venture further south to Eden’s Twofold Bay and you will get the chance to see whales feeding here, either from shore or on a boat-based tour – it is one of the only parts of the Australian coast where whales do so during migration. And, again if you’re in luck, you might also spot pods of orca.

Byron Bay, in the state’s north, is another whale-watching hot-spot, with some fantastic land-based viewpoints (including from Cape Byron State Conservation Area), as well as plenty of boat-based tours.

The NSW coastline is huge but making easy work of all this is the NSW National Parks & Wildlife (NPWS) Wild About Whales app, which constantly records and updates whale sighting locations, and allows you to do the same.

Related: Top 5 whale watching spots in Sydney

Victoria: Surf like a pro

Bells Beach, on Victoria’s Surf Coast is lauded as one of the world’s best surf breaks, and with good reason; its geographical location sees clean waves swirl in from around the Otways and, combined with a sloping reef below, can produce waves up to seven metres in height. Surprisingly, considering its ‘big’ reputation, Bells Beach is relatively small, at only 300m in length, boxed in by headlands at its eastern and western ends.

This doesn’t mean beginners/intermediate riders cannot have a crack; update your skills with a few surf lessons at neighbouring Torquay (also considered a surfing mecca) and then duck around the headland to Bells. If you’re more of a surfing fan, then make the most of those lofty headland viewing locations to check out the local surfers. To see the pros turn a wave, lock in Easter next year, when the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach event takes place. And then cross your fingers for a big swell – when Bells is pumping, it’s a truly spectacular sight.

Related: The Australian Geographic Adventure guide to surfing

TAS: The perfect paddle mix

As you’d expect from an island, Tassie is jampacked with a wide range of sea kayaking opportunities; from the cruisy and family-friendly, to the truly wild and remote – and even the chance to paddle around a smaller island – the Apple Isle is one of Australia’s premier ocean paddling destinations. You could even arrive in Tassie via sea kayak! Of course, this suggestion is open only to very experienced ocean paddlers who are up for the multi-day, island-hopping epic that is the Bass Strait crossing from Apollo Bay, in Victoria’s Wilsons Promontory, to Tasmania’s northeast.

For most visitors to the Apple Isle, Hobart is the first port of call (excuse the pun) and thankfully for paddlers it is also a great way to explore the city and nearby historical sites from a totally different perspective. For calm coastal waters, head to the Freycinet Peninsula and its long, near-empty beaches, while those looking for a bit more excitement it’s well worth joining a guided paddle around Bruny Island. If you do want to get a bit more wild (without crossing Bass Strait) Port Davey in the remote southwest of the state is simply brilliant. The good thing is, with a week – and the shorter travel distances required in Tassie – you could combine a number of the aforementioned paddles!

SA: Dive with danger

South Australia’s Port Lincoln is famous for a number of sizeable ‘locals’, including Olympic gold medal winning weightlifter, tuna fisherman Dean Lucan, and – speaking of fish – as being one of the best locations to view the formidable great white shark in its natural habitat; from inside (thankfully) a cage. The cool water, a large population of sea lions and plenty of fish all make for ideal conditions for these impressive predators.

Ironically, cage diving came about through a near-fatal shark attack on one of Australia’s (and the world’s) highly regarded shark experts – Rodney Fox, in 1963. It was this brush with death that led Fox to want to know more about these ‘perfect killing machines’ and led to him designing a protective cage for divers so he could get closer to the sharks and try and understand their behaviour. Fox’s cage diving led to documentaries (by Ron and Val Taylor) and a brush with Hollywood (footage for JAWS was filmed here).

Today, keen (or brave?) divers can immerse themselves safely in the great white’s world while also (in the case of Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions, one of a number of cage diving companies) contributing to continued shark research. Surface cage diving is the most popular (available to ages 8 and above), but Fox’s company also runs the world’s only ocean floor shark cage tour (20 metres down; you must have PADI OW or equivalent). Whichever way you do it, getting up very close and personal with this oceanic apex predator will be close to your ultimate diving experience.

NT: The perfect catch and croc combo

Ask any fishing fanatic – whether river or ocean focused – and they will nearly all agree that the chance to test their skills against Australia’s famous barramundi is on their bucket-list. For this, you need to head to the Top End, with the Northern Territory’s many tidal rivers and estuaries the stomping ground of this wild game-fish. For most, it’s about the simple challenge of catching a ‘barra’ (it is a very popular catch-and-release species) but as well as the sporting side of it, wild barramundi is also a beautiful fish to eat – just remember to only keep what you will use to feed you and your family, and release the rest.

Of course, you won’t be alone in your pursuit of this crafty Top End denizen; this part of Australia is the domain of one of the world’s great predators – the saltwater (estuarine) crocodile. And yes, if you do get lucky and hook a barra, be sure to keep an eye out as ‘salties’ are renowned for taking fish off hooks. Fish theft aside, jumping aboard a barramundi fishing tour allows you to not only practice your fishing skills (and hopefully land dinner) but to also spot this amazing reptile lazing on the riverbank or lurking in a mangrove swap, along with the rest of the Top End’s coastal wildlife. Hot tip: for the best chance to both catch a barra and see saltwater crocs at the same time, head to either the Daly or Mary rivers.

WA: In the world of giants

Ningaloo Reef, off the West Australian coast, is one of the best locations in the world to see – and swim near – the gentle giants of the sea, the whale shark. The largest of all fishes, the whale shark is also one of the most reclusive, and even here in the Indian Ocean waters off the town of Exmouth, there is only a short timeframe in which to view the plankton-eating behemoths, which can reach lengths of up to 10 metres.

Whale sharks only frequent Ningaloo Reef from around March to early July (there are numerous ‘dive with the whale sharks’ tour operators), aligned with the time coral spawning takes place on the reef, which also results in an increase in plankton to the area. Divorce the scary connotations behind the word ‘shark, too; the whale shark is strictly a plankton fan, hoovering up its favourite food by filtering it through its (toothless) jaws. Their gentle nature means they take little notice of humans swimming/diving nearby (you are required to stay a minimum of 3m from the fish) offering a fantastic marine experience.

QLD: Paddling the tropics

The northern Queensland coast offers some of the best sea kayaking in Australia. Whether you wish to paddle along the coastline for a half- or full day, or want to circumnavigate (and camp on) one of the many islands in this part of the Sunshine State, there are numerous locations in which to do so, either by hiring (or bringing your own) kayaks, or joining a guided paddling tour. This would be our advice; exploring this magical part of Australia with a knowledgeable guide (and not having to worry about all the logistical planning!) is well worth the expense.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park’s Family Island and Barnard Island groups offer brilliant paddling, as either day-trip destinations (the Family Island Group of 11 islands is close to Mission Beach, just south of Cairns) or combined as a multi-day adventure. For the more experience oceanic tourer, there’s the seven-day circumnavigation of Hinchinbrook Island – it’s a belter. Move slightly south to the Whitsunday Islands and you’ll find another multiday gem, in the form of the Whitsunday Ngaro Sea trail, a kayaking adventure that encompasses Whitsunday, Hook and South Molle Islands. It’s another classic.