Five reasons to escape to the Shoalhaven
When the invitation came through to snorkel with whales two hour’s drive south of Sydney I almost jumped out of my skin. I’ve swum with seals and dolphins, and manta rays and sharks before, not to mention a Great Barrier Reef smorgasbord of tropical fishes, but a behemoth of the sea… never have I ever. And truth be told, I thought I’d have to cross the country for the privilege of finning alongside a creature so mammoth – the whale sharks of Ningaloo, Western Australia. But it turns out, a 30-minute boat ride from Jervis Bay jetty will put you in the path of a majestic, migrating humpback.
It was a sparkler of a September day last year when I joined the crew of Dive Jervis Bay and nine other cetacean fans. After wetsuit, fin, snorkel and goggle fittings we slid down the hill to the jetty where the dive boat was moored. After a safety briefing, we were off, slicing through the aquamarine water of the expansive bay (15km long x 10km wide). It’s a spacious natural harbour sheltered by headlands of forest and heathland that jut out leaving a relatively narrow entrance. With a depth of 27m it is thought to be the deepest sheltered harbour in Australia.
Sometimes, we’re told by owner Pete, you can find the whales – mother and calf – lolling about in the safe haven of the bay, but on this day we headed out into open water where there was a small pod tail slapping and breaching with what we’d later describe as “whale abandon”.
As we motored north east towards Point Perpendicular, the water deepened, morphing from aqua to French blue. The impressive cliff, which rises 90m above sea level, holds aloft a whitewashed lighthouse, which was once a major coastal light in a network of navigational aids operated and maintained by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. It has now been replaced by a new lighthouse.
Beyond the cliffs, in the open ocean, we spotted our first humpback of the morning – its tail slapping the water with such force water sprayed tens of metres into the sky. We were a ways off, but still the sight was exhilarating. More breaching and tail slaps followed as Pete manoeuvered the boat into what we hoped was the direction the pod was travelling.
“We can only approach under power no closer than 150m to any whale,” Pete explained. “And drops must be at least 300m from the whales. They’ve got to make the trip the rest of the way.”
We had a few hit and misses, which is totally understandable considering not even the most experienced whale spotter can always predict where they are going to come up once they’ve dived after breaching. But then, it was on.
“Suit up,” Pete said excitedly.
Zipping up my 7mm wetsuit I headed to the stern of the boat and, one after the other, we jumped in. I barely felt the icy cold currents swirling around me as I watched and waited. Truth be told, I had to remind myself to breathe; the idea of a 30-tonne animal popping up beside me was both exhilarating and terrifying. What if it breached and I was in its way? One tail slap would end me.
And then, below me and to my right, a hulking great mammal appeared as if from nowhere. Silently, on long, elegant fins, it slid past, eyeballing me, and I was left breathless, once again forgetting entirely to exhale. As I swivelled to watch it go I noticed a shadow – deeper in the water column, smaller by far, and lagging a little behind. A calf!
September to the end of October is peak season for whale watching in the Shoalhaven, as the animals travel south from their warm, winter calving grounds back to Antarctic waters for the summer.
Back on board the boat everyone was giddy. To be graced with a mother and calf on our first encounter was more than any of us had dared hope for. They say good things come in small packages, and this is often the case. But for me, on this brilliant September day, great things came in giant packages. Giant and gentle and full of grace.
For more information or to plan your swim with the whales, go to Dive Jervis Bay. As a bonus, you can also book a swim with the seals, which is like playing with puppy dogs, but underwater!
Other amazing outdoor experiences in the Shoalhaven.
If you just can’t get enough of the crystal clear water of the Shoalhaven and want to spend more of your time beneath the surface meeting the local sea life and exploring the region’s underwater caves, then why not try your hand at freediving. You’ll be instructed in the breathing, relaxation, visualisation and stretching techniques needed so you can safely freedive with a buddy in open water.
If that sounds a little too anxiety inducing then Woebegone runs regular snorkelling trips to secret Shoalhaven spots to swim with seals, dolphins and turtles, and explore deep ocean drop-offs (yes you can do it Nemo!).
For more information or to plan you freediving foray, visit Woebegone Freedive.
Seriously, if this photo doesn’t inspire you to picnic in one of the coolest places, we don’t know what will. Hosted in remote locations, you and your picnicing pal will be served up a delectable feast of premium local produce, fine wine and craft beers all while perched above exquisite natural wonders. Plus, there’s polaroids and mood music included.
You can also spend the day rock climbing and abseiling, tackling some of the Shoalhaven’s epic mountain bike rides or walking tracks, or kayaking the pristine waterways with this seriously adventurous group of wilderness guides.
To find out more or plan your perfect picnic and more, visit Outdoor Raw,
Ride, wine and dine – need we say more? After meeting your friendly mount, you’ll ride on trails through native Australian bush in Bugong National Park, stopping at a lookout with spectacular views of the Shoalhaven River and Morton National Park for a ‘high’ tea including Prosecco scones and Chantilly cream before heading down to Lyrebird Ridge Organic Winery & Retreat. After wandering through the vineyards to dismount at the Cellar Door you’ll be treated to a mouth-watering selection of organic Chambourcin and fortified wines accompanied by local cheeses and delicacies. Sounds perfectly wonderful darling!
You can also bring your own horse for a guided tour through this piece of paradise, stopping off for a libation or two at the winery. Accommodation, stables and private paddocks are all available.
To discover more or plan you trip, visit Eqwine Escapes.
Jervis Bay Kayak & Paddlesports
A sublime mix of white sand beaches, gin-clear water and lush national park, Jervis Bay and surrounds screams watersports. If you’re new to the area, hiring a kayak or paddleboard and taking a guided tour is one of the most relaxing ways to explore it. The local guides will share their favourite secret spots and show you where’s best to find the abundance of underwater wildlife. You can also hire snorkel gear, enrol in a lesson or join the Morning Blast, a 45-minute session, focused on fitness and technique.
For more information or to plan your escape, visit Jervis Bay Kayak & Paddlesports.