A guide to Jervis Bay

By Liz Ginis 11 June 2021
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You don’t have to venture far beyond the famous dazzling white sands of Hyams Beach (and many others) to escape the crowds and find yourself at one with nature in the NSW gem.

The undoubted crown jewel of the Shoalhaven region is Jervis Bay – a big bite of shimmering sea that heaves with dolphins, whales and seals. It is bookended in the north by the sheer limestone cliffs of Point Perpendicular and in the south by eucalypt-encrusted Bherwerre Peninsula. Dotted around its shoreline are the popular holiday hamlets of Huskisson, Vincentia and Hyams Beach, behind which lie quieter lush valleys and sparkling rivers. To the west rises the spectacular Illawarra escarpment, a dramatic 30-million-year-old range punctuated with lookouts and hiking tracks, as well as birding, swimming and picnic spots. 

Despite the region’s undoubted popularity and its proximity to Sydney and Canberra, you don’t have to venture far beyond the famous dazzling white sands of Hyams Beach (and many others) to escape the crowds and find yourself at one with nature.

“Jump in,” Terry Davies says as snowy cumulus clouds, huddled on the horizon, glow with the sun’s first rays. “Dawn is the absolute best time of day to set out – the bay’s like a puddle it’s so calm, and you often have it all to yourself, unless the dolphins and turtles come to play.” I slip into my sea kayak and push off from the white sand of Iluka Beach in Booderee National Park, and now we’re gliding across the glistening golden pond, skirting the scalloped southern shore of Jervis Bay. 

“I’ve kayaked all around the world,” Terry says, “but there’s nowhere quite like the bay. I’ve had whales slip beneath my kayak here, pop up beside me, look me straight in the eye.”

We are heading to Bowen Island, a sandstone bump lying 250m off the tip of Bherwerre Peninsula at the entrance to Jervis Bay. It’s an easy paddle, and as the sun climbs, the gilded bay morphs to a mesmerising turquoise. The Shoalhaven is credited with having some of the whitest sand in the world. Hyams holds the local title, but there are 16 equally beautiful white-sand beaches around the bay. As we dip our paddles into the drink, I marvel at the colours laid out before me. 

“Because the sand’s so white, the water takes on this almost unreal blue hue,” Terry says. “It’s like being in the Mediterranean, on a Greek island, but then you look at the shore and see those distinctive gum trees and you know you’re home.”

The eucalypts he’s referring to are wild and tangled, and run almost to the water’s edge, halted only by the flash-bright strip of beach. It’s a vista that’s almost too beautiful to bear and when a large roo and his mob of three move through the understorey, the reverie is complete. We pass Hole in the Wall, a craggy outcrop of sandstone with striations that vary in colour from white to ochre, before heading out into open water towards Bowen Island. It’s choppy going, the surge of water pushing in from the open ocean colliding with the wind-whipped offshore waves of the bay. My kayak bobs and weaves to their beat. 

Finally we stop in the lee of the island and scan for signs of wildlife. Despite being just 1km long by 500m wide, and home to roughly 10,000 penguins, the island hides its inhabitants well in a thick covering of scrubby natives, and, sadly, we see none. But as Terry points out, they’re likely all at sea, fishing, and will return to their nests on dusk where they’ll bunker down for the night before hitting the waves again at dawn.

A protected seabird habitat, Bowen Island has a no-public-access policy, so we paddle back towards the southern arc of the mainland and into the still water of Murrays Beach, another dazzling Booderee NP swimming spot, where according to Terry, you can often see little penguins dipping and diving throughout the day. 

As he speaks I catch a glimpse of something in the water a few metres ahead and, thinking it’s a penguin, marvel at its timing. I push my kayak closer until I’m all but alongside the creature before realising it’s too round and too large. 

“It’s a greenie,” Terry says, identifying the green sea turtle just before it dives and disappears from view. “That’s a pretty special sighting. You can’t usually sneak up on these guys. They’re gone before you get anywhere near them.” The waters here are protected within Jervis Bay Marine Park, which was established in 1998 and spans more than 100km of coastline from Kinghorn Point in the north to Sussex Inlet in the south. 

Jervis Bay is also home to a resident population of 100 or so bottlenose dolphins, some of which I meet later in the week while aboard Port Venture, a custom catamaran whose bow wave the charismatic cetaceans love to ride. 

The character of Jervis Bay’s water is largely attributed to the mingling of warm water from the East Australian Current and cooler water from Bass Strait. With periodic upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich waters from the nearby Continental Shelf, these combined currents flow clockwise around the bay, completely flushing it out every
24 days or so.

Throughout the park, landforms provide a variety of habitats, including deep-water cliffs, exposed and sheltered sandy beaches, rock platforms, rocky reefs, soft-sediment bottoms, kelp forests, small estuaries, seagrass meadows, mangroves and open ocean. Because of this diversity – more than 230 algae, hundreds of invertebrate, at least 210 reef fish species, including sharks and rays, many marine mammals, birds and reptiles, with several threatened species – the region teems with life, and from June to November humpback whales add to the spectacle.

Humpback whale breaching off Jervis Bay on the south coast of NSW.

I’ve joined Pete Ellis of Dive Jervis Bay to swim with humpbacks. We’d spotted a pod breaching and tail slapping, and tracked their progress before manoeuvring our boat into position. “With luck, they’ll swim right by,” Pete says as we gear up – wetsuit, weight belt, fins, snorkel, face mask. And now I’m lying on the surface of the water, waiting. I think I hear something – a series of clicks and hums – and then I see it. Out of the blue comes a shadow, the size of a bus and moving with effortless grace towards me. And as it does the shadow becomes more clearly defined. It’s a mother and, wait…nestled into her undercarriage is her calf! Within seconds they’re mere metres away. I can see the deep striations in her skin and the barnacles fused to her side. 

I’m mesmerised – I forget to breathe, I forget everything. Then she dives, pulling her little darling along in the slipstream. And now they’re gone, having passed by with barely an acknowledgement…save maybe for a wink of her beautiful eye and a wave of her elegant tail.

Go further

The Shoalhaven region abounds in parks and reserves where true wilderness reigns, within cooee of Sydney and Canberra.

Morton NP

A sanctuary for all kinds of wildlife, including swamp wallabies, gliders and long-nosed potoroos, Morton NP is also a birdwatcher’s paradise – think satin bowerbirds, green catbirds and lyrebirds. You may also see an eastern ground parrot, classified as vulnerable, in the heath. The park’s geological features are equally captivating, from soaring cliff faces to carved plateaus with deep gorges. As the traditional country of the Yuin people, several hundred Aboriginal sites have been recorded here. The park’s imposing mountains, particularly Pigeon House (Didthul or Balgan), are significant in Aboriginal mythology, as is Fitzroy Falls.

Conjola NP

With lake, ocean and forest habitats, Conjola NP is a mecca for lovers of the outdoors and nature – you can bushwalk, swim, canoe, fish and mountain-bike. Open forests and scrubland are home to plentiful wildlife. Look for eastern grey kangaroos, wombats, echidnas, possums and gliders, as well as cockatoos and parrots, black swans and herons. Three adjacent lakes – Conjola, Berringer and Swan – are significant habitat for many birds, such as pied oystercatchers.

Booderee NP

Be sure to experience Booderee NP – a tranquil, nurturing place rich in living culture and natural beauty. It’s jointly managed by the Wreck Bay Aboriginal community and Parks Australia, and is a significant place for Indigenous people, having sustained its inhabitants for hundreds of generations. Highlights include Aboriginal sites, the derelict Cape St George Lighthouse, Booderee Botanic Gardens and white-sand beaches. You can fish, swim, surf, sail, kayak, whale-watch and camp.

Visit the Shoalhaven and Booderee NP: