The Nullarbor whale créche

John Borthwick
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
South Australia Tourism Commission
A Southern Right whale is doing the marine equivalent of wheel-stands. It bursts vertically from the sea, until most of its huge body is airborne, then crashes back into the waves of the Great Australian Bight. In case any lesser creatures of the deep or the dry have missed the stunt, the gleeful giant repeats a series of these high-rise bombs.

The Bunda Cliffs in South Australia form part of the longest line of cliffs on the planet. At the foot of Callosities Point, upon which I stand with a handful of other watchers, a pair of whales — a mother and calf — is gently lolling. So massive is their combined bulk that waves break over them as they would over a reef.

I scan the coastline from east to west, from the beautiful dunes at the Head of the Bight and then along the cliffs' 30m high limestone parapet. I can spot at least seven other mother-and-child pairs. In fact, it looks a like learner drivers (or divers) class at the Big Nursery: "Okay, Junior, here's how to dive. And next we do a tail flap, then a fluke slap."

Each year, between May and October, this stretch of the Nullarbor Plain coastline becomes a free-range crèche for Southern Right whales. Some 60 of them annually migrate out of the Southern Ocean to these traditional breeding grounds and nursery; by the time they depart in spring, around 20 new calves will be ready for summer (of sorts) in 'The Freezer', also known as Antarctica.

With binoculars and a picnic lunch, one can spend endless hours here, musing on the leviathans that approach almost to the base of the cliffs. The whales are so close that we can clearly see the barnacle-like 'callosities' — white lumpy patterns of skin on the head — that identify individuals.

Southern Right whales are massive mammals that grow up to 18m in length and weigh from 50 to 90 tonnes. Their tails, which fan into a graceful 'champagne glass' shape, can measure five metres across. Despite their numbers here, this species is still endangered; over 25,000 were killed in Australia and New Zealand between 1827 and 1930. Their name embodies their fate: whalers in southern waters once found the species easy prey because they would swim close inshore and, when harpooned, they floated rather than sank. They thus became the 'right' whales to hunt.

The most accessible place for viewing Southern Right whales is at the Head of the Bight, not far from Nullarbor Roadhouse. It's 1100km. west of Adelaide, or 300km from Ceduna. The Bunda Cliffs are on Yalata Aboriginal land, and a permit ($7 per head) is easily obtained from the onsite ranger or at Yalata Roadhouse or Nullarbor Motel. There were no such niceties when explorer John Eyre struggled through here in 1841 en route to Albany, thus becoming the first European to enter the west of the continent by an overland route.

Your long journey here is well worthwhile. Unlike with the annual migration of humpback whales up Australia's east coast, whale watching on the Nullarbor doesn't involve chase boats or vigils on hills that may be rewarded by a fleeting glimpse of a distant tail. 'No shows' just don't happen here; in fact, so assured are some tour operators of whale sightings during the June-October period that there's a money back guarantee if you don't see your cetaceans.

While you're there:

There's more to the Nullarbor than whales and no trees. Ten kilometres inland from the highway, near Nullarbor Roadhouse, are several collapsed sinkhole caverns in the limestone plain, including Murrawiginnie Cave featuring stencilled hand patterns done by Aboriginals some 7000 years ago.

En route to the whales, visit Fowlers Bay (200km west of Ceduna), a somnolent backwater on the Bight. Tucked between dunes and a lagoon, the village has a wharf, a tackle shop, accommodation, and not much more. This is fisherman's Nirvana, even if you never get a bite.

The Nullarbor's front parlour is the little-publicised Eyre Peninsula. Near Wudinna its Gawler Ranges, with their grand Jurassic Parklands, 'organ pipe' rocks, Aboriginal sites and red earth are probably more spectacular than their better-known cousins, the Flinders Ranges. And there's a giant, lazy coastline running from Port Lincoln to Coffin Bay, to Venus Bay and Ceduna. Geoff Scholz at Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safaris (ph: +61 1800 243 343) knows its secrets like almost no one else.

Getting there: Kendall Airlines flies to Ceduna from Adelaide; round-trip excursion fare from $281; book through Ansett, ph: +61 13 1300. From Ceduna you can rent a car; a two-wheel drive vehicle will suffice for the 600km return journey, all on sealed roads.

Whale tours: Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safaris offer a two-day whale watch excursion, ex-Ceduna, at $440 per head, including meals, permits and accommodation. Ph: +61 1800 243 343.

Staying: The nearest motel accommodation to the Head of the Bight is Nullarbor Roadhouse, which also has a caravan park, or the Yalata Aboriginal Community Roadhouse (with powered sites and motel). To camp in the Nullarbor National Park, contact the NPWS at Ceduna for a permit.

Further information:
Eyre Peninsula Tourist Association, Port Lincoln
Ph: +61 08 8682 4688.

As a country that is girt by sea, Australia offers numerous opportunities to spy the majestic mammals that inhabit the deep blue sea.

Published under licence from Travel Intelligence