WET AND MILD

Peter Need­ham swims with sea li­ons at South Aus­tralia’s Baird Bay and be­comes a de­voted fan

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

THEIR eyes are dark and soul­ful and their faces sil­very brown. Their muz­zles are adorned with long, el­e­gant whiskers. Th­ese are Aus­tralian sea li­ons, rare and beau­ti­ful, and we are off to swim with them. Our lit­tle group has set out from Baird Bay on the west­ern coast of South Aus­tralia’s Eyre Penin­sula aboard In­ves­ti­ga­tor, a 12m launch skip­pered by Alan Payne.

Dur­ing our short voy­age to the sea lion colony on Jones Is­land, dive as­sis­tant Troy McCurdy gives a few words of ad­vice: ‘‘ When you swim, try not to kick. The pups like to smell your feet. Hold their fo­cus by star­ing at them. They are a lot like dogs.’’

Ap­proach­ing the is­land, Payne stops the launch and we trans­fer, in our wet­suits, to a small flat-bot­tomed alu­minium boat. The sea li­ons, per­haps 25 of them, are straight ahead, bask­ing on the fore­shore of the long, low is­land. Our des­ti­na­tion, about 200m off­shore, is a clear, shal­low la­goon, about 2m deep, where the sea li­ons en­joy swim­ming with Payne and his guests.

Payne has be­friended th­ese hand­some an­i­mals over the years, with­out of­fer­ing them food or any other re­ward or in­duce­ment.

You don’t need to feed an an­i­mal to be friends with it,’’ he says.

Mem­bers of our party don snorkels and masks and slip into the crys­talline wa­ter as a cou­ple of in­quis­i­tive sea lion pups swim out to meet us, pop­ping up a few mo­ments later next to the boat.

Sea li­ons prove easy to meet. As I dip be­neath the wa­ter, a crea­ture with an in­tel­li­gent, puppy-like face swims up, looks me in the eye and does a sort of un­der­wa­ter som­er­sault. Mo­ments later, it swims up again to give me a play­ful, dog­gish nudge. Its whiskers are bristly and its fur feels like a wet­suit.

This sea lion pup, which Payne calls Fang, is eight months old, still feed­ing on milk and highly play­ful. Fang is fol­lowed by an­other cou­ple of pups, then more, un­til about 10 of var­i­ous sizes are div­ing and ca­vort­ing ac­ro­bat­i­cally, with hu­man snorkellers bob­bing be­tween them. Back aboard the launch, de­light is uni­ver­sal. I could say that was my best-ever swim, but I say that once a week,’’ McCurdy laughs.

The In­ves­ti­ga­tor zooms off in search of dol­phins, mak­ing a wide arc at high speed. The dol­phins are lo­cated in much deeper wa­ter, a tad too chal­leng­ing for my lim­ited swim­ming abil­ity. I watch from the ves­sel’s bridge. It’s all over pretty quickly. The group of snorkellers forms a semi­cir­cle, a cou­ple of dol­phins pop up and dive again.

That evening we stay at the Baird Bay Ocean Eco Apart­ments. Built of sandy­coloured rammed earth, they are com­fort­able, light, airy and well-fur­nished, and con­structed on sound eco­log­i­cal prin­ci­ples. The es­tab­lish­ment is run by Payne and his wife, Trish, and sea li­ons dom­i­nate the con­ver­sa­tion.

Ap­par­ently this fo­cus is not un­usual. Payne says peo­ple ar­rive think­ing dol­phins will pro­vide the most mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ence, only to have sea li­ons win them over. Some swim­mers com­pare dol­phins with aquatic cats and sea li­ons with dogs.

Iso­lated Baird Bay is an ideal place to get away from it all. This tiny ham­let of a few houses (or shacks, in South Aus­tralian par­lance) lets trav­ellers share a long stretch of crunchy, honey-coloured sand with abun­dant pel­i­cans, nu­mer­ous birds of other species, pass­ing wal­la­bies and the oc­ca­sional dingo. Payne ar­rived on a mo­tor­bike 16 years ago, liked the place, bought a cheap plot of land and stayed. He and Trish bring Baird Bay’s res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion to eight.

Seafood, aqua­cul­ture, marine mam­mals and fish are the lifeblood of the Eyre Penin­sula, the tri­an­gu­lar wedge jut­ting to­wards the South­ern Ocean on the east­ern side of the Great Aus­tralian Bight. Scenery in­cludes crum­bling dry­s­tone walls built by early set­tlers, steel wind­mills, mas­sive cliffs tow­er­ing over re­lent­lessly pound­ing waves and salt lakes of the palest aqua­ma­rine.

As well as sea li­ons and dol­phins, you can swim with cut­tle­fish and tuna and even great white sharks (a sturdy cage pro­tects you for this par­tic­u­lar ad­ven­ture). The big­gest fish­ing fleet in the south­ern hemi­sphere sails from Port Lin­coln on the west­ern side of the penin­sula. South­ern bluefin tuna, abalone, mus­sels, oys­ters, prawns, cray­fish, scal­lops and Murray cod are all farmed or caught around here. So boun­ti­ful is the catch, lo­cal restau­rants of­ten en­sure they have beef or rack of lamb on the menu in case reg­u­lar pa­trons tire of eat­ing some of the world’s finest seafood. Few vis­i­tors face that prob­lem.

On the penin­sula’s west­ern shore, drive or sail from Anx­ious Bay to Cof­fin Bay, pass­ing Mt Hope on the way. Cof­fin Bay, named af­ter a 19th-cen­tury naval of­fi­cer, is an oys­ter lover’s nir­vana. Din­ers at the Oys­terbeds cafe and restau­rant savour choice lo­cal spec­i­mens while watch­ing pel­i­cans flap lazily over­head. Try oys­ters here, au naturel, creamy and de­li­cious, or with lime, co­rian­der and ginger, per­haps soy, mirin and wasabi or horse­rad­ish but­ter and parme­san.

Lo­cal Liv­ing Tree olive oil and fresh-baked bread make a fine ac­com­pa­ni­ment as does Coop­ers Stout (South Aus­tralia’s finest) or crisp Lin­coln Blanc 2007.

Port Lin­coln, near the penin­sula’s tip, a short hop by air from Ade­laide, is Aus­tralia’s aqua­cul­ture and seafood cap­i­tal. It’s also an im­por­tant wheat ex­port­ing port, with huge si­los fac­ing the fore­shore. Its tourist sea­son peaks dur­ing the Aus­tralia Day week­end, when the Tu­narama Fes­ti­val dou­bles the pop­u­la­tion (usu­ally about 14,500). Tu­narama is more than 40 years old. Its most cel­e­brated event is the tuna toss, in which par­tic­i­pants com­pete to hurl large dead fish. The record, set in 1998 by ath­lete Sean Car­lin (who won gold for Aus­tralia in the ham­mer throw at the 1996 At­lanta Olympics), stands at 37.23m.

Port Lin­coln en­joys a Mediter­ranean cli­mate and a clutch of very wealthy res­i­dents; by some es­ti­mates, the high­est pro­por­tion of mil­lion­aires per capita in Aus­tralia live here. The main source of the wealth is fish­ing, par­tic­u­larly for south­ern bluefin tuna. Prices in Ja­pan for this species have reached $133,000 for a sin­gle fish, though the av­er­age is be­tween $5000 and $10,000.

Th­ese days, Port Lin­coln has a gen­teel look. A fine new four-star, 111-room re­sort ho­tel, the Port Lin­coln, opened at the end of last year. The ho­tel’s Sarins Restau­rant is named af­ter owner Sam Sarin, one of the town’s best­known res­i­dents, who built his for­tune on, you guessed it, tuna. If din­ing at Sarins, try the teasmoked Cof­fin Bay oys­ters and black mus­sels.

Smart cafes line Port Lin­coln’s main street and a bronze statue of lo­cal race­horse Makybe Diva graces the fore­shore.

Back in the 1980s, tuna boat crews brawled in the lo­cal pub, fired shots at each other on the high seas and spent their earn­ings in a day or two as wildly as pos­si­ble.

Gra­ham Daniels of Ma­rina Boat Cruises

Es­tate

Sashimi

Sauvi­gnon gives vivid ac­counts as vis­i­tors put­ter around Lin­coln Cove Ma­rina and sur­round­ing wa­ter­ways in his electrically pow­ered launch Te­sia. Cruise past the man­sions of fish­ing mil­lion­aires, be­decked with stat­u­ary, their huge yachts moored out­side.

See the com­mer­cial har­bour, where Daniels will teach you how to tell a prawn trawler from a tuna boat. He worked on the boats dur­ing the tuna ‘‘ gold rush’’, when crews threw pilchards into the sea to at­tract tuna, which were then ‘‘ poled’’ by crew­men hang­ing off the back (with­out a har­ness).

The tech­nique in­volved skew­er­ing tuna with a barb-less hook and flip­ping them through the air on to the deck. If they poled two tuna, the catch was theirs and other boats bet­ter steer clear: such was the un­writ­ten law. Pol­ing, al­ways dan­ger­ous, has long since dis­ap­peared. To­day, more than 90 tuna boats in the Great Aus­tralian Bight use safer meth­ods to catch their quota of about 5200 tonnes.

In the mean­time, tuna farm­ing has come into its own. You can even swim with the fish. Matt Waller, a fourth-gen­er­a­tion Port Lin­coln fish­er­man and tuna ex­pert who runs Ad­ven­ture Bay Char­ters, can ar­range that. Waller’s tuna, which seem al­most like his pets, dwell con­tent­edly in a spe­cial off­shore pon­toon. Their en­clo­sure repli­cates a com­mer­cial tuna farm; it’s en­closed with un­der­sea nets and pro­tected by elec­tric fences and cam­eras to de­ter tuna rustlers and des­per­ate an­glers.

More than 70 tuna, worth about $700 each at this stage of their de­vel­op­ment, swim in this pen. Hold a pilchard above the wa­ter and a tuna will jump up and catch it, its jaws snap­ping like a rat trap as it seizes the prize. You can climb in and snorkel with th­ese mus­cu­lar, fast-mov­ing fish, which zip around like tor­pe­does at 70km/h, swerv­ing adroitly to avoid you.

Tuna are in­ter­est­ing but, as Waller ad­mits, they are not big on per­son­al­ity. In per­son­al­ity terms, sea li­ons beat them hollow. But Waller has that cov­ered, as his Ad­ven­ture Bay Char­ters now of­fers sea lion swims as well. Peter Need­ham was a guest of the South Aus­tralia Tourism Com­mis­sion.

Check­list

Re­gional Ex­press (Rex) air­lines flies sev­eral times daily from Ade­laide to Port Lin­coln. More: www.rex.com.au. www.southaus­tralia.com www.baird­bay.com www.portlin­colnho­tel.com.au www.ad­ven­ture­bay­char­ters.com.au

Pic­ture: Neale Win­ter

Slip­pery when wet: Swim­ming with sea li­ons in the pris­tine wa­ters off South Aus­tralia’s Eyre Penin­sula is an un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ence for those who like to get up close and per­sonal with the lo­cal wildlife

Pic­ture: Peter Need­ham

Puppy love: Fang, one of Baird Bay’s play­ful young sea li­ons

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