Perched on the edge of Booderee National Park’s spectacular cliffs, the ruins of Cape St George Lighthouse offer an excellent vantage point for spotting whales and dolphins in the waters below. Rough Guides writer Sara Chare went in search of nature’s elusive giants.
Standing on the viewing platform at the Cape St George Lighthouse in Booderee National Park, I hugged my cheap and newly-bought binoculars to my chest and turned towards the rich-blue sea.
The park is situated on the New South Wales coast, less than three hours south of Sydney, and is jointly run by Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community and the Australian National Parks Authority. Covering an area known as the “bay of plenty”, it is home to the only Aboriginal-owned Botanic Gardens in Australia, over eight hundred hectares of marine park and dazzling white-sand beaches.
Between September and November, the park’s rugged cliffs are one of the best places on the southern coastline to see migrating whales; magnificent Humpback and Southern Right whales pass by with by their young, on their return journey from breeding grounds off the Queensland coast.
I had arrived towards the end of the recommended whale-watching window – between 11am and early afternoon – in the hope that there would at least be some dolphins kicking about. The day was warm and windy, the dark blue ocean flecked with the white of breaking waves. Sea birds wheeled overhead, and grasses rustled above the sound of the sea.
Next to me a man was intently surveying the ocean, a zoom-lens camera dangling from his neck. “There have been twenty whales in the last two to three hours, and a couple of common dolphins”, he informed me. I strained my eyes looking hopefully into the distance, but all I could make out was one solitary, white sailing boat amid the foamy seas.
Disheartened, I turned my attention to the lighthouse. It was built here in 1860 to aid navigation, as a result of the number of shipwrecks near Cape St George in the nineteenth century. This turned out to be a poor spot to site a beacon; the light was not visible to ships approaching from the north and only barely visible to those coming from the south. Yet despite the lighthouse’s failure to prevent wrecks, it wasn’t until nearly forty years later that a replacement was established in a better position.
Today, the skeletons of the lighthouse buildings themselves are fairly intact, the large, thick sandstone blocks bearing up well against the elements. Of the tower, very little remains except for the base; only a mound of weathered rubble faces the sea, interspersed with bright green grass fringed by the odd tree.
My tour of the site complete, I took one last, long look over the waves. I tried not to be too disappointed. After all, I should have arrived earlier.
As dusk softly drew in, I made to leave. Glancing out to the sea for the last time, I searched for something resembling a breaching whale, but only saw a family on the beach below and a group of cyclists stopping to catch their breath.
Suddenly, as I turned, I saw something out of the corner of my eye, a spot of grey, a curved back and then a fin. There they were: three bottlenose dolphins fairly near the shore, taking advantage of the food brought in by the tide. I stood, smiling as I watched them make their way gracefully through the water, surfacing less and less frequently until they finally struck out for the open sea.
Now, I was ready to leave.
Various local companies provide dolphin and whale-watching boat trips in the area. If you want to explore more of the country, buy the Rough Guide to Australia. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.