David Sly rugs up against the Antarctic blast to watch whales in their winter sanctuary.
With only the deep blue Southern Ocean between you and Antarctica and the teeth of a chilling gale biting at your face, Eyre Peninsula's remote coastal cliffs seem an unlikely tourist attraction in the depths of winter. Yet this is when visitors come by the thousand, shrouded in Goretex jackets and woollen beanies with binoculars in hand. They have a quest: to see whales. And this exposed stretch of South Australia is the perfect place to find them.
In 1996, the Great Australian Bight Marine Park was established, drawing attention to the winter ritual of southern right whales that swim from the Antarctic region into warmer South Australian coastal waters to mate and for mothers to calve. Up to 100 whales congregate in the ocean adjacent to the Bunda Cliffs, about 280 kilometres west of Ceduna.
As a protected species in South Australia since 1931, a significant proportion of the estimated world population of 4000 southern right whales keeps returning to seek safe sanctuary from predators during breeding season.
The Head of Bight is a desolate landscape on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain, with no nearby townships, but it is an exceptional vantage point above the Southern Ocean's great cradle of whale breeding and attracts about 15,000 visitors between June and October each year.
A viewing area and interpretive centre has been created within the Great Australian Bight Marine Park, atop the Bunda Cliffs and within the Yalata Aboriginal Lands. For access, a daily permit must be obtained from the nearby White Well Ranger Station ($12 for adults, $10 concession, children under 14 free, $26 family tickets). From a purpose-built viewing platform and boardwalk about 20 metres above the water, it is possible to see whale calves with their mothers directly beneath the cliffs.
It's a spectacular scene, with views of the unbroken limestone cliffs stretching to the WA border about 200 kilometres to the west, but the area is unadorned by luxuries: the interpretive centre has no refreshments available, only toilet facilities and picnic areas in the car park.
For tourists without vehicles who want to reach this destination, Perry Will's Ceduna Tours does chauffeured four-wheel-drive full-day trips from Ceduna to the Head of Bight Whale Sanctuary for $300 a person or two-day trips that include a visit at sunset to the famed surf break Cactus Beach. Will's package, which usually makes two or three journeys each week, includes gourmet picnic meals along the route. "It's a journey I'll never tire of taking," he says. "Every time you go out there to see the whales, it's always breathtaking."
Several aviation companies at the Nullarbor Roadhouse (12 kilometres north of the Head of Bight viewing platform) take 30-minute flights over the bight, priced from $90 a person.
Chinta Tours runs single-day air safaris from Adelaide, combining a Regional Express flight to Ceduna, then Chinta's light aircraft to the Head of Bight, flying over the whales before landing to observe them from the viewing platform. Chinta Tours's Felicity Brown says the flight package gives a more intimate whale-watching experience from which "passengers come away quite overwhelmed". It costs $1400 a person for the two-day package from Adelaide; $120 a person on a flight only from Ceduna.
The increasing number of visitors has also triggered wider exploration of South Australia's far west. In addition to the wild surf breaks near Ceduna, some of Australia's greatest destinations for surf fishing are found along 200 kilometres of coastline running from Ceduna through Streaky Bay to coves south of Elliston, especially for salmon at Sheringa, Mt Camel Beach, Locks Well and Talia Caves, where the pounding ocean has carved a sandstone cavern and tunnel.
As an alternative, trekkers gravitate to the interior beauty of the Gawler Ranges, reached via Wudinna. There is also Ceduna's three-day Oysterfest, held on the first weekend in October since 2002. The street and beach fair celebrates the town's oyster crop being enjoyed in peak quality before the start of the spawning season.
Regional Express flies the 90-minute route from Adelaide to Ceduna for about $199, one way including tax. See rex.com.au.
Ceduna Tours runs four-wheel-drive tours to Head of Bight with Perry Will, 0428 643 519 or (08) 8625 2654. Air travel packages from Adelaide through Chinta Tours, 0428 244 682, chinta.com.au.
Ceduna has hotel-motels, caravan parks and holiday units such as Coastal Dreaming — (08) 8625 2780, australianhomesteads.com. Nullarbor Roadhouse has motel units, a caravan park, fuel and repairs.
When to go
Whale-watching season runs from June until October.