The secret's out on this spectacular Australian coastal playground

Laughing underwater is not the easiest thing to pull off, especially while decked out in a mask and snorkel. But it's impossible not to let out the odd guffaw as you watch a posse of teenage Australian sea lions doing somersaults, kissing one another, playing tag or cheekily swimming between your legs.

"Watch out for Louie, he's the class clown," says our guide, Alan Payne, as we slip into the clear, intensely blue waters of Baird Bay on the Eyre Peninsula. "Oh, but that little Lucy is something else too."

His protective, fatherly tone is understandable. When Alan and his wife, Trish, first arrived at Baird Bay back in 1992 the local sea lion colony had shrunk to just 35 and was under constant attack from predators, natural and humanoid. Today, the colony is around 120 strong, with plenty of playful teenagers such as Louie and Lucy to entertain anyone willing to brave the chilly Southern Ocean – Alan and Trish offer twice daily trips into the bay to swim with the sea lions and an equally energetic pod of bottlenose dolphins. Divers are supplied with masks, flippers and extra thick wetsuits, plus hot showers when you step ashore.

Over the years Baird Bay Ocean Eco Experience has developed a strict set of protocols to protect the sea lions from harm (no touching, no chasing, no sunscreen) but it's clear from our reception that Louie, Lucy and the others are natural-born show-offs.

"You can dive and play with them – that's the best way to keep them entertained," explains Alan. "Chasing them doesn't work. Let them chase you. Swim away and they'll follow you."

Apart from the guided swimming tours, the couple also operates a busy visitors centre which educates travellers about the Australian sea lion (Neophoca cinerea), one of the rarest species of fur seals in the world, with an estimated population of just 12,000 around our shores.

"Just by spending time here stops people from bothering the sea lions," says Alan. "People used to shoot them, chase them and all those type of things. I don't think there would be another sea lion colony in the whole of Australia which has had a population increase like this – our pup count has gone from five to over 20."

Alan and Trish are not professional eco-warriors, but instinctive environmentalists who have developed a special bond with their adopted family of loveable sea lions. This kinship between man and nature, so rare in the modern, industrial world, is almost commonplace on the Eyre Peninsula, a haunting landscape of wild beaches, treeless paddocks and ancient ranges.

Back in the 1830s the magnificent natural harbour of Boston Bay (three times the size of Sydney Harbour), now the site of Port Lincoln and its lucrative tuna fishing fleet, was being surveyed as the possible capital of South Australia. The idea was quickly abandoned due to the lack of fresh water and the Eyre Peninsula, an ocean fringed slice of outback, was left to its own devices.

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Of course, the very things which were once considered an impediment to the region's development – lack of water, geographical isolation and a thinly spread population – are now considered its greatest assets; the low rainfall guarantees a pristine ocean environment.

While Port Lincoln has become synonymous with the much-prized Southern Bluefin Tuna, the wider Eyre Peninsula is now exporting valuable shipments of kingfish, mussels, oysters, abalone, calamari and Spencer Gulf Prawns to buyers around the world.

At Smoky Bay, 40kms south of Ceduna, I join an early morning trip to inspect an organic oyster fishery run by Zac Halman and his young family. Established only five years ago, Angel Oysters is already exporting its Pacific and Angasi oysters to the eastern states and south-east Asia – and its sustainable aqua culture practices are fully accredited by the Friend of The Sea organisation. "Smoky Bay oysters are fed from the cold waters of the Southern Ocean," says Zac. "These upwellings come down full of nutrient rich phytoplankton which is food for our oysters which are plump, juice and taste great."

A little further down the coast at Streaky Bay you can sample another sustainable and much-sought after local delicacy: wild caught greenlip and blacklip abalone. Brothers Damon and Don Edmunds are second-generation abalone divers who now sell their sea snails to the top chefs in Australia, Asia and North America – but it's a labour intensive and dangerous occupation. "The last time I saw a great white close up I didn't sleep for three weeks," Damon tells me.

The bulk of Streaky Bay's wild caught abalone is immediately shipped off to Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan and China, but the public can pick up fresh supplies at the family's small retail outlet on Alfred Terrace – the chilled display cabinet also contains blue swimmer crabs, oysters, mussels, prawns and local fish such as king george whiting and snapper.

Those who prefer someone else to do the cooking should drop into the nearby Mocean café/restaurant (open for breakfast, lunch and dinner) which offers a good selection of fresh seafood dishes, including abalone salad, seafood pizza and grilled king george Whiting – plus its signature Bloody Mary oyster shot.

Over the past five or six years the Eyre Peninsula has established a strong Gen-Y following thanks to its famous shark cage-diving experience in Port Lincoln. This laid-back fishing port now supports a thriving aquatic adventure industry. Swimming with tuna, swimming with sea lions and swimming with great whites are all available – as are plenty of small group fishing charters. Between May and October, southern right whales can be seen along this stretch of coastline – Head of the Bight offers an excellent vantage point or there are whale-watching cruises at Fowlers Bay.

Unable to convince my 21-year-old son to climb into a cage and rub noses with a great white I booked us onto the Swim With Tuna experience out of Port Lincoln. Despite the Monty Python-esque name, this is far more exciting than taking a dip with a few docile fish – southern bluefin tuna are large, heavy creatures which travel at terrifying speeds. Fish are kept in an offshore pontoon, which also contains changing rooms, viewing platforms and a small café; there's even a post office if you want to send a postcard home. Non-swimmers can use a special underwater observatory, but dodging fast-moving tuna is a blast – and completely safe. "Amazing," was my son's verdict.

Away from the deep waters of Boston Bay the visitor will also find several major conservation parks which offer excellent camping, surf beaches, 4WD tracks and wildlife spotting. Both Lincoln National Park and Coffin Bay National Park are an easy drive from Port Lincoln. Further north you'll find the Gawler Ranges National Park, a vast area of ancient volcanic hills, salt lakes and giant sand dunes dating back 1500 million years. The park is home to several native species, including red kangaroos, wombats and yellow-footed rock wallabies.

The Eyre Peninsula is also becoming a magnet for the planet's foodies who can now follow either the Seafood Trail or the Butcher, Baker, Wine-Maker Trail along the spectacular coastline from Whyalla to Ceduna – 2000kms of sparkling beaches, saltpan, rolling farmland, tussocky headland and occasional town or hamlet; some of the original 19th-century settlements reduced to a single shop.

As the Butcher, Baker, Wine-Maker Trail suggests there is much more to the Eyre Peninsula than world-class seafood. For many years the region's broad-acre farms have grown some of the country's best wheat and barley, but more artisan produce such as pistachios, quinces, capers, dried figs, heritage pork and salt bush lamb are now available at farm gates, gourmet outlets and innovative cafes such as Conversations@Elbow Hill near Cowell, which serves delicious cosmopolitan fare, home-made cakes and the best coffee on the coast.

The quality of the local wine will also come as a pleasant surprise. The maritime, frost-free environment produces distinctively soft, fruit-driven wine, with chardonnay, riesling, sauvignon blanc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz being the dominant varietals. Both Delacolline Estate and Boston Bay Wines offer tastings, cellar door sales, vineyard lunches or snacks.

Despite its worldwide fame among lovers of seafood, the Eyre Peninsula is still finding its feet as a travel destination. The region's isolation, long driving distances and a shortage of high-end accommodation are obvious impediments, but even these are slowly being overcome. Regular short-haul flights now connect Adelaide to both Ceduna and Port Lincoln and the opening of several up-market properties, including waterfront Port Lincoln Hotel, is shaking up the accommodation scene. Specialist tour operators are now offering compact, focused itineraries for those who want to explore the region's unique combination of wilderness, frontier history and culinary abundance.

Despite its reverence for the tough, independent and stoic types who carved out a living in such a harsh, remote and beautiful place, you get the feeling that the Eyre Peninsula is now embracing the future with open arms – finally willing to share its secrets.

That is certainly the experience of Sydney-based food consultant Tawnya Bahr who has been running Straight To The Source tours around the peninsula for the past 24 months – bringing celebrated chefs such as Pete Evans, Sean Connolly and Martin Boetz, plus other food industry professionals, to meet the people who grow and harvest the region's excellent oysters, abalone, tuna, kingfish and other flavoursome produce.

"I think it's a magical part of Australia – and it's very much untapped," she says. "The people here are incredibly generous and welcoming. I can't wait to come back. It's just a beautiful part of the world."

See also: 11 of the best places to take a swim in Australia (away from the beach)
See also: Australia's best destinations for 2015 named

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

exploreeyrepeninsula.com.au 

GETTING THERE

Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia operate regular flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Adelaide with connecting flights to the Eyre Peninsula. Flying time with Rex or Qantas from Adelaide to Port Lincoln is 50 minutes. Return fares from $234. Rex also flies to Ceduna – flying time is 85 minutes. Return fares from $336. Driving time from Adelaide to Port Lincoln is around eight hours.

STAYING THERE

Port Lincoln Hotel, 1 Lincoln Highway, Port Lincoln, offers a prime foreshore location, spacious modern rooms, an outdoor swimming pool and excellent in-house dining. Ocean View Balcony Rooms from $180 a night. Phone (08) 86212000, see portlincolnhotel.com.au. Ceduna Foreshore Hotel Motel, 32 O'Loughlin Terrace, Ceduna, is a contemporary 57-room hotel on the seafront. The property has a good bistro, two bars, outdoor terrace and off-street parking. Executive rooms from $225 a night. Phone (08) 8625 2008, see cedunahotel.com.au. Baird Bay Eco Apartments, Baird Bay Road, Baird Bay, consists of two rammed-earth waterfront bungalows. One has three bedrooms, the other four. Each villa offers a fully equipped kitchen, airconditioning, linen and a communal barbecue. Guests also have the use of kayaks and a dinghy. Couples from $140 a night. Phone (08) 8626 5017, see bairdbayoceanecoapartments.com.

SEE + DO

Baird Bay Ocean Eco Experience operates tours to swim with sea lions and dolphins using a special adventure boat. Snorkelling gear is supplied. Tours operate twice daily and cost $150 (adult) and $75 (child). Closed in winter. See bairdbay.com. Swim With the Tuna is one of the most popular activities in Port Lincoln. The three-hour adventure costs $100 (adult) and $70 (child). For a personal insight into the Eyre Peninsula join a small group tour led by David 'Lunch' Doudle. Goin' Off Safaris offers a number of specialised food and adventure tours. See goinoffsafaris.com.au

DINING THERE

Mocean Café Restaurant, 34B Alfred Terrace, Streaky Bay. Phone (08) 8626 1775, see moceanstreakybay.com.au. Sarin's Restaurant, 1 Lincoln Highway, Port Lincoln. Phone (08) 86212000, see portlincolnhotel.com.au. Del Giorno's Café 80 Tasman Terrace, Port Lincoln. Phone (08) 8683 0577, see delgiornos.com.au. Waters Edge Restaurant, Watson Terrace, Whyalla. Phone (08) 8645 8877, see whyallaforeshore.com.au. Conversations@Elbow Hill, Lincoln Highway, Cowell. Phone (08) 8628 5116, see elbowhill.com.au.

Mark Chipperfield visited the Eyre Peninsula as a guest of Straight To the Source tours (see tawnyabahr.com) and the Regional Development Board Whyalla Eyre Peninsula.

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