Climbing down the spiral staircase to the underwater lair at Busselton Jetty evokes memories of Verne's science fiction classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Located six flights below the end of the historic 1.8 kilometre-long wooden jetty is a magical aquatic world that would have delighted the French novelist.
Energetic shoals of colourful fish dart past the massive glass walls, while reeds and soft corals growing on the pier's wooden pillars sway in the gentle currents.
"It's essentially like the visitor is in the tank the fish are looking in at them – rather than the other way around," says the jetty's marketing manager Hali Townsend.
"A lot of people are too scared to actually get into the ocean so it's a really cool that they get to see under the waves without actually getting into the water."
Although visitors will not find the Captain Nemo and the rest of his despicable crew waiting for them in the Underwater Observatory they can expect to see around 300 marine species, including stingrays, sharks, dolphins and sea lions; from June to December migrating whales also visit the waters of Geographe Bay.
During the warmer months Busselton Jetty, the longest wooden structure of its type in the world, plays host to an even more exotic marine species: two playful mermaids.
"Everyone loves the mermaids," says Hali. "This season one of our regular mermaids couldn't make some of the sessions so Inky, our first merman, stepped in."
To qualify for the job all mermaids (and mermen) must be fully accredited free divers and should possess the correct mermaid attire – complete with sequined tail.
And for something completely different why not book an underwater degustation dinner? Tuck into scallops, whiting, wagyu, duck and marron while eight metres below the waves. A marine scientist is on hand to introduce the marine creatures floating by your table.
Watching young families and grey nomads climbing onto the miniature red train on a sunny Autumn morning, it's easy to see why Busselton Jetty is such a major drawcard, attracting over 550,000 visitors each year.
Apart from its proximity to Margaret River, the jetty offers a wide range of innocent pleasures to suit just about every age group– from early morning yoga classes to high-speed jet boat rides and, of course, the mermaids.
In addition, Geographe Bay is one of the best places to go whale watching on Australia's west coast, with an estimated 35,000 humpback, blue and southern right whales visiting the Margaret River region each year.
Guides at the Underwater Observatory are also engaged in scientific work, regularly surveying marine life and taking hourly readings of the ocean temperature. This data, which stretches back 10 years, helps researchers track the seasonal temperature cycles in Geographe Bay and monitor year-to-year changes in sea temperature.
Given this stellar appeal, both as a tourist playground and a dedicated research centre, it's sobering to learn that Busselton Jetty was almost erased from history.
Originally built to service passenger and cargo ships in the 19th Century, the wooden jetty fell into disuse when the port was closed in 1972. After Cyclone Alby destroyed part of the structure six years later, the jetty was set for demolition but happily saved by a local community group which later installed the little red train, an interpretive centre and Underwater Observatory.
The current popularity of the jetty is a testament to efforts of the Busselton Jetty Preservation Committee which spent over 30 years raising funds – and lobbying the West Australian government – to save and then develop this amazing wooden structure.
Not content to rest on its laurels, the Busselton Jetty Inc., a not-for-profit organisation that now runs this facility, has plans to create a number of new attractions at the ocean-end of the jetty, including a designated swimming area, a sunset bar and a café. Watch this space.
Qantas operates multiple daily flights between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Perth. See qantas.com. The drive from Perth to Busselton takes two-an-a-half hours. From March 25 Jetstar will fly direct from Melbourne to Busselton Margaret River Airport. See jetstar.com
Smiths Beach Resort in Yallingup is the perfect base for exploring the Margaret River region. Tucked behind the dunes this modern resort offers a choice of shacks, apartments and villas. The property includes a restaurant, deli, pool, tennis court and off-street parking. Doubles from $335 a night. See smithsbeachresort.com.au
Busselton Jetty comprises several attractions bundled into one location. The centerpiece is the Underwater Observatory, but there are separate tickets for the jetty and miniature railway. Seasonal attractions include mermaid tours, whale watching, canoe trips and yoga classes. Tickets for the underwater observatory cost $34 (adult) and $20 (children). See busseltonjetty.com.au
Mark Chipperfield was a guest of Tourism Western Australia