(Note: I hope this posts OK. Posting from various internet cafes is frustrating and doesn’t always work as it should).
I heard some comedian recently talking about how “swimming with dolphins” was on top of most people’s list of things they wanted to do before they died. (I can’t remember the funny part of the routine, just that random fact). It does have a wonderfully seductive sound, doesn’t it? Swimming with dolphins. We floated it as an idea when we were talking about things we might do on this trip and Emma latched onto it like — well, like a dolphin onto a small fish. She was determined she was going to swim with dolphins. In fact, the main reason we picked Sorrento as a place to visit is that here in the sheltered waters of Port Philip Bay is one of the top dolphin-watching and dolphin-swimming places in Australia. But as with many things in life, it did not work out exactly as planned.
I’ll back up first and say that Tuesday and Wednesday were our days for immersing ourselves in the wildlife of Australia. We’d already been to the zoo, of course, and zoos are interesting in their way, but there’s something different about seeing animals in something closer to their natural environment (even if the experience is carefully structure to allow us in to observe). So this week we sought out some opportunities to go visit the animals on their home turf.
On Tuesday we drove over to Phillip Island, about a two-hour drive from here (this was the main reason we’d rented the car, because you can’t get from here to there on publc transit without going all the way back into Melbourne). The two big attractions on Philip Island are a Koala Conservation Centre, and the Penguin Parade, in which people come to watch about 500 “little penguins” (that’s what they’re actually called) come up out of the ocean and into their burrows in the sand every night at sunset.
The Koala Conservation Centre has boardwalks that wind through the eucalyptus trees, bringing visitors to about the eye level of the tree branches where the koalas sleep and feed. Mostly sleep. It seems they sleep about 21 hours a day. The first ones we saw were all asleep, and while the kids enjoyed spotting them, I whispered to Jason, “They might just put round grey fur bags up in the trees and TELL us they’re koalas.”
But then we started seeing koalas who were a little more lively (relatively speaking — they never get what you’d call lively). They were eating, climbing around — one even climbed down from her tree as we watched and walked over to another tree. The kids were absolutely fascinated — even more so when we saw three wallabies which weren’t supposed to be part of the feaured entertainment at all, but were just hopping through the bush. They let the kids get quite close before bounding away again, though Jason and I were not lucky enough to get so close with the camera.
Then we went to the penguin parade. This spectacle draws a huge crowd every night even though there is nothing overtly spectacular about it — about 500 tiny penguins, in groups of 10 or 20 at a time, swim in on the waves, huddle on the shore for a moment waiting for more to arrive or trying to decide if it’s safe to cross the beach; then they scurry across the beach and up the sandy hills to find their own burrows where their young are waiting for Mom and Dad to come back from their fishing trip.
We sat on the steps huddled together with other tourists, watching the waves roll in. I guess the reason people like to see this is because it’s so rare to see penguins outside the Antarctic, and the waves we were now watching were rolling right up from the Antarctic. As the sun slipped lower and the waves kept rolling in, I felt as far away from home as I’d ever been — the fact that we were on the bottom of the world really struck me.
The penguins were as cute as cute could be, and after we watched them come out of the water, we lingered along the paths watching them find their way back to their burrows and wondering how they managed to find their own burrows and their own young amongst all those penguins.
The only worries we had about Phillip Island involved making the long drive back after dark (since the penguins don’t come in till dusk). However, my Knight in Shining Armour, Jason, fearlessly got us safely home despite driving on the wrong side of the road after dark. It was a long day trip but well worth making.
Then yesterday, Wednesday, was the day we had set aside to go out on a dolphin boat. We could have gone just as observers (much more cheaply) which a few people did, but we decided to give the swimming a try.
Upon reflection, I don’t think I’d recommend swimming with dolphins to anyone who wasn’t already very confident with wearing a wetsuit and using a facemask and snorkel, as well as being a good swimmer. There’s no actual danger because you’re holding on to a tow rope behind the boat, and the staff are very helpful with people who may be floundering. They’re especially good with the kids, and Emma spent most of her swim clinging to the back and shoulders of an almost unbelievably hunky young blond Aussie lifeguard-type named Ben who said “No worries!” a lot (sadly, at seven years old, she was probably too young to fully appreciate this experience. I can report that later when I experienced problems with my mask while in the water, Ben swam over and told me to grab hold of his shoulders till I caught my breath, and I was indeed able to appreciate the moment. No worries!).
So the swimming part wasn’t so much scary as overwhelming. For my part, I found that once I was in the water, trying to get my bearings, hold onto the rope, avoid swallowing water, breathe through my snorkel, and see through my facemask without the aid of my glasses, I was so preoccupied that I wouldn’t have noticed a dolphin unless it came up and sang “Melancholy Baby” in my right ear.
Every tourist was guaranteed four swims. Chris and I tried two, while Emma and Jason quit after their first swim, and the dolphins didn’t show up in great numbers till the last swim, so we were never really in the water with the dolphins, or at least we weren’t aware of being. Instead, we spent the rest of the trip sitting on the foredeck of the boat, watching groups of dolphins bow-surfing, jumping and breaching all around the boat. We got a much better view of them that way and even Emma, who had had her heart set on swimming with them, was quite happy with the result. In retrospect we could have saved a lot of money by just going on the trip as observers rather than swimmers, but that’s the sort of thing you can only know for sure in hindsight and I’m not sorry we gave the swimming a shot.
Later in the evening we saw more Australian wildlife in its natural environment and it didn’t cost us a cent. We took the kids to the playground in a nearby park and as they played, Jason and I noticed a brilliant jewel-coloured parrot in a tree. As we followed it, it met up with another parrot, and another … we saw six in all. It amazed me that these beautiful birds, which you’d be lucky to see in a pet shop back home, were just flitting around from tree to tree like sparrows. Once again, it was a moment that really made me realize that we are in a faraway country and lucky to be here catching small glimpses of its wildlife.