Swimming with Sea Lions and Dolphins in South Australia

The coastal road to Baird Bay has wonderful views of the Southern Ocean. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier, 2012)

As I squeeze into a wetsuit, one thought keeps pushing to the front of my mind: sharks.

This is Australia after all, the state of South Australia to be more precise and it’s known for those nasty Great Whites of “Jaws” movie fame.

From the Outback to the Sea

I’ve just spent an overnight in the Outback chasing kangaroos before taking the coastal road past dramatic cliffs overlooking what Australians call the Southern Ocean. At Baird Bay I meet up with Alan Payne who’s going to take me for a swim and snorkel with sea lions and dolphins.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You like swimming and snorkeling with wildlife
  • You’ve never seen a sea lion or dolphin up close
  • Good for those who enjoy animals and water sports

As our tour group cruises aboard Alan’s boat to mainland Australia’s only permanent breeding colony of sea lions, he tells me about himself. He started out in the salt business in Western Australia before buying land here for a holiday house, he says. He began a fishing charter business, but found his passengers became so interested in sea lions that he developed in-water encounters with the whiskered mammals as a side business.

He passes out the snorkel gear and cautions us not to touch anything in the water. “If you see a shell leave it alone,” he says, in a thick Aussie accent that makes me smile. But Alan doesn’t mean to be amusing; he’s dead serious. “It might contain a blue ring octopus and if you pick it up you won’t see tamarrah.”

Clowning Around with Sea Lions

Forewarned, I board a dingy that will take me into the shallow water where sea lions frolic.  Alan says they love to play. One little guy has become so attached to him that he often cuddles up in Alan’s arms like a baby.

Sea lions love to play with snorkelers. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier, c 2012)

A few sea lions, curious about the rubber-suited creatures on board, swim around the dinghy. I look around — not a shark in sight — and brave the frigid water to see if anyone wants to swim along with me. Careful to avoid any shells that might hide deadly octopi, I stretch out on the surface, paddling gently around a few pups who seem interested in getting to know me better. We goof around, playing tag as one of the boldest pups torpedoes straight at my mask before veering away a second before making contact. We cavort for several minutes before they climb out onto the beach to join the rest of the colony sunning on rocks. I can’t blame them — it’s unseasonably cold on this March day — and I get back into the dinghy, teeth chattering.

Dolphin Chirps and Underwater Echoes

Undaunted, we head for deeper water off Cape Radstock, one of the highest cliffs along the southern coast, to swim with bottlenose dolphins. Again, Alan gives us a safety talk.

“Don’t kick in the water, just use your arms, otherwise you might attract sharks,” he says matter of factly. He tells us to stay in a group and stick close to Jason, our guide, who carries a shark shield. We’re really quite safe, he assures us, with a smile that seems suspiciously mischievous. The shield, a long cord that sends out an electrical impulse, repels sharks, he says. Nervous, someone asks about Great Whites and he tells us he’s never seen one in these waters.

Sea lions bask in the sun on the rocks by Baird Bay. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier, c 2012)

Alan cuts the boat’s engine and we wait. Soon a school of dolphins approaches and we grab masks and snorkels to join them. Floating quietly in the water — and never letting Jason out of our sight — we wait again for the dolphins to circle the boat. We hear them before we see them, a chirping that echoes through the water. Then there they are, perhaps a dozen about eight feet below us, including a mother with baby about six weeks old.

Repelling Sharks

Forgetting the cold, we float on the surface, waiting for the dolphins to circle again and again, each time feeling a little braver and diving a little deeper for a closer look. One guy in our group strays from our pack and Jason reaches out and touches his ankle to lure him back. Thinking he’s just been nudged by something with real fins and much bigger teeth, he bolts straight up out of the water like a missile.

Alan Payne leads sea lion and dolphin tours. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier, c 2012)

Back on board we chatter nonstop, exhilarated by the experience and feeling just a little cocky about overcoming our fear. No Great Whites here.

Nope, says Alan, but he tells us he has seen a bronze whaler shark.

Ah, but those must not be dangerous to swimmers, I say.

“Oh no,” he answers, nonchalantly, “it’ll eat ya.”

Practicalities

  • Alan Payne runs Baird Bay Charters and Ocean Eco Tours, www.bairdbay.com. Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safaris, www.gawlerrangessafaris.com, features it in its Outback to the Sea packages. More information about South Australia tour companies can be found through the South Australia Tourism Commission, southaustralia.com, and Tourism Australia, Australia.com.
  • Pack swimsuits, sunglasses and sunscreen. Snorkel gear and wetsuits are provided.
  • Not available in June, July and August, which is peak winter season Down Under.

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