The Rainbow Lorikeets, roosting like starlings, were already squawking in the Pandana palms and bottle-brush trees by the beach right in front of our window when the phone rang. It was just after seven on our first morning in sub-tropical New South Wales, and we had not booked a wake-up call. It was Robert, the relief manager at Watego’s Watermark, an up-market B & B in Byron Bay. “Sorry to wake you” he said, “but there’s a whale right outside your window!”
I dashed to the sitting room to grab the heavy binoculars we had been training on the wide, sweeping bay the previous evening in the hope of catching a glimpse of either a hump-back whale or a school of bottle-nose dolphins, both frequent passers by along this magnificent stretch of ocean. I trained them on the deep blue water and sure enough, there she blew, sending up a huge spray travelling at what whale experts estimate is 280 miles an hour. Not one whale, but two, and possibly a whole family. Apart from the vast forms of the two adults, their flukes (tails) rising up like gigantic submarine conning towers, there were five dolphin-sized little ones, resembling tugs escorting a great liner into the bay. But – were they baby whales or dolphins?
At first, no-one seemed certain, not even the locals. “They’re not making typically dolphin-like movements in the water” said Robert. “But they might easily be dolphins playing with the whales, or chasing shoals of pilchards or anchovies.”
We finally decided they must be dolphins. If the whales pass this way on their journey to Queensland to mate and give birth, how could this particular whale already have her young with her? Simple really.
Like the rest of the New South Wales coastline north of Sydney, Cape Byron, just shy of the border with Queensland, is a sure-fire location from which to spot hump-backs on their annual migration from the plankton-rich Antarctic to much warmer waters off the Great Barrier Reef, where they rest and shelter in such tranquil places as Hervey Bay.
They are almost forced close to land where Cape Byron, the most easterly point of the Australian mainland, juts out into the Pacific, and, as the locals are fond of saying: “Everything which swims comes past here!” Apart from whales and dolphins, this includes Bronze Whaler Sharks, Grey Nurse Sharks and sea turtles. During the busiest times of their migration period between June and December, it is estimated that more than 300 whales swim past the cape every fortnight. Come September, they are back, with calves in tow, giving Sydneysiders a spectacular spectacle. Us too: our splendidly located room could hardly have been closer to the beach (“Eight paces to the white sand and crystal waters of famous Watego’s Beach” said the brochure)
The louvre doors opened up completely to give us a wall-to-wall panoramic view and stereophonic sound of the surf. With their big clusters of roots reaching up to waist height, the Pandana Palms separating us from the beach resembled giant green crabs standing motionless, on guard, outside our window.
The following day, anxious for a repeat performance, we took the coastal boardwalk along the Cape Byron headland to the most powerful lighthouse in New South Wales – a route which allows you to look down from on high into the bay, giving you the best chance of spotting a hump-back. A plaque informs you: “Cape Byron is one of the few places in the world where you can sit among native wildflowers and grasses on the edge of the rainforest and listen to whale breathe”.
This time we were out of luck, content instead to lift our eyes from the ocean to the hills about us: the horizon was dominated by the jagged peak of Mount Warning, an inactive volcano, which is claimed to be the first place in Australia to be illuminated by the rising sun. In the far distance, right across the bay, we could just make out the high-rise contours of the beginning of the Queensland coast. The distance was the best place for it, we felt – here in the idyllic bay we felt we had the best of all worlds: sub-tropical Australia without the brashness of the Gold Coast.
The opportunities for snorkelling, diving and surfing are prolific. Byron Bay was one of Australia’s most popular surfing areas in the 1960s, and still attracts a large number of surfers.
There is even a “wet map” of the bay displaying the various diving sites. Julian Rocks, Australia’s first Marine Reserve, and reputedly one of the world’s top 10 dive sites, boasts 400 species of fish, and is a haven for large sea-turtles, giant rays and groupers.
The bustling little tourist town of Byron Bay – traditionally the haunt of back-packers and surfers – is almost a mile away, but easily accomplished by means of a delightful walk along Clarke’s Beach. But when we were too idle to walk into town for dinner, we happily sauntered down the road to the restaurant at Rae’s, a sumptuous mediterranean-moroccan style boutique hotel – described as “a mansion by the sea” in a Brisbane magazine – owned by a successful young Australian chef, Vincent Rae.
The hotel, which a while ago was listed by Conde Nast Traveller in its Top 20 new hotels, attracts such Australasian glitterati as Paul Hogan and his wife Linda Kowzlowski, Sam Neil, Nicole Kidman and her husband Tom Cruise, and Olivia Newton John. The cuisine, largely based on Australia’s version of European and Oriental “fusion” – a “bit of Oz, a touch of Med and a dash of Asian” – was superb. We both raved about the stir-fried vegetables, enhanced with shiitake mushrooms. And the ravioli stuffed with prawns accompanied with chorizo sausage was an unlikely but delicious mix.
On our final morning, after our last experience of what the brochure described as “breakfast bliss – delight in seasonal whale and dolphin sightings from our breakfast deck”, we spotted this in the guest directory in our room: “As you are one of the first to discover Watermark, please tell five million of your closest friends about our extraordinary location and fine service”
© Arnie Wilson
(Travel details were correct at the time of writing, but may have changed).