One of the best things about Perth is how accessible the native wildlife is.
Getting to within centimetres of our most popular marsupial, the quokka, is only a matter of taking a short ferry ride across the water to Rottnest Island. If you want to swim with wild dolphins or watch penguins waddle in their natural environment, it’s only a 45 minute drive to Rockingham. And with tens of thousands of humpback whales jumping out of the ocean along Perth’s coastline, they’re easily observed up close on a charter vessel.
Rottnest is the island of the quokka. It’s indisputable: the place is even named after the comical, furry little marsupials, who are constantly seen hopping around the island’s historic buildings, many of which date back to the 1840s. Rottnest actually means rat’s nest, a misnomer coined by 17th century Dutch explorers who thought the native macropods were giant rats. These days they, and all other plant, animal and marine species on and around Rottnest are protected by law, so while you can gaze adoringly at them and even snap a selfie (they’ll come to you – no need to approach), you can’t touch or feed them. Only a short ferry ride from Perth, Rottnest is a special place where past and present overlap and where nature and humanity coexist, and at the very heart of it are the quokkas.
Penguins and SeaLions
Penguin Island, just off the beachside town of Rockingham, is where Australia’s largest colony of Little Penguins cluster – some 1,200 of them! There’s a 5-minute ferry across, but the most enjoyable way to get to the nature haven is to jump aboard the glass bottom boat for the Penguin and Sea Lion Cruise, run by Rockingham Wild Encounters. It floats over reefs and sea grass meadows, heads into a wildlife sanctuary zone frequented by rare Australian sea lions and chugs past a pelican rookery before arriving at the ocean-rimmed home of the charming flightless birds. There, the highlight is watching them waddle over for feeding time at 10.30am, 12.30pm and 2.30pm daily. Either get to the departure jetty under your own steam, or catch the 45-minute shuttle from Perth.
Some 35,000 playful humpback whales are believed to breach, slap and swim their way along the WA coastline each year, earning it the title of Humpback Highway. They’re by far the most active of the marine mammals that pass by Perth – we also get enormous blue whales and southern rights – which is why visitors get a massive thrill spotting them on a whale watching charter. The humpbacks tend to take a breather in Perth’s waters between September and December, often favouring a food-rich, undersea trench known as the Perth Canyon, just off Rottnest Island and also the waters off Hillarys Boat Harbour. There are plenty of operators to choose from.
Interacting with wild dolphins is up there with some of life’s most special experiences. In the warm waters of Shoalwater Islands Marine Park off Rockingham, just south of Perth, pods of character-rich bottlenose cut through the crystalline waters. They’re often eager to interact, and with more than 200 dolphins playing in these waters, there’s a good chance you’ll get up close with more than a few.
Rockingham Wild Encounters offers swim experiences of three to six hours (dolphins.com.au), but if you’d rather stay dry, you can also join their Dolphin, Penguin and Sea Lion Adventure Cruise that has you coasting through the waters they frequent. While everything is left up to the dolphins, they’re naturally playful and love to put on a show.
You’ll find Australia’s most dazzling coastline in Esperance, an eight-hour drive south from Perth. Local resident Dan Paris suggests travelling inland through the Wheatbelt, breaking up the drive with a night in Hopetoun before arriving at the beautiful beaches of Esperance.