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Where the wild things are: Tourism’s new take on wildlife encounters
The Victorian tourism operators putting the wild back into wildlife encounters.
There’s nothing quite like the news that more than one billion animals were killed in last summer’s savage bushfires to remind us how precious – and precarious – our native fauna is.
From the wallabies and koalas so deeply ingrained in our national identity, to tiny wet-nosed marsupials and obscure mountain frogs, Australia’s wildlife is under threat, and never more so now that hundreds of thousands of hectares of natural habitat have been burned.
Voyage to Skull Rock.
The potential loss is devastating, and its value is more than sentimental. According to research by Tourism Australia, around 70 per cent of pre-COVID international visitors came for our unique wildlife and landscapes. And domestically, nature-based day-tripping visitors have soared by 62 per cent in the past five years.
Yet while a few decades ago such visitors might have been content with a basic Aussie animal introduction – perhaps being photographed near a kangaroo in a zoo – a new breed of tourism operators is putting the wild back into wildlife encounters.
In response to the immense pressure on wildlife populations from habitat loss and climate change, a profound industry shift has seen institutions such as Melbourne Zoo reposition themselves as conservation leaders.
Wildlife tour operators have also seen the sense in actively promoting conservation for the greater good. John Daw, executive officer for Australian Wildlife Journeys, an alliance of independent wildlife tour operators dedicated to conservation, describes the mission succinctly: “Conservation is about more than saving animals; it involves maintaining habitats and changing mindsets.”
Three new Victorian wildlife experiences are leading the way in enriching encounters with our furred, finned and feathered friends.
Three leading Aussie wildlife experiences
Welcome to wonderland
Take 20 hectares of pristine wilderness overlooking Bass Strait, add an environmental foundation dedicated to protecting the flora and fauna of the Otways region, then finish with the creative vision of the man who turned the film set of The Hobbit into a major tourist attraction. It all adds up to Victoria’s most-anticipated wildlife eco-tourism experience.
Due to open later this year just outside Apollo Bay, Wildlife Wonders Eco-Tourism Park promises a sanctuary of manna forest, lake and grasslands where native animals – kangaroos, potoroos, bandicoots, koalas, echidnas, platypus, pademelon and gliders, just for starters – live as nature intended, albeit behind the protection of a predator-proof fence.
Realised through a $12 million budget, with contributions from state and federal governments, it promises a new string to the Great Ocean Road’s tourist bow.
“It’s a spectacular site,” says Lizzie Corke, head of the Cape Otway-based Conservation Ecology Centre which is spearheading the project. “The Great Ocean Road is one of the most important nature-based destinations in Australia but currently there are very few facilitated or curated experiences in nature.”
Wildlife Wonders’ coup was bringing on as creative director Brian Massey, the landscape designer for The Lord of the Rings and art director for The Hobbit, who transformed those film sets into a landscape that could be explored by visitors. For his new project, qualified conservationists will take small groups on a guided walk designed by Brian through the spectacular bushland.
“He brings an incredible vision to the Wildlife Wonders project,” says Lizzie. “His work is truly a celebration of the natural landscape and the plants and animals within it.”
Seal the deal on a Pennicott Wildnerness Journey, or get intimitely acquainted with the evening ritual of penguins at Phillip Island Nature Parks.
Voyage to Skull Rock
It took the rugged beauty of Wilsons Prom to lure an award-winning Tasmanian eco-tourism company to Victoria. It’s here at the southernmost point of mainland Australia that Pennicott Wilderness Journeys has launched its latest on-water tour.
The Wilsons Promontory Marine National Park is home to dolphins, fur seals, whales and turtles. It’s even a nursery for great white sharks.
But it’s the awe-inspiring Skull Rock that steals the show. An imposing granite island carved by the elements over millennia into a vision straight from a King Kong moodboard, it harbours an enormous grassy cavern that’s home to a 9000-strong colony of fur seals.
The sheer scale of Skull Rock is best appreciated from one of the bright yellow boats that take passengers on the two-and-a-half-hour tour circumnavigating the island.
“You could almost fit the Sydney Opera House inside the cavern,” says Pennicott’s Melinda Anderson. “More people have landed on the moon than have set foot inside it due to the steepness of the rock.”
Launched in late 2019, Pennicott’s Wilsons Prom cruise is the first allowed to launch from the national park. The company uses amphibious boats to set off directly from Norman Beach at Tidal River.
“Wilsons Promontory is a heartland for Victorians but to see it from another viewpoint is amazing,” says Melinda.
“Our guides weave in local stories, and teach about the flora and fauna and the history of the traditional owners. It’s a whole new perspective on a Victorian icon.”
Members save 10 per cent on Pennicott Wilderness Journeys. Find out more at racv.experienceoz.com.au
The little penguins waddling ashore each sundown at Phillip Island are hardly a secret. In fact, the 32,000-strong colony has long been Victoria’s most-visited tourist attraction. But the new Penguin Parade Visitor Centre, which is reopening with limited visitor numbers after the COVID shutdown, gives their human admirers the facilities to match the experience.
Double the size of the previous centre, it’s also “immeasurably better”, says Roland Pick of the not-for-profit Phillip Island Nature Parks. “It was built at a time when we were getting 400,000 visitors a year. Now we’re getting more than 720,000, and it’s only going to grow.”
The centre, with a strikingly geometric design by Terroir Architects, sits lightly on the landscape. Clad in 32,000 zinc panels designed to mimic the chevron shape of penguin feathers, it has interactive spaces, a habitat zone and theatre. A scientific and education wing hosts the centre’s globally recognised penguin research.
The new design also corrects a fundamental fault with the original building: “It was built in the wrong spot. It was where the penguins wanted to be,” says Roland. Alongside the relocated centre, more than six hectares of habitat has been restored, with the potential to create homes for an additional 1400 breeding penguins.
“It’s a win for penguins and visitors alike,” says Roland. “It’s ensuring this unique eco-business model can continue.”
Members save 25 per cent on a Phillip Island Nature Parks 3 Parks Pass at racv.experienceoz.com.au.
Long-nosed potoroo. Photo: Doug Gimesy
Victoria’s most endangered species
Eastern barred bandicoot
Extinct in the wild on mainland Australia primarily due to loss of habitat and foxes. Since 1991, Zoos Victoria has bred more than 650 bandicoots that live in protected habitats.
Baw Baw frog
Fewer than 1000 remain on the Mount Baw Baw plateau, and it is predicted they will be extinct in the wild within 10 years mainly due to the disease Chytridiomycosis. Melbourne Zoo is developing husbandry methods for a captive population.
Golden-rayed blue butterfly
Loss of habitat is the main threat to these butterflies living in Victoria’s west. Zoos Victoria is spearheading land management and re-vegetation; Melbourne Zoo is working to highlight its endangered status.
Brush-tailed rock wallaby
Genetically distinct from the Queensland and NSW populations, there are now fewer than 60 brush-tailed rock wallabies living in two isolated Victorian locations. Zoos Victoria hopes to breed a captive population of the agile rock-hoppers.
Once believed extinct, the Leadbeater’s possum was rediscovered in 1961 but remains critically endangered. Healesville Sanctuary has a captive breeding program.
Best places to go wild in Australia
- Eyre Peninsula, SA: Swim with sea lions and cave-dive with great white sharks at this pristine coastal wilderness off the beaten SA track. goinoffsafaris.com.au
- Kakadu and Arnhem Land, NT: A 4WD outback safari will reveal the Top End’s hidden billabongs and magnificent wildlife. lords-safaris.com
- Taranna, Tasmania: At this “unzoo” an hour’s drive from Hobart, take a guided 4WD tour through the native bushland sanctuary to help identify and track the resident Tasmanian devils. tasmaniandevilunzoo.com.au
- Ningaloo Reef, WA: Swimming with whale sharks off this pristine reef is a bucket-list experience, and the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Marine Park has plenty more to offer. exmouthdiving.com.au
Save on a host of wildlife attractions at racv.experienceoz.com.au.