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Where the wild things are
A new breed of Victorian experiences are putting the wild back into wildlife encounters.
Getting back to nature? People are just wild for it. Pre-pandemic 70 per cent of Australia’s international visitors came for our unique wildlife and landscapes, and domestically, nature-based day-tripping visitors soared by 62 per cent in the five years to 2020.
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 operator is putting the wild back into wildlife encounters.
Voyage to Skull Rock off Wilsons Promontory.
In response to the immense pressure on wildlife populations from habitat loss and climate change (an estimated one billion animals were lost in the 2019-20 bushfires alone), 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.”
And in Victoria, three new wildlife experiences are leading the way in enriching encounters with our furred, finned and feathered friends.
Three leading Victorian 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 of 2021.
Freshly opened in February just outside Apollo Bay, Wildlife Wonders is a sanctuary of manna forest, lake and grasslands where native animals – kangaroos, wallabies, potoroos, bandicoots, koalas, emus, pademelons and gliders, just for starters – live as nature intended, albeit behind the protection of a predator-proof fence.
Small groups armed with binoculars and earpieces – all the better to hear your conservationist guide point out a swaying koala or bustling bandicoot – walk the 1.4-kilometre path through curated landscapes filled with myriad creatures going about their fascinating business, from swamp wallabies skulking in the scrub to satin bowerbirds tricking up their nests to attract a mate.
Realised through a $12 million budget, with contributions from state and federal governments and spearheaded by the Cape Otway-based not-for-profit Conservation Ecology Centre, Wildlife Wonders promises a new string to the Great Ocean Road’s tourist bow.
“It’s a spectacular site,” says Lizzie Corke, head of the Conservation Ecology Centre. “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 films, who transformed the New Zealand film set into a landscape that could be explored by visitors.
“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.”
RACV members save 10 per cent on Wildlife Wonders tours.
Seal the deal on a Pennicott Wilderness Journey to Skull Rock.
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 30 passengers at a time on the two-and-a-half-hour voyage showcasing the wonders – both geological and zoological – of the southernmost point of the Australian mainland.
“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 actually set foot inside it because of the sheer steepness of the rock.”
Launched in late 2019 after 11 years in the making, Pennicott’s Wilsons Promontory cruise is the first ever allowed to launch from the national park. The company uses its 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.
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 if you haven’t been recently, the state-of-the-art Penguin Parade Visitor Centre, which opened in 2019, is sure to impress.
Double the size of the previous centre, it’s also “immeasurably better”, says Roland Pick of the not-for-profit Phillip Island Nature Parks. The centre’s 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, the centre includes 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.
“The new centre is a win for penguins and visitors alike,” says Roland. “It’s ensuring this unique eco-business model can continue, and we can continue our conservation and environmental works.”
Members save 25 per cent on a Phillip Island Nature Parks Multi-Park Pass.
Phillip Island little penguin. Photo: Lisa Luscombe
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 revegetation. 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.