Road trip: Victoria’s winter whale trail

Travelling Well | Story: Larissa Dubecki | Photos: Cormac Hanrahan | Posted on 22 June 2020

On the hunt for whales along Victoria’s rugged western coastline.

I remember a story about whales. Something about a crazed old sea captain, a homicidal white whale, a quest for revenge on the high seas. It doesn’t end well. 

This tale does involve the search for whales, but it isn’t Moby Dick. Nor am I an obsessive ship captain, although my two children would sometimes beg to differ. And despite the fact – spoiler alert – that we fail to see a whale on the Winter Whale Trail, this is a story full of the good things in life, such as family, fun and food, potent with Indigenous history and wildlife encounters, with the world’s best ice-cream thrown in for good measure.

Rugged coastline in Victoria

View across Shelly Beach to Cape Bridgewater from Bishops Rock.

The past is present as our family of four pilots our trusty old Subaru Forester along the sinuous coastal road between Warrnambool, Port Fairy and Portland. In the 19th century this beautiful region hugging the Southern Ocean wasn’t a playground for city types but the remote, rugged and hugely dangerous hunting ground of whalers whose zealous pursuit of valuable oil saw humpback and southern right whales driven to the brink of extinction. (Plus, how to nail a Great Ocean Road trip

More than 150 years later the cetaceans’ numbers have revived, and the Whale Trail gives a powerful new meaning to the notion of a whale hunt. A reason to visit this spectacular stretch of Victorian coastline during their northerly migration between May and October (it reaches Peak Whale between June and September), it’s a far different seasonal proposition to summer, with the wild, white-flecked ocean crashing onto limestone cliffs and icy, hair-whipping winds on near-deserted beaches making you feel briskly alive.

The coastline hasn’t forgotten its bloody history, as Warrnambool proves when we check into what must be its most atmospheric accommodation in the former harbourmaster’s cottage. Lighthouse Lodge enjoys the benefits of 21st-century plumbing and a prime position next to the still-working lighthouse. It’s all part of the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village (at which RACV members save on entry), a charming, not-at-all-naff replica of an 1870s coastal village from the time the Shipwreck Coast earned its name by claiming more than 180 ships on its treacherous rocks. 

More than 150 years later the cetaceans’ numbers have revived, and the Whale Trail gives a powerful new meaning to the notion of a whale hunt.

Anyone scarred by the memory of historical re-enactments in a pre-digital age can embrace the nightly sound-and-light spectacular Tales of the Shipwreck Coast without fear. Clutching lanterns, we join the crowd at dusk trotting down a moody cobblestoned street to the waterfront where a laser extravaganza brings to life the region’s history, from the Indigenous owners to the grizzled whalers and the unfortunate civilians who came a-cropper on the rocks. In the ultimate sign of success, the kids, aged 10 and six, forget to ask plaintively for their iPads.  

Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab would have loved the official Facebook whale-sighting page, although it’s unlikely he would have used it in the spirit it was intended. Next morning this handy tool shows a southern right whale just off Portland, 102 kilometres away, but we’re off to try our luck at Logans Beach Whale Nursery. Just a few kilometres from the centre of Warrnambool, it’s a spot where female whales have been known to stay for weeks as they nurture their newborn calves. 

Standing on the wooden viewing platform alongside two dozen other hopefuls feels a bit like the Boxing Day Test match – it’s all about waiting for something to happen but making your own fun until it does. Scoring points for family multi-tasking we head down to the beach to continue scanning the horizon for a telltale splash while throwing a ball and constructing sand-whales. 

“No whale, no cry” goes the refrain in the car as we blast Bob Marley en route to Port Fairy, first making a lunch pitstop at the Time & Tide Tearoom. Channelling French Provincial vibes overlooking the ocean, it’s the home of champagne and swellegant cafe fare, sometimes delivered with a side serve of whale. “We get to see them swimming by quite often during the season,” says owner Philippa Hocking. “No matter how many times you see them it’s always exciting, especially when they decide to put on a show.”

Warrnambool street art whales
Close up of street art painting of a whale

Whaley good street art in Warrnambool.

Onwards to Port Fairy, the 19th-century fishing village from central casting that’s never short of a reason for a visit. It’s a captivating place of historic streetscapes (with more than 50 National Trust-registered properties), a winter arts festival (sadly not this year), and Poco Artisan Ice Cream, which proves Melbourne doesn’t have a monopoly on people queuing half an hour for a double scoop. 

“There are no traffic lights, no parking meters and no pokies,” says tour leader Glen Foster leading his charges on a two-hour whirlwind through the town’s colourful history, ranging from ladies of the night to temperance societies and slippery bob, a dish made from kangaroo brains and emu fat. “You needed a good appetite, and excellent digestion,” he declares. 

The road leads us on to Portland, and an actual whale sighting. Actually, it’s the 14-metre-long skeleton of a sperm whale that washed up in 1987, now taking pride of place at the excellent Maritime Discovery Centre. Close, but no cigar. 

But enough of the whale talk. We have other fish to fry. There’s a noisy 6000-strong colony of gannets to visit at their Point Danger home and a seal colony at Cape Bridgewater putting on an extravagant show before a walk through a petrified landscape worthy of Mars at Discovery Bay Coastal Park. 

Another drive through wild paddock and rolling hill takes us inland to the tiny town of Macarthur, the home of bijou, rustic Suffoir Winery’s craft ciders and pinot noir. We stop for dinner at the Macarthur Hotel to find the classic country pub thrilling to the announcement of UNESCO World Heritage status being bestowed that very day upon the nearby Budj Bim National Heritage Landscape, where the Indigenous owners practised aquaculture and lived in permanent settlements 40,000 years ago.

“We’re all misty eyed,” says our waitress Amy Travers, a Gunditjmara woman who had travelled to Hamilton for the official announcement. “It will spread our story and bring people up from the city.”

On our last morning our final Whale Trail hurrah sees us piling onto Portland’s heritage cable tram to tootle along the foreshore, cuddled up with colourful knitted blankets. We scan the horizon for a tail, a fin – anything vaguely whale-related – to declare our mission accomplished.  

But these epic scapes of land and water invite philosophising. And the Whale Trail, we decide on the drive home, is about so much more than the actual whales. So we didn’t see one? We certainly had fun trying. You could say we were unlucky, but really we weren’t unlucky at all. And unlike tragic Captain Ahab, there will be a next time.

Empty road at sunset

Approaching Cape Bridgewater at sunset.

Close up of high tea treats on cake stand

 Treat time at Port Fairy’s Time and Tide tearoom.

Kangaroo in grass

 An eastern grey kangaroo near Portland.

Road trip essentials

The playlist

  • No Woman, No Cry, Bob Marley 
  • Wide Open Road, The Triffids  
  • Foggy Highway, Paul Kelly & the Stormwater Boys 
  • Do Go On podcast, with Dave Warneke, Matt Stewart and Jess Perkins 
  • ABC South-West Victoria on the radio

The car

Subaru Forester 

The distance

210 kilometres, including side trips

The wildlife

Gannets at Portland, seals at Cape Bridgewater and koalas, emus and echidnas at Tower Hill – but no whales, alas. 

The fuel

  • Local dory fillets with butter and chive sauce, cauliflower puree and toasted hazelnuts at Pippies by the Bay, Warrnambool. 
  • A seafood platter and bottle of pinot gris at The Wharf, Port Fairy. 
  • Tuna tataki with wasabi, peas and avocado at Clock by the Bay, Portland.  

Don’t miss

Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve, around 20 minutes’ drive outside Port Fairy, is Victoria’s oldest national park, circling an extinct volcano with a rich Indigenous history and native wildlife galore. 

While you’re there...

  • Take a self-guided street art tour in Warrnambool. 
  • See cetaceous-themed art at Bay of Whales Gallery in Narrawong.
  • Catch the sunrise from Cape Nelson Lighthouse, Portland. 
  • Head to Warrnambool’s Worm Beach early in the morning to see racehorses taking a dip. 

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