It’s that time of the year again when we embark on a whale trail, hoping to catch a glimpse of that colossal creature in Eden on the Sapphire Coast. Just a three-hour drive from Canberra, Eden also known as ‘humpback highway’ is located in the far southern regions of New South Wales, and every year, between September and November, the cobalt waters host thousands of humpbacks heading home to Antarctica.
On a wet Thursday afternoon, we set off from Canberra determined to catch a glimpse of the goliaths of the sea. The plan was to catch them at Eden, Merimbula and Bermagui, three spots where frolicking humpback whales are often seen as they migrate to their summer homes in icy Antarctica.
A serpentine mountainous route led us through breath-taking scenery of valleys and lush green meadows. A landscape inhabited by myriads of colourful birds, sheep and horses. We passed small towns and pretty houses on the way but we drove on resisting the temptation to stop, blinded with the singular ambition to reach our first destination – Twofold Bay in Eden.
Ah Eden! It’s such a beautiful hilly town. It is a stunning place overlooking sapphire blue waters. Perched on the edge of spectacular Twofold Bay, its history was shaped by its inhabitants – the killer whales (orcas) in the bay and the humans on land and the strange alliance they formed. Together orca and man were called the Killers of Eden! Their preys were humpback whales part of the baleen whales family. Yes, it was a different time then when humpback whales were hunted not watched.
In the early 19th century, orcas and their human counterparts hunted other whales, especially the humpback whales. The orcas would lead humpbacks into Twofold Bay where they were harpooned and killed by fisherman. The orcas would ensure that the humpbacks drowned. As a reward, the orcas could feast on the lips and tongues of the whale and the fishermen would then take the carcass to whaling stations where it would be processed for its blubber, skin and bone. One such famous station is the Davidson Whaling Station. It was one of the longest operating whaling stations in Australia and the last one to close down. It is currently protected as a historic site.
In modern day however, the strange alliance between the orca and man has ended and the humble humpback whales have prevailed. Today, Eden is famous for whale watching. It is often regarded as one of the best places to start your whale watching tour because Two-fold bay is filled with these gentle giants.
We zipped into Eden shortly after four in the evening. Driving along the water’s edge past a museum and a police station, we made our way to Snug Cove Bed and Breakfast – a delightful and cosy dwelling run by Jennifer and Eric Schuwallow.
Snug Cove Bed and Breakfast overlooks the harbour of Twofold Bay. It’s a gorgeous home that is tastefully decorated by Jennifer and Eric. It’s submerged in old world charm and the genial hosts are sincere and warm. We climbed up the staircase holding on the railings that were actually kayak paddles. Kayak paddles! Yep, we knew right away that this meant that our room would be interesting and we were right.
The first thing we noticed was the stained glass bathroom door, ceiling fan and balcony overlooking the harbour. The stained glass bathroom door and the red walls inside was inspiringly art deco. Our room had an Orient theme with many pieces of eclectic furniture sourced from nearby Pambula and Newcastle. Light filled and airy, our room was large with a double seater sofa, a study table, a beautiful antique cupboard and even an emerald wooden bench beside the large comfy bed.
After freshening up we descended upon our friendly hosts to prattle with them. Downstairs in the living room, we chatted up with our hosts and two other guests over a cup of hot coffee. “If you leave the light on above the bathroom mirror and close the door, the stained glass almost looks like the inside of kaleidoscope”, exclaimed Eric Schuwallow.
Thus started a conversation that led to learning a bit about the history of their establishment and from where they bought their vintage furniture. Our affable hosts were so willing to share everything . They even drew us a map on what to do in Eden and suggested nice spots to visit. During the course of the conversation they mentioned Davidson Whaling Station – a place they urged us to visit.
Soon it was dinnertime and we made our way to one of Eden’s finest pub and restaurant called the Great Southern Inn. Its proud owner, Leigh Hennessey, who has been running the Great Southern Inn for the last seven years sat with us with a large beaming smile. He is a friendly soul who seems to be greatly liked by his patrons. He takes great pride about the food he serves in his restaurant and how it’s important for him to ensure that the seafood in his restaurant is fresh off the boat.
It was time to order.
We started with freshly shucked oysters and cheesy garlic bread and it was a mouth-watering start. The oysters were juicy and unadorned. We chowed down on them with just a splash of lemon. They tasted like a moveable feast and as they slid down the throat it felt like food worthy for the Gods. Ambrosial!
Meanwhile, the day’s catch-of-the-day was fresh ling and we made sure we ordered it. Our mains were battered ling with vegetables and mash potatoes and a 400g scotch fillet with mushroom sauce, salad and chips. They did not disappoint. The fish was moist and the steak, succulent. The meals were large and value for money. If we had known, we could have even shared a main. Having had such a scrumptious fill, we skipped on dessert. There was simply no place for it.
“Everything on our menu is made from scratch, except for the prawn cutlets”, says Hennessey. Originally from Cooma, Hennessey is well known in town which a few businesses under his belt including a new restaurant opening right by the harbour called Drift. “Unlike typical pub food, Drift will serve tapas and offer diners water views from the upper floor”, he adds. We hope to return and dine at Drift on our next visit to Eden.
The next day, we woke up to a gorgeous clear sky. Perfect weather for whale watching but not before we had a hearty breakfast at Snug Cove Bed and Breakfast. We had fresh fruit with yoghurt, eggs, sautéed mushrooms, bacon and savoury French toast, juice, coffee and tea. Not forgetting, warm scones and jam. It was such an elaborate spread; we knew it was going to fuel us up for the rest of the afternoon. We had a big day of exploration in front of us.
Seagulls flew over us, the sun was shining brightly and we met Ros and Gordon Butt of Cat Balou Cruises as we hopped onto their 16 metre catamaran. They gave us a safety briefing and off we raced into Twofold bay. With cameras in hand and hope in heart we sat patiently waiting for the sighting of a whale. About 20 minutes into the bay we suddenly saw a water spout on the left side of the boat. Someone screamed with delight, people aboard scrambled to the left. As Gordon slowed the boat down the sea rocked the boat firmly as if to say, hold on firmly before the show begins.
The whale appeared on the right and dived back in as quickly as it surfaced. Its huge tail (fluke) fanned the air a couple of times before it disappeared. But soon it surfaced again and the crowd cheered and we were among those who gasped with astonishment. What a gorgeous creature! It was our first sighting of a whale, we never ever saw one and believe me, it fills you with awe. Our jaws dropped and we bet it grazed the floor of the catamaran.
Every time the humpback surfaced, it taught us new vocabulary. We learnt new words such as spyhopping, mugging and breaching. “When a whale decides to take a peek at you by bobbing its head just a wee bit above the water – that’s called spyhopping”, said Ros Butt.
It put on a small show, this whale of ours. It seemed to know that we were excited about its presence. It swam around us a few times and suddenly disappeared. The waters kept rocking our boat like a cradle. The whale had gone and we had to move on. And onwards we went deeper into the sea in search of other whales. Ros soon lowered a hydrophone into the water to hear for sounds of singing. We heard for the first time, the enchanting song of the ocean. It was magical.
Before long we had new visitors, speeding alongside and in front of the boat. Dolphins, the eternal friends of the human race, escorted us for a bit into sea. They too disappeared after a while and not long after we saw two humpback wales afar. Their great flukes were high above the water as they trashed the water with force. They seemed to be playing and we drew nearer.
We spent the next hour following the two whales as they fluked, surfaced and breached. They seemed to be communicating with each other because we could hear them every now and then making a squawking sound (pulsed call). We made sounds of our own trying to catch their attention and they obliged for a while by swimming in close vicinity around us. But soon it was time to say good-bye as they dived into the ocean and swam away. It was also time for us to return ashore.
We passed Ben Boyd Tower which was built to be a lighthouse in 1847 but never came to pass. It was instead used as a spotting tower for seasonal shore based whaling instead. The tower is part of beautiful walking trail which would make for a lovely day trek. We cruised back to the harbour while we sipped on complimentary coffee and soup. We were mesmerised by the experience.
Before leaving Eden, we stopped by the Killer Whale Museum to learn about Tom the legendary orca that led a pack of killer whales in the hunt for baleen whales on their southward migration each year. There is also an exhibition relating to the involvement of local indigenous Australians in shore-based whaling which led us to explore the Davidson Whaling Station located 30 minutes outside Eden town.
Part of our drive to the Davidson Whaling Station located on the shores of the Kiah Inlet at Twofold Bay was on dirt road but it was worth the trip. We followed the walking path to Loch Garra which was built in 1896 and was home to George and Sara Davidson through to the 1940s when they moved to Eden. Three generations of the Davidson family worked from this site to hunt migrating whales. They were the only whalers known in the world to work in partnership with orcas.
We explored further, walking down a trail that led to a beach and the ‘Trying Down Works’ – the area where whale blubber was boiled to extract oil. The trying-out process was arduous work performed amidst the constant stench of boiling oil. It is said that the smell from whale processing operations pervaded the Inlet and in certain weather conditions even carried across the bay to Eden!
We got into our car and it was time to leave Eden. There is so much to explore in this beautiful place but today was not that day. We are on a whale trail which will lead us into the next town. On the way out we looked back and promised Eden that we will come back and partake in her bounty someday soon. We will learn more about her history, her people and gaze at her fascinating beauty in adoration. Sapphire Coast and the whales of Eden, we shall see you soon but now we must tarry on our own merry way to Tathra, a gorgeous coastal hamlet on the Sapphire Coast in the Bega Valley.
Where to stay – Snug Cove Bed and Breakfast located at 25 Victoria Terrace, Eden NSW 2551.
Where to eat – Great Southern Inn located at 158 Imlay St, Eden NSW 2551.
What to do – Cat Balou Cruises located in Eden Wharf, NSW 2551.
Where to find more information about Eden – Sapphire Coast official website.
Travel and Beyond were guests of the Sapphire Coast Tourism Board. All opinions are our own.