Where we went: Ile des Phoques
Who we went with: East Coast Cruises
When we went: Winter 2020
Words cannot accurately communicate how highly I recommend this tour, we had an amazing time. The crew, Barb and Michael made our relaxed, family friendly, half-day tour feel like a lux private charter with homemade snacks, tea, and a wonderful time.
Isl des Phoques (pronounced a little like a certain swear word that starts with the letter F) means ‘Seal Island’ in French and, honestly, it’s not a very imaginative name, but it sure is accurate. The granite land mass located 18.5km north from Maria Island and 11.5km south of Shouten Island was once a whalers (and sealers) stomping ground with some reported but inaccessible relics of their intrusion on the isle. There is no public access and no public facilities provided, but charter boats can access the area. It was once home to a large seal breeding ground, but, due to the lasting impact of sealing it is now functions primarily as a “haul-out” – which is the term for a rest-stop for seals – rather than a breeding sanctuary. There is some very exciting evidence to suggest that seals may be starting to trust the waters around the island enough to reuptake breeding there; provided human intrusion is kept to a minimum. Mutton birds, white bellied sea eagles and a myriad of other brilliant birds also call Phoques home, which is why it is such a neat little gem to visit. It is a particularly popular site for divers and snorkelling enthusiasts as it is a mass of sea caves and curious seals. Certain members of the couple (who are not me) are hella phobic of sharks and certain others (who are me) are hella claustrophobic, so we do not self-identify as viable candidates for such a venture. You may not be likewise afflicted.
When we called the office of East Coast Cruises to enquire about the possibility of undertaking an afternoon cruise (normal operating hours are in the morning, with afternoon sessions being scheduled only if demand calls) we were told that there was almost no chance of a session that weekend. Instead we planned to keep mildly busy on the Tasman Peninsula once we had finished Sunday brunch with the family. We were away from home with very little warm weather gear when we were called by the crew and informed that there were sufficient numbers for an afternoon cruise after all. Very urgent plan rearrangements were made and we hurried home to gather all the warm clothes we could find. We very badly wanted to sit on the top deck you see, which can be tricky in winter.
Now in something of a rush, but at least dressed very snuggly, Sommelier assured me that he knew a short-cut. Dear reader, it is important to me that you know that I have the navigation skills of a compass in a microwave and – as the fact that Sommelier managed to surprise me with an engagement despite the fact that I helped to dig the sapphire out of the river myself proves – I am far too trusting of the man. We were well on the way to the Tasman Peninsula when Sommelier uttered a mildly panicked “Oh seal” (only he said it in French), before sheepishly admitting that he was driving in the general direction of the Tasman Peninsula, which was inconvenient, because we were trying to get to Orford.
“Where even is Orford?” I only now thought to enquire.
“It’s on the East Coast,” Sommelier offered, by way of discombobulating reply. “No matter!” he professed, upon consulting a map, “this road will still take us to Orford.”
And that, friends, is how we learned that just because some roads can get you to Orford, that doesn’t necessarily mean they should. We took the very back route there. So deep in the bush were we that we didn’t even have phone signal to call and admit our folly to our cruise operators.
We were literally within sight of the ferry terminal when we finally had enough signal for Michael, our captain, to get through to us and enquire as to our whereabouts and assure us that, since we weren’t far, he was happy to wait for us.
“Thank seal for that!” we thought, giving genuine thanks to whichever mischievous selkie got us into and then out of the back-road hijinks (which Sommelier maintains was definitely the work of a supernatural being, seeing as he definitely knew the way to Orford). We were calmer and much happier by the time we had found a park and our boat some 10 minutes later.
Safety demonstration completed and introductions made we left the sanctuary of the covered cabin to cop a face-full of bracing sea-air from the top deck. We had packed a lot of wet weather gear for the camera, anticipating a lot of sea-spray, but found our deck to be adequately dry and camera friendly.
Michael cut the engine a few times on the way out because we were fairly sure we saw a whale, Winter is an excellent time to spot whales in Tasmania. Though it never breached the water while the cameras were trained on it. We took great comfort in the knowledge that the ocean giants travel through the waters around Tasmania.
We heard the seals before we saw them, and Michael took a quiet opportunity to tell us about the behaviours very stressed seals will exhibit and how best we, as a group, could go about not distressing them as we slowly and very quietly rounded the corner to see them, in multitudes, basking on the rocks.
Laughter and caterwauling rose to greet us, sounding like a less sinister version of Ursula the Sea Witch’s laughter in ‘The Little Mermaid”. The fishy, blubbery smell of seals wafted over to us, vaguely reminiscent of fish and chip shops. The longer we looked the more the shapes we had thought were rocks turned out to be seals. Many entered the water when they saw us, eventually coming up to the boat to investigate once they were feeling bold enough. We sat in the boat and watched the protected species in their natural habitat for a long time before slowly creeping around the corner to explore the sea-caves.
There are a few caves that can be accessed in a boat when the weather is suitable. The weather was not entirely conducive to entering every cave, but Rainbow Cave, the main attraction, was still and calm enough for us to explore a little. Fellow claustrophobes need not fear, the cave is relatively shallow and the entrance is fully visible at all times. The sea eagles watched our cave exploration with mild interest from their perch upon the island. Barking of the seals could still be heard whenever the boat’s engine was still, even though only a few small families basked on the rocks near the caves.
With seals frolicking in the boat’s wake and we bid adieu to the little spit of granite that the silken dogs of the sea call a respite and carried on our way to explore some of the fun little features of Maria Island that can only be accessed by boat.
We have spent a lot of time exploring Maria Island, and would gladly spend a lot more, so we were thrilled to learn that there is a cave in Fossil Cliffs which we were lucky enough to be able to enter. The limestone megalith is the final resting ground of pre-historic marine fossils, between 500-360 million years old. Now these ancient wonders are frozen in stone, the sea gently reclaiming them one salty caress at a time.
We also passed briefly by Green Falls, which are the result of natural springs trickling down through the porous limestone of the cliff-face allowing for plant-life to develop and thrive in the adversity that the wind swept countenance of a sea-cliff.
We reached the final sight on our tour, Painted Cliffs, just at golden hour. Perfect warm light hit the cliffs and turned them into glowing, psychedelic crags with each overhang, ribbon of colour, and carefully sea-carved crevasse cast in glorious sunset. The 3ish hours spent on the tour were the perfect example of the little hidden wonders all around this island state. Our cruise ended on a happy note with a particularly adventurous seal greeting us in the harbour at Triabunna. It was encounters like these, from the harbour, that I once considered close and precious moments with Tasmania’s fur seal colonies. I now know of a new way to see them in an environment much more true to their curious, mischievous spirits.