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April 16, 2024

Montague Island: Lighthouses, whales and seals...Oh my!

By CARTER BANKER | November 8, 2012

Whales!” someone shouted, and everyone on the boat jumped out of their seats. We strained our eyes to catch even the slightest glimpse of the magnificent beasts.

Finally, off the left side of the boat I spotted two puffs from a pair of blowholes as the whales, as if in slow motion, emerged from the water. One child on the boat took on the role of tour guide and shouted “There!” every time the whales reemerged and broke the surface of the water.

I was on my way to Montague Island, an escape from civilization just 9 km off the coast of Narooma, New South Wales, Australia.  The boat route to the island intersected with the humpback whale migration route and it was rare not to see a whale or two in transit.

As the captain directed the boat toward the island, the rocks along the shore suddenly sprung to life with movement. Hundreds of Australian fur seals started bobbing up and down and then waddling their way over the edge and sliding into the sea below.

Their lack of grace on land was made up for by their finesse in the water. The boat was completely surrounded by leaping and twirling seals. If the water were warmer perhaps I would have jumped in with them.

When we land on the tiny island, home to NSW’s largest colony of Little Penguins, we were greeted by one of the alternating lighthouse keepers/tour guides/National Park officials named Steve Hutcheson.

Hutcheson revealed the Aboriginal history of the island and the significance that it played in their legends. Apparently in the 1800s, Montague Island was taken over by Europeans who built the lighthouse that stands prominently at the center of the island today. These men, however, destroyed the habitat of the island, by introducing foreign plants and animals that decimated the penguin population, and by using the island as a rubbish bin.

“When National Parks took the island over in the late 1980s, the island was basically hanging on by a thread. The environment was virtually destroyed,” said Hutcheson.

National Parks workers like Hutcheson have since rid the island of all introduced species and are working to replant the native vegetation. Today, eight years after the initiative began, you would never know that the island ever looked any different.

Hutcheson said, “The whole western side of the island, we know for a fact before European settlement, was fully forested, and I mean Australian bush, 20 meter gum trees.”

The island is not covered in gum trees like it once was; those will take time to grow. But the virgin landscape of the island, a tremendous granite rock covered in rich green grass and emerging new plant life makes the island so inviting that I just wanted to ditch the tour and find a nice place to recline and watch the ocean crash against the rocks.

But Hutcheson warned us at the beginning of the tour that we weren’t allowed to wander off for fear we would stumble upon sacred Aboriginal territory on the island.

I finished with a climb up the winding lighthouse stairs. Emerging at the top I was rewarded with a stunning 365-degree view of the island. I looked out over the water to see if I could spot any more whales.

No such luck, but I thought back to my last glimpse of the whales before we drove away in the boat; a tail swinging up out of the water and then crashing back down again. A wave goodbye perhaps? I had considered that to be an auspicious beginning to the afternoon and indeed it was.

For any of my readers planning to study abroad in Australia who are interested in exploring Montague Island, I picked up some details for you.

Day Tour 3.5 hours — $125 pp.

Day Tour 5 hours — $149 pp.

To see the penguins up close, book the sunset tour. They only come out in the night and early morning, so it isn’t likely that you will see them during a day tour. $155 pp.

To stay overnight on the island there are two options. The first is a two-night eco tour that is fully catered and guided, and gives you the opportunity to participate in the Penguin Survey, helping to monitor the penguin colony on the island. $595 pp for two nights.

The second option is a self-guided stay for up to 12 people for ages 12 and up. Food is not included, but you have access to a fully equipped kitchen.

Both programs house guests in the fully renovated Lighthouse Head Keepers Quarters, which has five bedrooms, two showers and two toilets. 2 nights $3600, 3 nights $4800.

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