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Whale watching without the queues
Whale watching without the queues

There are two surprising things about whales, apart from the fact that they evolved from hairy, four-legged animals. The first is that whale calves put on about 90kg a day during spring feeding. The second is that these little fatties go to preschool.

Point Ann in the Fitzgerald River National Park is the best place in Australia to see these giant water babies at play. In fact, it is one of only two places in Australia where southern right whales and humpbacks consistently come to calve in big numbers (the other being the head of the Bight in South Australia).

Between July and November up to 40 mothers and calves at a time can be seen visiting this very special maternity ward.

Fitzgerald River National Park covers an area of 330,000ha and lies on the central south coast between Bremer Bay and Hopetoun, 420km south-east of Perth.

"Worthless" was the opinion of early explorers. Today it is recognised by the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organisation as a World Biosphere Reserve.

More than 1800 bizarre and beautiful plant species have been identified, 75 of which are found nowhere else (not to mention 209 bird types, 22 mammals, 41 reptiles and 12 different frogs).

But these are just numbers. The pure joy of wild places - like art, love, sex and all the other passions - cannot be quantified.

I always love this little coastal corner from the moment I arrive. I love the wildflowers doing their spring thing. A floral coast of pink flowers, white sand and turquoise water is as whimsical as a child's crayon drawing. Everything tells me this is special.

I love that there are no garish billboards advertising whale- watching tours, no queues and no fake captains with gold braids on their shoulders. On this day I am acutely aware I am the only human being on this windswept stretch of beach.

I count five whales hanging like logs in the water and I can just make out the little blobs beside them.

But this is no whale version of a Club Med kids club - it's boot camp for junior. In the calm, protected waters the calves learn the life skills needed to make the long return journey to the Antarctic.

The mechanics of spy-hopping, tail slapping and breaching are taught and practised, as well as tail lobbing, flipper slapping and head standing. The calves also learn how to feed and how to utilise the tides and currents.

Today the mothers and babies are about 100m offshore but I have heard that they sometimes come as close as 6m. From the purpose-built whale-watching platform I lift my binoculars and gaze in awe as the first lesson of the day, raising a tail fluke, gets under way.

With the grace of a ballet dancer the tail fluke is positioned at right angles to the wind and is used like a sail to propel these 80-tonne entertainers from one end of the bay to the other. The second lesson of the day, lying like a log, isn't as much fun and I move on.

With the whales on my left and a lone gull for company I follow the well-marked trail through the coastal heathland to Point Ann. The air is sharp and smells of sea and of flowers.

I try to identify the grevilleas, orchids and daisies by name, but the shapes and forms are subtly different to anything I have seen.

This is the land of the aptly named Ouch bush, the tennis ball banksia and the flamboyant "cabbage on a stick", the royal hakea. And with strange plants comes strange animals - a small marsupial called the dibbler, a ground-dwelling parrot and a rare heath rat.

Just off the track I stumble across some remnant fence posts.

A series of signs informs me Point Ann was the start of the rabbit-proof fence. Construction of the No.1 rabbit-proof fence began in 1901 stretching 1834km from the south coast to the north-west coast. But soon rabbits had found their way inside, so in 1905 the No. 2 rabbit-proof fence was built.

Stretching 1164km from Point Ann, the new fence joined the original fence line at Gum Creek.

On the ground at my feet lies a portion of the fence, now in tatters and almost consumed by a carpet of pink flowers. I love the fact that nature is in charge here.

From Point Ann it is a lovely drive through the national park to my home for the night, Quaalup Homestead Wilderness Retreat.

The late afternoon sun sets the orange, red and gold flowers alight. I stop constantly for photographs and the 45-minute drive takes two hours.

With West Mt Barren as my constant companion, I can't recall a drive I have enjoyed more.

Quaalup sits within the national park and is the ideal base for exploring the region.

Visitors can access walking trails, climb West Mt Barren, kayak on the Gairdner River or drive out to Trigelow beach. The heritage-listed homestead, built in 1858 by the Wellstead family, lends a special charm to the place.

With just enough light in the sky I head out on the nature trail to the main ridge.

Later that evening I sit outside with owner Karin Quetschke.

"It was beautiful here today," I say to Karen.

"It's beautiful here every day," she replies with a smile.

  • Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Tourism Western Australia.