It’s Sunday morning. I should be relaxing in bed, considering feeding cats breakfast. Instead, I’m underwater watching two sea lions chase each other, round and round, in playful circles.
Only two and a half hours from Perth lies seaside town Jurien Bay.
My biggest question is why I haven’t visited sooner: it’s got beautiful beaches and a sparkling ocean. And sea lions.
Indian Ocean Drive runs up the south-west coast, starting in Perth and ending a dusty 400km later in Geraldton. Opened less than 10 years ago, it’s slightly quicker than other routes, and connects coastal towns directly to Perth. Combined, it’s had a positive effect on the local economies of many places along the way. Including Jurien Bay.
I’ll write about other places along the Drive another time, but today is Jurien Bay. And, yes, its sea lions.
A Town Divided
This part of the coast was discovered by Europeans more than a century ago, and Jurien Bay got permanent buildings for the first time in the 1950s. Even those were reportedly little more than corrugated iron shacks.
In parts of Jurien Bay, there are still some original houses, built when it was a fishing industry town. There was a time when the seafood supply chain connected almost everyone; catching the fish, processing it, or selling seafood.
Rock lobster has since become a billion-dollar industry, and when the mining boom funnelled wealth into Western Australia, Jurien Bay benefitted.
Today there is a strange disconnect in the town. One street will have original weatherboard houses, but a short distance away, closer to the water, it’s more like a millionaire’s row.
What is also clear is the impact of the global financial crisis.
Some lots are half-finished, and faded billboards are still advertising land for sale. Fancy mansions stand almost as islands with their residents enjoying early evening drinks on their balconies overlooking deserted streets.
The housing boom might have looked like it would last forever, but Jurien Bay shows the high-water mark of where that wave broke and rolled back. As a town, it feels like it has a fractured identity.
The Mane Attraction
What I didn’t know until recently was that Jurien Bay is famous for its sea lions.
I have a decidedly amateur interest in marine biology, including sea turtle conservation, meeting seals on kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding adventures, and even swimming with wild dolphins last year. I leapt at the chance to meet sea lions.
Tourism is big business for towns like Jurien Bay. Climate change affects ocean temperatures, the fossil fuel industry is becoming less sustainable, and extreme and unpredictable weather events are becoming more common, so it’s important to support local economies.
Luckily, there are several sea lion tours to choose from in town, and during school holidays you definitely need to book in advance. We got the last two spots on the last tour with Sea Lion Charters — leaving first thing, 7:30 on Sunday morning.
The tour starts with a short journey out into the bay while the skipper blasts 80s Aussie anthems and shares his knowledge of the area with his passengers on board. But everyone on the boat is nervously thinking the same thing: what’s going to happen? Will we even see any sea lions?
Face to Face
This is no ordinary tour where you watch wildlife from the comfort of a boat. Here, you meet sea lions, face to face, in the water. You slip on a wetsuit, strap on a facemask and snorkel, and jump in the water — the sea lions are waiting to meet you.
Once the boat reaches the area of a nearby protected island in the bay, sea lions of all shapes and sizes are lounging about in the warm morning sun. Once they see us, it doesn’t take long for the sea lions to come swimming out to us.
Sometimes you observe sea lions swimming a little distance away from you, indifferent to your presence, doing their own sort of aquatic feline thing, other times more playful ones swim up and try to encourage you to join in a game.
Or a pair of playful sea lions, barely a metre away, will spend several minutes chasing each other in circles, over and over. You watch, transfixed, feeling like you have stumbled (or haplessly swum) into a nature documentary, but you can’t look away.
You watch until their endless twirling makes you start to feel dizzy, but the sea lions are content to keep on going like they are performing in a show just for you.
There is up to 16 people on a tour, and multiple tours in the same area — plus private boats also out to see the wildlife, so it might seem like it gets crowded in the water, but it’s a big ocean. You can swim happily and peacefully on your own, and a smiling sea lion will rocket past underneath you, or you might be among a small group of people, and just as you put your face into the water notice, a sea lion friend is swimming, unnoticed, by your feet.
Tours have the option to hire a GoPro camera so you can take photos or shoot video of the experience. I’m only glad that I didn’t take it up, because any video footage would be soundtracked by my excited swearing when a sea lion swims by.
With this sort of thing, you can think you know what to expect. Even if you know you are going to meet sea lions, sometimes literally being face to face with them if they are feeling curious about you, nothing can prepare you for how that feels when it happens.
It’s exhilarating and humbling and emotional.
Jurien Bay is so close to Perth, and an adventure to meet the town’s sea lions is an easy and unique experience.