Time your trip to Australia with these incredible seasonal wildlife events.
By Victoria Johnson, Journey Beyond
Australia is home to an extraordinary array of wildlife, much of which can be spotted all year round. There are, however, a series of spectacular seasonal fauna events that take place around the country which are bound to impress even the keenest wildlife-watcher. Pack your binoculars.
When: November – January
Where: Christmas Island
Christmas Island, off the far north-west coast of Australia, is home to an estimated 40-50 million bright red land crabs. Each year, at the start of the wet season, a spectacular awakening occurs. Mother Nature literally rolls out the red carpet as hordes of crabs emerge from the island’s forests and march their way down to the ocean to breed. Timing is linked to the phases of the moon, so that eggs can be released into the ocean at the exact turn of the high tide. It’s a sensational sight - the crabs move in streams, climbing down cliff faces and over obstacles, following the same routes used year after year. After several weeks, the larvae-turned-tiny crabs emerge from the ocean and begin the week-long journey inland. The red crab carpet then disappears into the forests, not to be seen until the crabs reach adulthood - and the cycle begins again.
Tip: If you’re planning a trip, check here for possible spawning dates, and time your visit accordingly. Remember, it’s a natural event, so dates are predictions only.
When: November – January (nesting), January – March (hatching)
Where: Southern Great Barrier Reef
If you love turtles, Queensland is the perfect location to see their incredible cycle of life for yourself. Although turtles can be found in a few key hotspots around Australia, they tend to be particularly prolific in the Southern Great Barrier Reef region, which spans from the coastal town of Bundaberg to Yeppoon. If you’re visiting in summer (November to January), you’ll be treated to the sight of massive female green and loggerhead turtles hauling themselves onto the beaches of mainland Mon Repos and the tiny islands of Lady Elliot, Heron and Lady Musgrave to lay their eggs. From January onwards, witness the race to the water as the tiny hatchlings start to push their way out of their sandy nests and scurry down to the ocean – it’s quite an incredible sight.
Tip: Hatching generally happens in the cool of the evenings or very early mornings, so it’s best to stay overnight to increase your turtle-spotting chances.
When: March – July
Where: Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia
For a chance to swim next to the largest fish in the ocean, head to Western Australia for the incredible whale shark migration. These gentle giants gather annually off Western Australia’s Coral Coast, which is home to the famous Ningaloo Reef. Although whale sharks’ exact migration patterns remain a mystery, they seem to arrive around March each year and stick around until mid-winter (July or August). So, what’s the best way to see these colossal creatures up close? The simple answer is to dive right in. Local tour operators in Exmouth and Coral Bay run whale shark swim tours, where you’ll get to float alongside these gargantuan fish. A helicopter flies overhead as a spotter, so in case you were envisaging hours of treading water waiting for whale sharks to make their cameo, there’s no cause for concern. Simply relax in comfort on the boat, then when a whale shark is spotted it’s time to jump in.
Tip: To get back to nature, spend a few nights at Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef. It’s a beachside safari camp with all the luxury trimmings – and they’ll even organise your whale shark tour for you.
When: Late January – April
Where: Bremer Bay, Western Australia
If you haven’t heard of Bremer Bay, you’re probably not alone - it’s only been a few years since this tiny community on the remote south coast of Western Australia was thrust into the eco-tourism spotlight with the discovery of the ‘Bremer Canyon’. In a nutshell, the Bremer Canyon is a series of oceanic rifts 70 kilometres (43 miles) from shore which funnel cool, nutrient-rich waters upwards, attracting an abundance of marine life. While photos and newspaper clippings of this local phenomenon have adorned the walls of the Bremer Bay pub for decades, the hype only set in when ABC documentary ‘The Search for the Ocean's Super Predator’ was aired in 2013. The program revealed a deep-sea battlefield that takes place every autumn, where apex predators including orcas, giant squid and great white sharks come to feast each year. Orcas are the highlight – you can join a daily research boat tour where the sighting rate is 98% – making it a highly reliable expedition and one of the largest congregations of killer whales in the southern hemisphere.
Tip: Pre-book overnight accommodation in Bremer Bay so you’re ready for the early wake up call.
When: July- November
Where: Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory
Voted Australia’s number one bird watching destination by Australian Geographic, a trip to Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory should be on any keen twitcher’s bucket list. Home to more than 280 types of birds – that’s around a third of Australia’s species – birdwatchers will be in paradise in this lush national park near Darwin. The best time to birdwatch here is during the dry season (May to October) – especially towards the end, as the water recedes, and the birds congregate on shrinking billabongs and waterholes. Large water sources such as Yellow Water Billabong and Mamukala Wetlands become a haven for magpie geese, plumed whistling ducks, brolgas, jabirus and egrets, which makes for phenomenal photography.
Tip: Visit during Kakadu Bird Week in early October to enjoy an array of bird watching activities, wetlands cruises and guided experiences with the area’s traditional owners.
When: May - August
Where: Lady Elliot Island
Although they can be spotted in various locations on both the Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo Reef throughout the year, there’s a tiny island off the coast of Bundaberg in Queensland that is undeniably the cream of the crop when it comes to spotting manta rays. Known as ‘the home of the manta ray’ and featured in David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef documentary, Lady Elliot Island in the Southern Great Barrier Reef has made a name for itself as a hotspot for these giant kites of the sea. Mantas can be seen feeding around the island year-round, but aggregate in larger numbers during the winter months (July to September). And, if conditions are optimal and plankton is abundant, you might be lucky enough to witness what’s known as a ‘feeding frenzy’ - the sensational sight of large groups of mantas feeding at the water’s surface.
Tip: Plan your trip well in advance; the island’s only 43-room eco resort is super popular and books out for much of the year, especially during manta ray and turtle nesting season.
When: May – November
Where: West and east coasts of Australia
Ok, so you’ve been whale watching, and you’re thinking ‘what’s the big deal?’. The big deal is the sheer number of whales that migrate along Australia’s east and west coasts – we’re talking tens of thousands of humpbacks, not to mention a solid smattering of southern right and blue whales. The whales head north to the warmer waters of Tropical North Queensland and the Kimberley to calve then back down the coast, resulting in the longest whale watching season in the world. Hotspots on the east coast include the Whitsundays, Hervey Bay, the Gold Coast, Sydney and the Sunshine Coast, where you can even swim with humpback whales. Over in Western Australia, your best whale watching spots are the coastal towns of Albany, Augusta, Busselton, Fremantle and Broome.
Tip: For an extra-special whale experience, head to the waters of the northern Great Barrier Reef in June or July to spot rare dwarf minke whales, which congregate annually at the Ribbon Reefs.
When: July – September
Where: Cairns or Port Douglas
There’s only one spot on the planet where you can swim with dwarf minke whales – and only a few lucky people get the chance to do so each year. These six-tonne (6.6-ton) creatures are renowned for their fascination with humans – they’re so curious they have been known to spend hours swimming back and forth around divers, making eye contact and even bringing their calves for a look. However, they only congregate on the Great Barrier Reef for a brief period each winter (July to September) and swimming with them is a fiercely guarded privilege. Whether you take a daytrip from the town of Port Douglas or join a multi-day liveaboard expedition from the region’s main city, Cairns, your interaction doesn’t start until the whales decide to approach. Once your boat is in the right area, you’ll slip into the water and float, snorkel mask on, while holding onto a rope. Then you’ll simply wait until the curious creatures decide to come to investigate – usually, something that happens within a matter of minutes. It’s definitely a bucket list experience for an avid diver or wildlife lover.
Tip: Only a handful of operators are licensed to offer the experience, so be sure to book your spot well in advance.
Where: Stony Point, Eyre Peninsula
Swim with the Giant Cuttlefish is a tour in South Australia that takes you snorkelling with the amazing giant cuttlefish at Stony Point, located on the coastline of the Upper Spencer Gulf Marine Park in the Eyre Peninsula. Their two-day tour itinerary, which has departures available to book during the cuttlefish migration season in July, is packed with added benefits that include exclusive cuttlefish insights by a marine expert, sightseeing through the wilderness of the Southern Flinders Ranges and hiking along the rugged Alligator Gorge in the Mount Remarkable National Park. The tour includes return transport from Adelaide and all equipment.
Tip: This only happens once per year, so plan your trip carefully.