Every trip has its favorite moment. It’s often unexpected, maybe even unplanned. It may surprise us or take our breath away or teach us something we didn’t know before. It’s top of mind, the thing we’re quick to talk about when friends ask what we liked best about a place. For whatever intangible reason, the experience hits us at our core, weaving itself into the fabric of who we are. We carry it with us long after our travels have ended, and we’re never quite the same because of it.
For me, the crowning moment in an itinerary rich with many highlights was a place called Cape Woolamai, on the southeastern tip of Phillip Island, Australia. Truth be told, I had never heard of Philip Island before this trip. I looked it up on a map; I googled things to do there. It sounded nice, but certainly not as exciting as other stops on the voyage.
But an excursion by the Seabourn Ventures expedition team piqued my interest – a hike on Cape Woolamai’s beach and trail to see thousands of short-tailed shearwaters return home to their nests at sunset. Second confession of this story: I had never heard of shearwaters, either.
Our group of about twenty arrived at Cape Woolamai Beach at 5:30 p.m., giving us almost three hours to hike before sunset. We headed down wooden steps from the parking lot to the beach below and began our walk along the sand. It’s a spectacular setting, rimmed in a backdrop of pink-toned granite cliffs, and is a popular surfing spot. With evening fast approaching, the beach was nearly empty, spreading out before us as if we had reserved the place just for our group.
We had only walked a short distance when expedition team ornithologist Joe Cockram discovered a hooded plover not too far from where we were walking. It’s a rare species, Joe told us, with about 300 pairs found only in southern Australia and Tasmania. A few more feet along the beach, we came upon several great cormorants. Wildlife sightings were already starting, and we hadn’t even reached the trail!
We came to another set of wooden stairs that led to the Cape Woolamai trail, which runs above the beach. Before we had reached the top, a wallaby hopped out of the nearby hillside and disappeared into higher grasses. We stopped to quickly take photos, but soon realized that this sighting was only a prelude of what was to come. Wallabies seemed to be everywhere. Like clever cartoon characters, they would watch us from a distance, perched on their hind legs, ready to take off in an instant. I loved photographing them in their grassy golden habitat.
Further down the trail we were stopped in our tracks again. An echidna was slowly working its way across the path. A fascinating-looking creature with a distinctive spiny back, tiny eyes and a long snout, the echidna was easier to photograph than its fast-hopping wallaby neighbors.
Surrounding this wonderland of wildlife discovery was the scenery. Incredibly beautiful vistas overlooking the Bass Strait greeted us at every turn. The light kept changing as the evening grew on, shining on the water and bathing the granite cliffs in a spectrum of pinks, reds and oranges. By the time we reached the Pinnacles rock formation, it was almost sunset.
We headed back on the trail to reach the viewing spot for the evening’s main attraction – the shearwaters’ return. About a million short-tailed shearwaters migrate every year in mid-September from the Aleutian Islands near Alaska to the shores of Phillip Island. These hardy seabirds build nests in underground burrows and lay one egg per breeding pair. After the babies are born, both parents leave the nests for up to three weeks at time in search of food. To avoid predators, they return to their nests under the cover of darkness. After several days, they start the whole process again until the babies are strong enough to survive on their own. In April, they begin the return trek north to Alaska and then come back to Phillip Island in the fall.
I had my doubts about how many shearwaters we would actually see, but after encountering so much unexpected wildlife and being dazzled by the magnificent setting, I was beginning to think that seeing thousands might be a real possibility. As we walked along the shearwaters’ nesting areas, I was struck by the thought of a baby bird waiting alone for weeks, deep inside the burrow, for its parents to return with food. And I was fascinated that these birds would know which nest was their own. In the dark.
We waited in a small open area along the trail, watching the sun disappear over the Bass Strait. A crescent moon appeared, and soon we could see the Southern Cross constellation. Joe gave a short talk on the shearwaters’ journey, but before he stopped speaking, he smiled. “The only thing that would make this even more special,” he said, “is if we had some champagne!” And on cue, another expedition member reached into his backpack and pulled out a bottle of champagne and glasses for all of us. We raised our glasses and toasted the moment. In my wildest imagination, I never thought I would find myself drinking champagne on a clifftop in Australia, waiting for birds to appear after dark.
And then they began to arrive. At first, a few dotted the night sky, and then more – and more – until there must have been thousands swirling around us. It felt a little like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds – without the fear factor – and I was torn between wanting to savor the experience and wanting to record it. I captured a few photos, and Herb shot a short video.
With birds still darting overhead, we made our way to the wooden staircase and began to retrace our route back along the beach. It was a romantic scene, the sound of the waves and the pinholes of light from our phones dotting the sand. The sea was washing up along a shore that had been so pristine just a few hours earlier, and we stayed close to the cliffs to avoid the heavy wet sand that grabbed hold of our shoes.
Maybe it was just my imagination, but the sand that night didn’t seem to want to let us go. Or maybe it was just me who didn’t want the night to end.