During our road trip along Australia’s East Coast, we went swimming with seals from Narooma to Barunguba (Montague Island), just a short boat ride away. As you approach Barunguba, you immediately hear birds singing and see seals swimming and splashing in the water. It’s a nature reserve that 15 species of birds and a couple of species of seals call home.
Barunguba (Montague Island) is a place wildlife lovers should not miss when travelling in New South Wales.
But Barunguba (Montague Island) hasn’t always been like that. The ecosystem of the island almost disappeared because of human activities. A plan to protect the island was designed before it was too late. The place was set as a protected reserve, and it’s now a paradise for local wildlife. And part of this is possible thanks to the fees charged to visitors – which helps justify the cost of all activities there. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature listed the reserve among the best managed in the world.
I realised two dreams in a few hours around Barunguba (Montague Island): swimming with seals and watching little penguins a from a few metres away.
From September to November, you may even add another bucket list item: seeing humpback whales. We chose to travel there in summer to maximise our chances of good weather. Still, our morning tour got postponed to the afternoon because of the wind and strong waves. It is recommended to be flexible when planning to visit Barunguba (Montague Island).
Swimming with seals (Narooma / Barunguba Montague Island)
I snorkelled with sea lion pups before in South Australia and loved it. I expected swimming with seals to be quite similar, but our dive ended up being a totally different experience. Less interactive, but a lot more impressive. Another destination that made it on my list of the best dive sites on Australia’s East Coast and the best places to see wildlife in Australia.
The seals came very close to us; I could even feel the water moving as they swam passed us.
Despite their size, they are surprisingly agile in the water. It felt like a game as we had to turn around our heads in all directions to follow their movement.
We shared the experience with snorkellers at the surface who had a fantastic time too. The seals keep coming up to the surface so the experience is definitely worth it for both divers and snorkellers. Don’t be too worried about sharks, they are not that interested in the seals hanging around Montague Island. Sharks would mostly hunt pups, and there are none on Montague Island. The residents are young adult males; they call them the bachelors.
We spotted other beautiful creatures down there while diving, including a gorgeous banjo ray that I had never seen before. We also appreciated the beautiful background of kelp and red algae that looked very different from the tropical dives we are used to in Queensland.
You can book your snorkelling tour online*.
Watching Little Penguins on Barunguba (Montague Island)
After spending the day fishing at sea, thousands of Little Penguins come back at dusk to spend the night on the island.
The boat we boarded for the Penguin Tour only had a dozen people on board. It was a good number to be able to move freely on the different sides and take photos of the groups of seals we could spot on the rocks. Unfortunately, the intimacy did not last for long. All the boat tours merge once on the island, forming a group of about 70 people during the peak season.
The ranger apologised as facilities were not adapted for such a big group. I was a bit sad not being able to hear all he was saying, but at least this success also means they can raise a lot of money for conservation.
When the time arrived, we sat on the ground next to the markers they placed as the limit of the newly organised authorised area as the platform filled up quickly. We were in the front row, trying to get our eyes to adjust to the increasing darkness. It didn’t take long to spot the first penguin. All we could see really was a shape moving differently than the other birds there. And I was already happy with that!
I never expected what would happen next.
After a while, one penguin jumped from the rocks to the road a few metres away from us. I was in awe. And just a few minutes after it left, two others appeared. A few minutes later, we had more than five cute little penguins chilling just a few metres away from where we were sitting. We could not have been closer without disturbing them. It was amazing.
Responsible travel tip: Always follow the rules given by the ranger. The rules exist to protect the beauty of the place you are visiting or the wildlife you are watching. I know photos don’t look that good in the dark and it’s tempting to think one flash may not be such a big deal. But with more than 70 visitors per night, it does make a difference in the end.
Climbing the lighthouse on Montague Island
I love lighthouses: they are often located in very scenic areas, and from up there the views are unbeatable. When you book a tour of Barunguba (Montague Island), you get access to the lighthouse. Because of a large number of people who arrived at the same time as us for the penguin evening tour, our visit to the lighthouse was short. But we just had enough time to have a peek at the sunset colours from up there. Studded with granite boulders and trees gaining back territory, the island offers beautiful colour contrasts.
Where to stay when you visit Barunguba (Montague Island)
Barunguba/Montague Island tours leave from Narooma. You can stay on the island, in the lighthouse cottage, but it’s pricey.
We camped 15 minutes south of Narooma, in Mystery Bay. If you don’t want to camp, there are many accommodation options available in Narooma (click here for a list*).
Things to do in Narooma before or after your trip to Barunguba (Montague Island)
Before embarking on the boat to go swimming with seals and see little penguins, or when you come back, look for bull rays in the marina. When we visited, they were hanging around the boats or next to where fishermen clean their fish, waiting to grab what they’d release in the water. They’re big, beautiful and nothing but shy. Quite a fantastic experience, especially for those who aren’t fans of going in the water!
Next to the jetty in Narooma, you’ll find Australian Rock. It’s a rock with a hole that has the shape of Australia’s mainland. You can also spot it from the boat as you head to Montague Island. Have a look at the rocks that lead to the channel while you’re there. You’ll probably spot a seal or two.
If you have time to go to Surf Beach, the Glasshouse rocks are beautiful. There’s a cafe there, so it can be a good spot to start your day. And if you’re staying at Mystery Bay, it’s worth checking out the beach. The rock formations are rather nice, especially if you go left towards the small cave.
Did you go seeing little penguins or swimming with seals (Narooma or elsewhere)? Share your experience in the comments below!
Where is Barunguba (Montague Island) and Narooma?
Barunguba (Montague Island) is the second-largest island off the New South Wales East Coast (Lord Howe Island is the largest). It is less than 10 km away from Narooma, the coastal town from where the tours leave. Narooma is about six hours south of Sydney and less than three hours from Canberra by car.
Although it’s a lot quicker to reach Barunguba (Montague Island) from Canberra, it’s unfortunately often a lot more expensive to fly to Canberra than to Sydney. So is it worth it to go to Barunguba (Montague Island) via Canberra? I admit I am not a big fan of the Australian capital, but I’m glad I stopped there once on my way back from a trip to the NSW South Coast. I wouldn’t put it at the top of the must-see in Australia, but it was an interesting visit. And I would honestly feel weird to spend that long in Australia without visiting the capital. If you’re planning to go there, check out this guide to things to do in Canberra.
Barunguba (Montague Island) is one of the stops on my Australia’s East Coast road trip guide that you can download for free here.
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