To Tasman Island

A massive school of bottlenose dolphins approaching our Zodiac. Photo by David Lansing.

Sunday morning I fly back to Sydney and then on to Fiji so I thought today I’d do something a little bit wilder than visiting cheeseries and saffron farms. So at my friend Malcolm’s recommendation, I booked a four-hour wilderness eco-cruise between Port Arthur and Eaglehawk Neck. The tour information I got said to “dress very warmly.” I asked Malcolm what that meant.

“Well, I’d wear thermal underwear if you’ve got it,” he said. I told him I hadn’t packed my thermal underwear. I wasn’t expecting to go skiing. My choice, he said, but it would be bloody cold out on the water. “You’re going to be on the edge of the Southern Ocean. It can be tempestuous.”

So here’s how I dressed at 6:30 this morning: I put the bottoms of my track suit underneath my jeans and on top I wore a long-sleeved turtle neck shirt, a thick polo shirt, topped by a fleece jacket and a water-proof parka. Surely, I thought, that would keep me warm.

When I showed up at Tasman Island Cruises in Port Arthur a little after nine, they issued me a full-body water-proof Gortex suit. I asked them if I was to take off my other jackets and coats or put the Goretex suit on over them. “Put it over your clothes,” they said.

I guess they weren’t kidding about it being cold.

Still, it all seemed a bit much to me. The morning was gorgeous and there wasn’t a breath of wind when we pulled out of Port Arthur, siddling past the old convict’s prison and the Isle of the Dead. There were a dozen or so school kids aboard our vessel which was basically an over-sized Zodiac with maybe two-dozen blue plastic seats, all with seat belts (I should have known from the fact that we were instructed to always wear our seatbelts that this wasn’t going to be a gentle float down the river).

We looked at some seabird rookeries and saw lots of lazy seals sunning on the rocks and then circumnavigated the towering sea cliffs of Tasman Island and Cape Pillar. It was as we were admiring the old lighthouse atop Tasman Island that I first noticed the very black sky to our south. Our captain and tour guide (both named Damian: “Most folks call us Damo and Damo”) had noticed it to.

“We just need to get past the point and we’ll be okay,” said one of the Damos. The sea got choppy and the other Damo lurched around the Zodiac handing out wool caps to put on underneath our Goretex hoods. At first I declined but then it started to rain a bit and I grabbed a cap. Five minutes later, all hell broke loose. It was the most amazing meteorological event I’d ever experienced. We went from a cool but mild morning to a very scary storm, complete with hail coming in sideways at us thanks to gusts of sixty miles per hour, in just a matter of minutes. Everyone, including me, sealed themselves up in the Goretex as tightly as they could. I left only the tiniest of slits above my nose for my eyes.

Mind you, I was wearing more clothes than I’ve ever worn skiing—including helicopter skiing in Canada—and I was still shivering with cold. Nobody spoke. The water had really gotten turbulent. Everyone just held on as best they could while one of the Damos gunned the Zodiac up the coast trying to outrun the storm. Eventually we came around the point he’d been aiming for and just like that, the wind and rain ceased. I pulled down my hood, grateful to be out of the storm, and looked out on the horizon. Coming directly towards us was what looked like a river of white water. Something—thousands of somethings—were breaking the water up ahead and coming our way.

“Dolphins,” said one of the Damos. “Thousands of them.”

And that’s what it was. The largest school of giant bottlenose dolphins I’d ever seen or heard about. Damo estimated there had to be at least three- or four-thousand of the animals. They surrounded our Zodiac and swam beside us and in front of us and underneath us. One of the largest cruised right next to us and began intentionally spanking his flipper against the water as he swam, soaking us. He did it over and over again. “Bastard knows what he’s doing,” said Damo.

This went on for fifteen or twenty minutes. And then, just like the storm that had appeared out of nowhere from the Southern Ocean, the dolphins were gone and the sea was still again.

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