Trouble in Australia’s humpback whale paradise as tourists dry up


by Duncan Murray

Located just a few hours south of Sydney on Australia’s scenic east coast, Jervis Bay is as popular with ocean-dwelling visitors as it is with those on land.

Every year, mother and calf humpback whales use the large, protected bay as a rest-stop on their journey between breeding grounds in the north, and Antarctica where they spend the summer feeding.

While the whales have visited Jervis Bay far longer than anyone has been around to witness, in recent years the area has also grown immensely popular among international tourists looking for an easy escape from Sydney.

The bay itself, which is two and a half times larger than Sydney Harbour, boasts crystal clear waters, the whitest sand in the southern hemisphere, and the chance to witness whales and dolphins up close, all just a few hours drive from the city.

So popular has the area become, that the local economy is now majorly focused on catering for tourists — a position which proved devastatingly precarious with the onset of COVID-19.

Dolphin Watch Cruises was the first company ever to offer ocean tours on Jervis Bay, initially just of the local dolphin population before it expanded to whales too, with 2020 marking its 30th year in operation.

However, instead of celebrating the milestone, the business has been struggling to keep fuel in the tank and its boats on the water.
“For 30 years we ran everyday, and then COVID-19 happened. For a town that relies on tourism it’s been a very, very difficult year,” manager at Dolphin Watch Cruises Jet Jones told Xinhua.

Without the government’s JobKeeper stimulus payments, Jones explained the business would already be underwater.

“The good thing is we’ve done it for 30 years, so we’ve seen almost everything a few times — but we really need a good summer to keep paying the bills,” Jones said.

“And then hopefully we can get our international tourists back because that was a big part of our operation down here.”

Only in the past few years has word spread around the world of Jervis Bay’s unique charm, drawing more and more visitors, a large portion of which were from China.

“It’s sort of a new destination, even though we’ve always been here, it’s been a bit of a secret how good it was,” Jones said.
“And all of our people on board the boats know how to say at least a few things in Chinese because we would get so many new Chinese friends every day.”
A standing monument to Jervis Bay’s popularity with Chinese visitors is the House of Guangzhou restaurant, which overlooks the cruise-boat wharf.
Guests would walk straight from the docks having witnessed whales in their natural habitat, to enjoy a familiar Chinese meal in a spectacular setting — all of which gave the local economy an equally spectacular boost.

However, with no visitors from China since travel bans were introduced back in February, House of Guangzhou has been forced to temporarily close its doors and join forces with smaller partner restaurant, James Kitchen.

Offering hope to the region has been the heartwarming support of locals, who flooded back to grab a takeaway or sit down meal at James Kitchen when it reopened — as well as renewed interest from domestic tourists.

“We’re seeing a lot of people who have never got around to do something like a whale cruise saying that this is the time, and it’s a pretty fun way to support a community,” Jones said.

There is cautious hope in Jervis Bay that businesses will weather the storm and return to normal soon. Buoying spirits is talk of reopening domestic borders or even the possibility of international travel bubbles between countries that have successfully contained the virus.

With the promise of visitors returning sometime in the near future, Jones is confident his company will be on the water for at least another 30 years, and welcoming new friends from China for just as long.

“Being so close to Sydney, you can go from China, to a plane, to on a boat with me looking at dolphins all in one day,” Jones said.

“It’s amazing, it feels like another world, so hopefully that starts to happen again soon.”

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