The Great Australian Bight is the unique natural open bay stretching across the southern coastline of Australia. It’s considered part of the Southern Ocean and is home to a variety of marine life and endangered mammals. It is also an important part of the country’s fishing industry with some of the highest quality seafood found in the waters of The Bight.
The Eyre Peninsula dominates the eastern part of the bay, with the western coast of the peninsula forming the easternmost coast of the Great Australian Bight. The Eyre Peninsula is one of the most popular places for people to explore the Bight, as it’s easily accessible from Adelaide and has a range of activities for people to enjoy both in the sea and on land. This article outlines everything that you need to know about the Great Australian Bight including its natural history and things to do on the coast.
Table of Contents
- 1 What is the Great Australian Bight?
- 2 Natural history of the Great Australian Bight
- 3 Human exploration of the Great Australian Bight
- 4 The exploration attempts from Big Oil
- 5 How to explore the Great Australian Bight
- 6 Things to see and do at the Great Australian Bight
- 7 While you’re on The Eyre Peninsula:
What is the Great Australian Bight?
The Great Australian Bight is the large open bay that stretches from Cape Carnot on the Eyre Peninsula to Cape Pasley near Esperance in Western Australia. It is the most defining feature of the entire southern coastline of Australia and covers around 45, 822 square kilometres. The ocean depths of the bay vary from 15 metres up to 6000 metres at the deepest point.
The waters of The Bight are considered part of the Indian Ocean which is often referred to as the Southern Ocean in this part of Australia. There’s no landmass to the south until the icebergs of Antarctica and the semi-arid Nullarbor Plain stretches to the north along most of the coastline. The Eyre Peninsula characterises the easternmost section of the bay which is a triangular-shaped point off the coast of South Australia. It plays a crucial role in the unique ecosystem and biodiversity found in the waters off the coast and is home to a variety of wildlife.
The area of the large bay is covered under the Great Australian Bight Marine Park which has similar protections to land-based national parks in Australia. The coastline is also home to some national parks such as Coffin Bay National Park on the Eyre Peninsula.
Natural history of the Great Australian Bight
The Great Australian Bight is a naturally formed bay that came into existence around 50 million years ago when Australia and Antarctica drifted apart from each other. The coastline is made up of spectacular limestone sea cliffs on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain, which was once a seabed itself millions of years ago. This semi-arid landscape which runs for much of the coastline provides few nutrients and little surface runoff. However, the unique currents around the Eyre Peninsula delivers seasonal upwelling of deep ocean water which injects rich nutrients into the Southern Ocean. This helps biodiversity thrive in the Great Australian Bight with unique species that aren’t found anywhere else in Australia.
The Great Australian Bight and warm waters around the Eyre Peninsula also provide important habitat for marine life. In particular, two endangered mammals call the Southern Ocean home, the Southern Right Whales and Australian sea lions. The former is only seen off the coast in the winter months when they migrate from Antarctica to the warmer waters of The Bight. The latter is endemic to Australia and breed in colonies along most of the coastline. Bottlenose dolphins and leafy sea dragons can also be found in The Bight. Many of these beautiful mammals are what attracts visitors to the coast in the first place, with a chance to encounter some of these animals considered a once in a lifetime experience.
The Bight is also one of Australia’s premier seafood frontiers. There is an abundance of fish species found in the waters off the coast, including Australian salmon, giant herring, mulloway and King George Whiting. There’s also a significant influx of southern bluefin tuna in the warmer months as they feed on prey. As a result, The Bight becomes one of the country’s largest commercial fishery of southern bluefin tuna.
Human exploration of the Great Australian Bight
Aboriginal tribes of the Wangai and Spinifex used the Nullarbor Plain along the coast of the Great Australian Bight as hunting grounds for 40, 000 years. The Dutch navigator, Francois Thijssen was the first European to encounter the coast in 1672 when he sailed along the western edge. The entire shoreline was eventually chartered by Matthews Flinders in 1802 but it wasn’t until a few decades later that English explorer, Edward John Eyre surveyed the coast on land with his Aboriginal companion, Wylie.
The waters off the coast of the Bight have suffered exploitation over many years, mostly due to the fishing, whaling and shellfish industries. In 1996, the Great Australian Bight Marine National Park was declared to protect the species living in the waters. However, commercial fishing continues on the coast with The Bight contributing to more than half of Australia’s seafood. The Eyre Peninsula, in particular, is known for its high-quality fish and oyster farms.
The exploration attempts from Big Oil
The Great Australian Bight is also considered to have one of the largest untapped oil and gas reserves in the country. Exploration attempts in the area have been undertaken since the 1960s with a greater interest in the last few years from large companies such as BP, Chevron and Equinor. Their proposals for drilling wells in the southern part of the Bight were approved by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority in 2019.
In response, there was an incredibly widespread uproar from the community with many locals opposed to the drilling off the coast. The risk of oil leaks and long-term damage to the biodiversity of the Bight was too great for people to accept, especially when many people who live on the coast rely on the fisheries in the waters for their livelihood. In a great win for the locals and the general public in Australia, none of the major oil companies have gone ahead with their plans to drill the Bight. Although, there is still the potential for another company to take over the approved permits if they desire.
How to explore the Great Australian Bight
You can explore the Great Australian Bight in a variety of ways depending on how you prefer to travel. Much of the coastline is part of the Nullarbor Plain and is considered quite remote and challenging to access. However, the Eyre Peninsula on the eastern side of The Bight is one of the easiest places to explore its highlights as it’s not too far from Adelaide. There are a few major towns on the western coast of the peninsula which make great bases for day trips. Otherwise, if you have plenty of time and up for a road trip, you can also explore the coastline by car and make various stops along the way. Here’s how you can explore the are:
You can easily explore the Great Australian Bight by land on the Eyre Peninsula. The western coast of the peninsula is the easternmost coastline of The Bight, so it’s the most accessible place to base yourself for exploring the waters of the bay. There are a number of coastal towns on the peninsula that you can base yourself in, including Elliston, Ceduna and Fowlers Bay. This way you can have access to all the amenities of a major town such as accommodation, supermarkets and restaurants, but still be within close proximity to many of the highlights of the Great Australian Bight at the same time.
No matter how you like to travel, there are a range of accommodation options in these coastal towns from caravan parks to hotels. There are also a range of camping options along the coast, but if you opt for free camping just ensure that you look after the environment by taking everything back with you, including your rubbish.
Another option is to explore the Great Australian Bight via the Eyre Highway. The Eyre Highway runs from Port Augusta in South Australia across the Nullarbor Plain to Norseman in Western Australia. It is the main road that connects the two states across this arid landscape. A large part of the road navigates close to the coast and is a great way to check out the Great Australian Bight and Nullarbor Plain on the same trip. It’s possible to stop at towns along the Bight’s coast such as Ceduna or even make detours to places like Head of Bight and the Bunda Cliffs. The long, lonely road is dotted with roadhouses where you can find essential supplies and accommodation. If you have plenty of time, this is a great road trip to add on after spending time on the Eyre Peninsula.
If you want to really explore The Bight, then you can also opt to take trips out onto the water. Many of the towns on the Eyre Peninsula offer a range of activities with experienced tour operators, so you can easily arrange guided day trips. There are fishing charters, whale watching tours, snorkelling trips and opportunities to go surfing all on the Eyre Peninsula. More on some of these activities below.
Things to see and do at the Great Australian Bight
The Great Australian Bight is home to some unique experiences and exceptional natural wonders. The best things to see and do while visiting the Bight and the Eyre Peninsula, include:
The Nullarbor Plain is one of the most unique landscapes in Australia. It is the largest exposed limestone bedrock in the world covering an area of 200, 000 square kilometres. The plain dominates the coastline of the Great Australian Bight and stretches west of Ceduna to Eucla. Exploring the Great Australian Bight is often synonymous with exploring the Nullarbor Plain, as many people combine both in one trip via the Eyre Highway. This highway crosses the almost-treeless Nullarbor and is the main way to access and enjoy the coastline of The Bight.
The Bunda Cliffs are where the Nullarbor Plain dramatically meets the Indian Ocean. The spectacular string of cliffs that stretch for 100km are the longest uninterrupted sea cliffs in the world. There are a number of viewpoints along the coast off the Eyre Highway from where you can look out and take in the rugged 100m-high cliffs. It’s an incredible feeling like standing on the edge of the world with nothing but ocean in front of you.
Head of Bight
The Head of Bight is the northernmost point of the Great Australian Bight. It has a stunning lookout and boardwalk which offers one of the most incredible views that you can find anywhere else in the country. If you time your visit for the cooler months between May and October, there’s a good chance that you’ll spot Southern Right Whales or even humpback whales in the water. It’s considered one of the best land-based whale watching spots in Australia and is worth the stop on the Eyre Highway.
The Eyre Peninsula is the spectacular triangular-shaped outcrop that extends out into the Great Australian Bight. It’s a popular tourist destination and is the most accessible part of The Bight with plenty of towns along the coastline to explore the area from. On the western coast of the peninsula, you can use Fowlers Bay, Ceduna, Baird Bay, Venus Bay and Elliston as bases as you travel along the coast of The Bight. Each of these coastal towns have essential amenities for travellers such as a range of accommodation, shops and restaurants. They are also the best places to explore nearby attractions with plenty of activities to do from whale watching to surfing.
During the winter months between May until October, Southern Right Whales and even occasionally humpback whales can be seen off the coast of the Great Australian Bight. There are a variety of ways to observe these incredible marine animals. You can either view them from land at a number of viewpoints along the coast, or you can opt for a whale-watching boat tour that will get you a more intimate look at these giants in the water. Whale watching tours are a popular activity and best organised from one of the towns on the Eyre Peninsula such as Ceduna, Fowlers Bay or Baird Bay.
Swimming with dolphins and sea lions
Just south of Ceduna at Baird Bay on the coast of the Eyre Peninsula, it’s possible to go swimming with the playful bottlenose dolphins and Australian sea lions in the sheltered waters of the bay. It’s an incredible chance to see the endangered sea lions which breed along this southern coast of Australia. It’s best to join an experienced tour operator from Baird Bay, which usually run from September to May each year.
Head out for a surf
Surfing is a fun way to enjoy the Great Australian Bight. The eastern part of The Bight, in particular, has some world-class spots for experienced surfers and beginners alike. Experienced surfers prefer to head to Cactus Beach at Point Sinclair where you can find one of the best surfing spots in the country. This beach near Penong has two left-hand breaks and one right-hand break which are often high on many surfer’s must-do list. For more novice surfers, you can find gentler waves around Fowlers Bay and Venus Bay on the western coast of the Eyre Peninsula to enjoy.
Tour a Working Oyster Farm
You can’t head to the Great Australian Bight without tasting some of the delicious seafood on offer. The town of Ceduna, in particular, is known as the Oyster Capital of Australia. You can take a tour here to Smoky Bay to visit a working oyster farm thanks to SA Premium Oysters. They run tours of their oyster leases as well as lessons on shucking and tasting some of their freshest products. It’s a must-do for any foodie.
If you’re a keen fisherman then you will want to have the chance to catch some of the best fish in the country. The waters of The Bight are considered Australia’s premier seafood frontiers, and there are plenty of spots to catch mulloway, King George Whiting, garfish and tommy ruff. You can easily throw a line in off the jetty’s in towns on the western coast of the Eyre Peninsula such as Fowlers Bay, Ceduna and Smoky Bay or opt for a fishing charter if you want to explore deeper waters. You can join a fishing charter from any of the towns along the coast, which offers a great day out for the whole family.
Enjoy the beaches
If you came to the coast to relax at the beach, then the Great Australian Bight is home to some pretty incredible white sand beaches. The most accessible ones are along the coast of the Eyre Peninsula on the eastern side of The Bight. You can head to Venus Bay and Baird Bay for popular choices or even head down to Coffin Bay National Park. This beautiful national park is where you can find some pristine white sand beaches worth the visit.
Walking or cycling
You can slow the pace down a bit by opting to explore the coast on foot or by two wheels. There are a few great walking and cycling trails along the Great Australian Bight coast from where you can enjoy the beautiful scenery. Popular options include the Encounter Trail in Thevenard, Shelly Beach Dune Walk near Ceduna or the nature trails in Coffin Bay National Park.
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