David Whitley heads out on a boat looking for dolphins and penguins, but finds that the sea lions and pelicans are the real highlights

A curiosity of travel is that the headline attractions often get upstaged by the things you’re not expecting. In advance, our boat trip out from Rockingham was going to be all about the dolphins and penguins.

Everybody loves dolphins and penguins, right? They pretty much top the animal kingdom’s cute list, and to combine the pair in a day out should be a wildlife-lover’s dream.

The Shoalwater Safari from Rockingham, around 45 minute south of Central Perth, combines both. It includes a 90 minute high speed dolphin-spotting boat ride, followed by half a day on Penguin Island. Which, as the name suggests, is home to around 1,200 super-loveable fairy penguins.

But our luck isn’t really in on the water. The dolphins are out – we find a group of them fairly easily, but it seems as though they don’t really want to play. That’s fair enough – they’re wild animals and don’t do tricks on command – but a few dorsal fin sightings followed by prolonged underwater swims is a little underwhelming. Particularly if, the day before, you’ve spotted dolphins swimming in the Swan River on the ferry from Perth to Fremantle.

That’s the luck of the draw, though. And much the same applies with the penguins. Over a thousand may live on the island, on nesting sites tucked into the dune vegetation, but you’re unlikely to see too many of them during the day – most are either in the nesting hole or out in the ocean, hunting for fish.

There are a few rehabilitated penguins inside the ‘Penguin Encounter’, however. There are feeding shows regularly throughout the day, and otherwise you can just wander in to watch them swimming and strutting about. One’s particularly endearing. It stands at the side like a woefully ineffective guard, honking at anyone who goes past.

But, unexpectedly, it’s the understudies that steal the show on this trip. On our way back through the bay from where the dolphins were, we stop to hover around what is known as Seal Island. It’s notable enough for the fossilised tree roots sneaking through the limestone rock, but it’s the sea lions that make it.

Australian sea lions are the rarest species in the world, so to find a group of 20-odd splashing around in the water or sunning themselves on the beach is an absolute treat. Apparently, they’re all boys, and they come down for a few months of the year outside of breeding season, leaving the ladies to themselves further north. It’s essentially like a group of mates heading off to a cabin in the woods for a beer, barbecue and fishing holiday. They’re remarkably chilled and unaggressive as there are no females to compete for.

But while the big silly lunks splash around in the water, the area’s other surprise star is flying above it. I’ve always thought of pelicans as comedy birds. 

They just look so ridiculous. But that impression evaporates when you see them in flight.

They soar across the water, at some points flapping their wings in a measured rhythm, and at others gliding like a dart, yet staying at exactly the same height above the sea. It’s like a cyclist veering between a considered pedal and a freewheel.

And while Penguin Island gets its name from the fairy penguins, the bird you’re most likely to see there (apart from the ubiquitous seagull) is the pelican.
A two kilometre walking trail, along boardwalks and beaches, leads visitors around part of the island. But the top half is not for footsteps. On top of the hill is a major pelican nesting site. Viewing it from the lookout, it looks like the ground is entirely made up of pellies. There are hundreds of them.

On the way round back to the start of the track, I keep an eye out for penguins on the land and dolphins in the water. No joy. But while I’m traipsing through the sea weed on the beach, a rather more impressive road block appears just in front of me. We’ve been told that, should we be lucky enough to see one, we should keep at least five metres away from any sea lions.

Well, there’s no chance of that if I’m going to get past. He’s strategically fallen asleep across the beach. I have to skirt by his head and hope that he doesn’t get too annoyed if I disrupt his slumber. The understudy has well and truly thrust himself into the limelight.

Disclosure: David went out to Pelican Island as a guest of Rockingham Wild Encounters (