Sidling up to the stingrays

 

 

David Whitley heads to one of Australia’s most famous wine regions to find wildlife-packed beaches rather than cabernet sauvignons.

Since the unfortunate death of Steve Irwin, stingrays have had a bad rap. Those barbs on their tails, if aimed right, can kill – although this is an extremely unlikely course of events. Stingrays, frankly, have little interest in hurting humans and Australia has approximately 80 zillion other animals that are worth worrying about before you get down to the stingray level.

The thing is, few of us do get down to stingray level. It’s not common to encounter them on the beach. But Hamelin Bay in south-western Australia’s Margaret River region is something of an exception to this.

Cam O’Beirne, who runs the Margaret River Adventure Company’s tours down to Hamelin Bay, knows the stingrays have been hanging out there for a while. “There are some all down the coast, but this is the only place where they aggregate and interact with humans,” he explains.

“About 20 or 30 live here, and they’ve been here for 40 to 50 years. They used to come in when the fisherman came in. They learned that the fishermen would gut the fish on the beach – it became almost Pavlovian.”

When we get to the water’s edge, there’s already one stingray there. “This is Stumpy,” says Cam. “He’s lost his tail”. He’s a smooth ray, the biggest species of stingray in the world. He weighs in at around 350kg and is about the size of a car bonnet.

Stumpy is also endearingly clumsy. He brushes against the legs of adoring onlookers with their feet in the shallows, and it’s possible to bend down and stroke him. His skin is remarkably velvety – smooth, not slimy.

 

 

It’s not long before Stumpy has some company. A few more smooth rays and a couple of their smaller cousins, the eagle rays, drift in towards the shore. Everyone’s a little more careful where they put their feet now – the newcomers have tails and barbs.

“They’re the vacuum cleaners of the sea,” says Cam. “They’ll eat anything.” And there’s clearly some food beneath the sand in the shallows, because they’ve got company. Hamelin Bay’s somewhat less exotic seagulls have come to the party. They’re less cute, and considerably noisier.

This scene, however, is not one that people tend to expect from Margaret River. It’s first and foremost seen as a wine region – and an exceptionally good one at that. But the secret weapon is being surrounded by the Indian Ocean on two sides and the Southern Ocean on a third. This makes for fabulous surf breaks – which were what attracted visitors down to the region in the first place during the 1950s and 60s – but also some genuinely astonishing beaches.

Hamelin Bay is no exception here. It’s a proper white sand, vivid blue-green sea bombshell that anyone would be elated to discover. Here, sharing is required, however. But no-one really minds when it’s Stumpy and friends.

Disclosure: David was a guest of the Margaret River Adventure Company (margaretriveradventure.com.au) and Tourism Western Australia (westernaustralia.com)