Only 40 minutes from Kangaroo Island's main town Kingscote, Seal Bay Conservation Park is located on the South Coast of Kangaroo Island.
The primary attraction of the Park is the Australian Sea-lion.(Neophoca cinerea)
Seal Bay Conservation Park was proclaimed in 1972 under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972 to help in the protection of the Australian Sea-lion and its natural habitat. Access to part of the Park is prohibited to protect Australian Sea-lion breeding areas.
Today National Parks and Wildlife SA (NPWSA) provide guided tours along Seal Bay beach where visitors, on a tour only, can wander amongst these animals while they rest after long fishing trips. There is also a boardwalk which enables people to experience the Australian Sea-lion habitat from a distance with minimal disturbance.
Adjoining the Park is an Aquatic Reserve managed by Primary Industries and Resources South Australia. This Aquatic Reserve combined with terrestrial habitat within the Conservation Park provides protection for the Australian Sea-lion and critical parts of both their marine and terrestrial habitat.
Bales Bay is also part of Seal Bay Conservation Park. Bales Beach is a stunning beach while Bales Bay Picnic Area has sheltered barbecue facilities available.
Little Sahara is only 20 minutes from Seal Bay and features incredible inland sand dunes. Part of this geological monument is located within the reserve and forms some of the largest inland sand dune systems on Kangaroo Island.
The first visitors to Seal Bay probably came as early as the 1920s - 30s. Many locals claim to have been the first to push a track into the bay to look at the sea-lions. The first commercial tour was undertaken around 1953 - these early tours differed from today by focusing on interaction with the sea-lions (ie calling like a sea-lion to encourage pups to approach and swimming with them).
In 1954 a group of far sighted lobbyists with a vision to preserve this unique area were successful in having Seal Bay dedicated as a Fauna Reserve under the Fisheries and Fauna Act.
Coach tours began in earnest in 1960 when the road was upgraded by the local Council and a car park, barbecue area and toilet block were erected.
Unfortunately, these were in the sand dune area at the back of the breeding area where the sea-lions rest and suckle their young in the cooler months.
With the inception of the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972, Seal Bay was dedicated as a Conservation Park with the sand dunes and breeding areas at either end of the beach being declared as prohibited areas. With this new style of management by NPWSA, the impact on the environment and to the Australian sea-lions was closely monitored. In 1980 the car park was relocated, access to the beach via a bitumen walkway was provided, a boardwalk over the dunes and a lookout were constructed to give a panoramic view.
By 1987 visitation to Seal Bay had increased to the point that NPWSA began to operate a 'guided tour system' with the aim of protecting Australian Sea-lions from increasing disturbance and visitors from attacks from disturbed Australian Sea-lions.
As visitation to the now world famous Seal Bay Conservation Park continued to increase, so too did the needs of visitors change. In 1994 a Visitor Centre was built along with a new boardwalk in 1996 through the dune area. This boardwalk offers self guided tours to a viewing platform overlooking the seal colony. Access on to the beach is by 'guided tour only' and is a truly dynamic, unique environmental experience.
Some approximate visitor numbers:
>> 1970's - below 20,000
>> 1985 - 35,000
>> 1988 - 39,500
>> 1989 - 47,000
>> 1990 - 63,000
>> 1993 - 82,000
>> 1996 - 112,500
>> 1999 - 98,500
>> 2001 - 108,201
What to Do
There's more than just Australian Sea-lions at Seal Bay - take your time to enjoy the facilities and wonderful experiences when you are there.
The Visitor Centre
Seal Bay's visitor centre is constructed in an environmentally friendly manner. Solar energy provides all the electrical requirements of the site and fresh rain water is collected and used throughout. Organic cleaning materials are used to minimise any potential for pollution and the toilets use a dry composting system.
Enjoy browsing through the displays which include information on the history of sealing, the evolution of seals, seal research, and the skeleton of an Australian Sea-lion. The centre also has an extensive retail section.
Just outside the Visitor Centre is a display of the lower jawbone of a juvenile Sperm Whale. Find out how it came to be on the island and some of the characteristics of this species.
Other facilities at the Visitor Centre include a shelter with a public phone booth, toilets and seats.
An easy stroll on a well constructed boardwalk, through the terrestrial habitat of the Australian Sea-lion, gives a great view over Australian Sea-lions resting and juveniles playing amongst the sand dunes and vegetation. At the end of the boardwalk there is a large platform where it is possible to view the Australian Sea-lions resting on the beach and swimming in the water.
Occasionally, on a bright sunny day an echidna may be seen foraging beside the boardwalk or a Heath Goanna sunning itself on the path or in the dunes. Tammar Wallabies come out to forage amongst the shrubs in the early mornings and late afternoons.
Many native birds enjoy feeding amongst the plants - look out for the numerous species of honeyeater such as the New Holland Honeyeater and try your luck at spotting the elusive Golden Whistler, superb Fairy-wrens and occasionally the rare Emu-wren.
Read the interpretive signs on Australian Sea-lions and native plants as you stroll along. Find out how the Humpback Whale skeleton came to its final resting place in the dunes below the boardwalk.
On the Boardwalk you can set your own pace, it is wheelchair friendly and a good alternative for those who are unable to walk on the soft, sandy beach or those who are on a tight schedule and arrive between guided tours.
A stupendous view of the colony can be had from here and with a pair of binoculars you can look out over the Eastern Prohibited Area (set aside to protect breeding animals) where you may see young Australian Sea-lions surfing and playing in the waves.
Look out for the birds of prey who frequent the Bay - the White-bellied Sea-eagle, osprey, Wedge-tailed Eagle and admire the superb control of the Nankeen (Australian) Kestrel as it hovers almost stationary over its unsuspecting prey.
Go on a guided tour with a National Parks and Wildlife SA Interpretation Officer and experience the unique opportunity to observe the Australian Sea-lions while they are home resting up for their next fishing expedition. The tours are of 45 minutes duration and the Interpretation Officer will interpret the activities of the Australian Sea-lions, breeding characteristics and behaviour of the animals.
Walk along the pristine beach and enjoy the spectacular sight of the long, white, sandy beach spread out over a kilometre with not another person in sight. For the avid soul searcher, sit out on the dunes and look out at the thundering surf as it comes rolling in.
Enjoy a barbecue at the picnic area (some are sheltered) fitted out with gas barbecues, benches and tables. There are also toilets and fresh water.
Read the commemorative plaque about Alfred Bales, a wallaby trapper, who lived there from the early 1900s to 1924 in an old stone cottage which is now in ruins.
There is a look out situated on the rise behind the picnic area - from here there is an extensive view of the Cape Gantheaume Wilderness Protection Area and Bales Bay.
Located off the South Coast Road, about 6 km west from the turn off to Seal Bay down a private unsigned road, is an ancient dune system. These towering sand dunes shift with the winds. Climb to the top of the ridge and look out over the expanse of dunes meeting the sea some 5 km away.
Seal Bay Conservation Park can be contacted by telephoning (61 8) 8559 4207 or facsimile (61 8) 8559 4295.