The Great Australian Bight is the natural open bay that stretches across the southern coastline shared by South Australia and Western Australia. One of its central features is the towering sea cliffs where the semi-arid Nullarbor Plain meets the Southern Ocean. It’s this incredible landscape and natural beauty that draws many people to explore the coastline both on land and by sea.
The waters of the Bight are home to a variety of marine life, making it one of the best seafood frontiers of Australia. The area is also home to a number of endangered mammals that seek shelter in the warm waters of the Bight. Taking the time to explore both the Great Australian Bight and the Nullarbor Plain is one of the real highlights of any trip to South Australia. Here is everything that you need to know about the Great Australian Bight and the dramatic coast of the Nullarbor Plain.
Table of Contents
- 1 What is the Great Australian Bight?
- 2 Natural history of the Bight and the Nullarbor
- 3 Marine life of the Great Australian Bight
- 4 Human exploration of the Nullarbor Plain and Great Australian Bight
- 5 The exploration attempts from Big Oil
- 6 How to explore the Great Australian Bight
- 7 Things to see and do along the Great Australian Bight
- 7.1 The Nullarbor Plain
- 7.2 Eucla National Park
- 7.3 Bunda Cliffs
- 7.4 Head of Bight
- 7.5 The Dingo Fence
- 7.6 Whale watching tours
- 7.7 Swimming with dolphins and sea lions
- 7.8 Surfing at Cactus Beach
- 7.9 Fishing
- 7.10 Oyster Farm Tours
- 7.11 Spend time at the beaches
- 7.12 Walking or cycling the coast
- 7.13 Eyre Peninsula
- 8 While you’re crossing The Nullarbor Plain
What is the Great Australian Bight?
The Great Australian Bight is a large bay that extends across the southern coast of Australia. It officially stretches from Cape Pasley in Western Australia to Cape Carnot in South Australia. It’s considered part of the Indian Ocean or otherwise referred to as the Southern Ocean in this part of Australia. There is no landmass to the south of the Bight until you reach the icebergs of Antarctica, while the vast, semi-arid Nullarbor Plain runs to the north of the coastline across much of the Bight.
The Great Australian Bight covers an impressive area of 45, 822 square kilometres with ocean depths up to 6000 metres at its deepest. Most of this area is covered under the Great Australian Bight Marine Park which seeks to protect the incredible biodiversity of the waters and the marine life that call it home. On land, much of the coastline, including the Nullarbor is also covered by national park authority.
Natural history of the Bight and the Nullarbor
The Great Australian Bight naturally formed around 50 million years ago when Australia and Antarctica separated. The coastline is dominated by the dramatic sea cliffs which mark where the Nullarbor Plain meets the Southern Ocean. The Nullarbor is an exposed limestone bedrock which was actually a seabed itself millions of years ago. This semi-arid plain now stretches for much of the central part of the Bight’s coast and plays a unique role in its ecosystem.
The Nullarbor Plain offers very little surface runoff of nutrients into the waters of the Bight due to the semi-arid landscape and desert climate. However, there is quite unique seasonal upwelling of deep ocean water around the eastern side of the Bight which injects rich nutrients into the waters. These currents around the Eyre Peninsula are what enables the thriving of marine life off the coast from fish to larger mammals.
It is believed that 85 per cent of the known species in the Great Australian Bight are not found anywhere else in the world, making it an incredibly biodiverse place. However, scientists and marine biologists are continuously learning more about the unique environment of the Great Australian Bight and there is still much to be discovered.
Marine life of the Great Australian Bight
The Great Australian Bight provides an important home for a range of marine life. It’s especially known to harbour two endangered species, the Southern Right Whales and Australian sea lion. The Southern Right Whales migrate to the warm waters of the Bight in winter to breed, before heading south again in summer. The Australian sea lions breed in the bay area all along the coastline and are only found in Australia. You can also find bottlenose dolphins and leafy sea dragons in the waters of the bight, with the latter being Sir David Attenborough’s favourite animal.
The waters of the Bight are also abundant in a range of fish species. This makes it one of Australia’s best seafood frontiers, with some of the country’s highest quality seafood fished in the bay. Many people flock to the coastline of the Nullarbor Plain to throw their line in the waters to catch some of the popular King George Whiting, as well as salmon, giant herring and mulloway. There’s also a significant influx of southern bluefin tuna in summer, which makes the Bight the country’s largest commercial fishery of southern bluefin tuna.
Human exploration of the Nullarbor Plain and Great Australian Bight
The Nullarbor Plain was used by the Wangai and Spinifex Aboriginal peoples as their hunting grounds for over 40, 000 years. Despite the almost inhospitable conditions, they were able to live in harmony with the environment of the semi-arid plain.
The coastline of the Bight was first encountered by Europeans in 1672 when Dutch navigator, Francois Thijssen, sailed along the western edge. The entire coastline of the Bight was later chartered by Matthews Flinders in 1802 during his circumnavigation of the whole continent. On land, the Nullarbor Plain wasn’t fully explored until decades later when English explorer, Edward John Eyre, crossed the plain with his Aboriginal companion, Wylie.
The waters of the Bight have suffered exploitation at the hands of humans for many years, particularly in the fishing, whaling and shellfish industries. The marine park was officially declared in 1996 in order to protect the waters and its marine life from further exploitation. However, commercial fishing is still a major industry in the area, with more than half of the country’s seafood supply coming from the Great Australian Bight.
The exploration attempts from Big Oil
The incredibly unique landscape of the Great Australian Bight is also considered to have one of the largest untapped oil and gas reserves in Australia. A number of major companies such as BP, Chevron and Equinor have undergone some level of exploration of the potential reserves with their proposals including drilling wells in the southern part of the Bight.
However, some of the local community who live along the coast opposed the drilling, with the support of the public across the country. They considered the high risk of oil leaks and permanent damage done to the biodiversity of the bight to be far too catastrophic. Despite the exploration plans being approved in 2019 by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, the companies have so far abandoned their attempts.
How to explore the Great Australian Bight
The Great Australian Bight can be explored by either land or sea. Much of the coastline is part of the Nullarbor Plain which is rather remote and can be challenging to reach outside of the major towns. However, there are a number of accessible towns on the coast, with most being on the eastern side of the bight in South Australia. The easiest way to explore the bay is to base yourself in one of these places and then explore the water and coastline on day trips. Otherwise, if you’re up for a long road trip, you can cross the Nullarbor Plain and enjoy the coastal stops along the Eyre Highway for a real adventure.
Crossing the Nullarbor Plain and exploring the coastline of the Great Australian Bight is one of Australia’s best road trips. The Eyre Highway runs from Port Augusta in South Australia to Norseman in Western Australia and is the only sealed road that crosses the plain. Large parts of the road skirt right along the coastline, with a variety of detours to take in the incredible landscape. This is by far the most popular way for people to access the Bight and the Nullarbor Plain together.
The highway takes in some of the main coastal towns such as Ceduna in South Australia before heading across the remote part of the Nullarbor to Eucla in Western Australia and beyond. One of the most popular stops on the way include the Head of Bight from where you can take in the vista of the sea cliffs and the pristine waters of the bay. The 1675km long road is dotted with roadhouses which offer basic accommodation and supplies to travellers on their journey. Whether you have a few days or a few weeks, a trip across the Nullarbor Plain on the Eyre Highway is a great way to explore the coast of the Great Australian Bight.
If you want to enjoy the marine life and pristine waters of the Bight, then you can stop to explore more by sea. From any of the major towns along the coast such as Ceduna or Fowlers Bay, you can get a closer look at the ocean with a variety of activities and tours on offer.
You can join a fishing charter, whale watching tour, snorkelling trip or head out for a surf at many points along the coast. The best places to enjoy these activities are on the eastern side of the Bight around Ceduna and the Eyre Peninsula. They have some of the best tour operators and travel amenities for everyone to enjoy the coast.
Things to see and do along the Great Australian Bight
The Great Australian Bight is home to completely unique experiences and exceptional natural beauty. No matter how much time you have, the best things to see and do while visiting the Bight, include:
The Nullarbor Plain is front and centre to the Great Australian Bight and both can easily be explored together along the Eyre Highway. Both the plain and the bight offer one of the most unique landscapes in Australia and have some of the best experiences in South and Western Australia.
Many of the highlights of both the Nullarbor and the Great Australian Bight can be explored by driving along the Eyre Highway which crosses the area on a long, sealed road between Port Augusta and Norseman. From west to east, below are some of the worthy stops along the coastal highway.
Eucla National Park
Eucla National Park is located in the southeast corner of Western Australia and covers around 3340 hectares of land. It’s one of the highlights of both the Nullarbor and the Great Australian Bight, with sand dunes, limestone cliffs and coastal views found inside the park area. It’s accessible from Eucla town on the Eyre Highway, which is a popular overnight stop while crossing the Nullarbor Plain.
The Bunda Cliffs are the longest uninterrupted sea cliffs in the world. They 100km long and up to 100m high cliffs are where the Nullarbor Plain meets the Southern Ocean of the Great Australian Bight. You can enjoy the view of these cliffs from a number of lookouts along the coastline, of which the Head of Bight is considered the most spectacular. It’s an unbeatable feeling of being on the edge of the world with nothing but blue ocean stretching all the way to the horizon.
Head of Bight
The Head of Bight is the northernmost point of the Great Australian Bight. The stunning lookout and boardwalk offers one of the most incredible views you can find anywhere else in the country and is a must-see on your journey across the Nullarbor. If you find yourself there in winter, there’s also a good chance that you’ll spot Southern Right Whales or even humpback whales in the water off the coast. It’s considered one of the best land-based whale watching spots in all of Australia and is the perfect alternative if you don’t have the time to do a whale watching tour.
The Dingo Fence
The Dingo Fence is one of the icons of outback Australia. This famous fence, often referred to as simply the Dog Fence, runs 5600km from Darling Downs in Queensland all the way to the edge of the Great Australian Bight near Nundroo. The fence was originally built in the 1880s as a pest control device and is one of the longest manmade structures in the world. You can get a glimpse of the last section of the fence as you travel on the Eyre Highway across the Nullarbor.
Whale watching tours
During the cooler months from around May until October, Southern Right Whales and 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 mammals but opting for a boat tour is by far the most intimate. There are whale watching tours available from Ceduna, Fowlers Bay and Baird Bay, which can get you up close to these impressive mammals for around two hours.
Swimming with dolphins and sea lions
At Baird Bay, just south of Ceduna, it’s possible to enjoy more of the Bight’s impressive marine life. You can go swimming with bottlenose dolphins and Australian sea lions, who enjoy relative safety in the sheltered waters of the bay. Snorkelling tours usually run from September to May each year and are a great way to spend time with these friendly animals.
Surfing at Cactus Beach
Another water activity that you can enjoy along the coast is surfing. Cactus Point at Port Sinclair near Penong is one of the most famous surfing destinations in Australia. It’s home to two left-hand breaks and a right-hand break which are considered world-class standard. It’s best to be left for experienced surfers, however, with more gentle waves found around Fowlers Bay, Elliston and Venus Bay on the far eastern side of the Bight.
The Great Australian Bight is one of Australia’s premier seafood frontiers and it’s no surprise that fishing is a popular hobby here. You can try to catch Mulloway, King George Whiting, Garfish and Tommy Ruff around Fowlers Bay, Ceduna and Smoky Bay by either throwing a line in off the pier or from the beach. You can also opt for a fishing charter for more deep-water fishing which caters for everyone from novices to experienced fishermen.
Oyster Farm Tours
For real foodies, Ceduna and Smoky Bay offers one of the most incredible seafood experiences. Known as the Oyster Capital of Australia, you can tour a working oyster farm and taste some of the freshest oysters in the country at SA Premium Oysters. They have a variety of tour and tasting programs at Smoky Bay.
Spend time at the beaches
The pristine coastline of the Great Australian Bight also harbours some of the most picturesque beaches in the country. Many of the popular spots are centred around the eastern side of the bight such as in Venus Bay, Penong and Fowlers Bay from where you can swim, surf, fish and sunbake on the sand. However, many people find more secluded beaches along the coast off the Eyre Highway. If you do, just remember to leave no trace on the beaches and take all your rubbish back with you.
Walking or cycling the coast
You can also explore the coastline of the Great Australian Bight on foot or on two wheels. There are a few walking tracks to enjoy such as the Encounter Trail in Thevenard, Shelly Beach Dune Walk near Ceduna or nature trails in Coffin Bay National Park. They offer a much slower pace and a more unique view of the beautiful coastal scenery.
The Eyre Peninsula is a triangular piece of land that pokes out into the Great Australian Bight on the far eastern side. It’s a popular destination and is characterised by stunning beaches, national parks and wildlife encounters. There are a few major towns in the area including Ceduna, Port Lincoln and Whyalla, all located on the coast. It’s one of the more accessible parts of the coastline and is often the first place that people explore before heading across the Nullarbor on the Eyre Highway.
While you’re crossing The Nullarbor Plain
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