Best of the West
Marine diversity and island infrastructure make Western Port a popular destination with Melbourne's boating crowd
Often overshadowed by its larger neighbour, Port Phillip, Western Port’s size, ecological diversity and marine facilities should command our attention as a worthy boating destination in its own right. This large, irregularly shaped coastal inlet, 75km south-east of Melbourne, is bounded by Mornington Peninsula to the west, Koo Wee Rup lowlands to the north, and the Anderson Peninsula extending to Phillip Island in the southeast. At high tide the bay’s waters cover 680 square kilometres, and drain at low tide to expose 270 square kilometres of intertidal mudflats and seagrass beds, mostly in the northern reaches.
Although regarded as a bay, it is technically an inlet because it is connected to Bass Strait by two channels — the wide Western Entrance between West Head at Flinders and Point Grant on Phillip Island, and the Eastern Entrance through ‘The Narrows’ between San Remo and the east end of Phillip Island. Its shallow waters are circulated in a generally clockwise direction by a large tidal range of between 2–3m, creating a strong current (up to 6 knots) in The Narrows on an outgoing tide. Western Port contains two large islands — French (170km²) and Phillip (100km²) — and several small ones, including Churchill Island (57ha).
At 170km², French Island is the largest coastal island of Victoria. Its 120 permanent residents are concentrated in two settlements (Tankerton and Fairhaven) on the western side of the island, and make their living from grazing livestock and eco-tourism. The French Island National Park covers two-thirds of the island’s terrestrial habitats of swamps, heath, grasslands and blue gum forests, which shelter 100 species of orchids, 260 species of birds and Australia’s largest, disease-free population of koalas. Directly to the north, the French Island Marine National Park protects extensive seagrass beds, mangroves and mudflats that provide habitats for fish, waterbirds and invertebrates.
Phillip Island forms a natural breakwater at the Eastern Entrance, constricting The Narrows between San Remo on the mainland and Newhaven on the island. The towns are connected by the 640m Narrows Bridge and a ferry service operates between Stony Point on the Mornington Peninsula and Cowes.
The island is about 26km long and 9km wide, with an area of about 100 square kilometres, 60 per cent of which is farmland devoted to grazing sheep and cattle. The island’s south coast is bookended by the basalt outcrops of Cape Woolamai in the east and Point Grant and The Nobbies in the west. Between them, truncated cliffs edged in jagged tidal platforms are impacted by ocean swells from Bass Strait. In contrast, the sheltered northern shore is fringed by sandy beaches, tidal flats and wetlands.
The island’s rocky shores and outcrops are natural sanctuaries for seabirds and marine mammals. The southern and western coasts lie within the Phillip Island Important Bird Area, which supports significant populations of little penguins, short-tailed shearwaters (muttonbirds) and Pacific gulls. The nightly Penguin Parade at Summerland Beach is one of Australia’s best-known tourist attractions. Seal Rocks, at the western tip of the island, hosts the largest colony of fur seals in Australia (up to 16,000), while water birds abound in the swamps and tidal flats around Rhyll and Newhaven. Offshore, increasing numbers of endangered Burrunan dolphins, migratory killer whales, southern right whales and humpbacks are visiting Western Port every year.
THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT
Western Port is valued for its diverse marine and terrestrial ecosystems. The bay’s deep channels teem with more than 100 species of fish; rocky reefs are covered with soft corals, sponges and kelp; in the shallows and estuaries seagrass beds provide nursery habitats for fish and invertebrates; and the extensive intertidal mudflats are vital to the life cycles of crustaceans and molluscs. Islands within the bay provide safe havens for breeding colonies of fur seals and sea birds. Fringing saltmarshes and mangrove forests are roosting habitats for birds and foraging grounds for reptiles, while in the grassy plains and woodlands of the wider catchment may be found 350 native plant and 330 native animal species.
Western Port contains three Marine National Parks and five Special Management Areas that collectively protect almost 6000 hectares of the bay’s coastal and marine environments. At 1800 hectares, Phillip Island Nature Park is one of the largest conservation parks in Australia. Approximately 60,000 hectares of the bay is designated Ramsar wetland, which supports 115 species of shorebird and waders in numbers that exceed 20,000 annually. The region’s capacity to support large numbers of migratory birds qualifies it under four international conservation agreements.
Western Port lies within the traditional country of the Bunurong Aboriginal people, a clan of the Kulin nation, whose territory extended north to the Dandenong Ranges and east to Wilson’s Promontory. Archaeological records show that the Bunurong have inhabited this region for over 40,000 years, during which time they would have witnessed significant environmental and climatic transformations, including the end of the last Ice Age and the inundation of Port Phillip and Western Port Bay by rising sea levels about 10,000 years ago. These momentous events are described in their oral histories and explained in Dreamtime stories. They were among the first Aboriginal people in Victoria to have contact with European mariners.
George Bass sailed into the bay during his exploration of the south coast in 1798, and named it Western Port as it was the most westerly point charted in the colony at the time. In 1801 Lieutenant James Grant surveyed and mapped Phillip Island, and planted Victoria’s first crops of corn and wheat in the rich soil of the adjoining island, which he named Churchill after a friend who had provided the seeds. In 1802, Jacques Hamelin explored the area as part of a French expedition led by Nicolas Baudin. He named the bay’s major island Ile de Francais (since anglicised).
Twenty-three years later, a scientific foray by Frenchman Dumont d'Urville spurred Governor Darling to dispatch a squadron under the command of Captain Wetherall to establish a fortified outpost at Rhyll on Phillip Island. The settlement lasted two years before a shortage of water forced its transfer to Corinella on the eastern side of the bay.
In 1835 Samuel Anderson established a successful farming venture — and the third permanent European settlement in Victoria — on the Bass River, about half way between Corinella and present-day San Remo. Seven years later, the McHaffie brothers began pastoral occupation of Phillip Island, and settlement of French Island and the Mornington Peninsula followed soon after.
In 1920 the HMAS Cerberus naval depot was opened at Crib Point and, following World War 2, a deepwater port was developed near Hastings. The discovery of oil and gas in Bass Strait provided the impetus for the establishment of an industrial zone near the port for the processing and distribution of those products, as well as a steel manufacturing plant.
Apart from this industrial enclave, most of Western Port’s catchment supports agricultural activities of sheep and cattle grazing, dairying, orchards and market gardens. Commercial fishing operated in the bay for over 100 years until it was banned in 2007. Small fleets based in Hastings and San Remo still ply the waters of Bass Strait. In 2003, a fisheries reserve was established offshore from Flinders for long-line farming of blue mussels.
THE PORT OF HASTINGS
The Port of Hastings (the Port) is situated on the western shore of Western Port, 70km south-east of Melbourne. Port operations and infrastructure are managed by the Port of Hastings Development Authority (PHDA), while the port waters and shipping channels are controlled and maintained by the Victorian Regional Channels Authority.
The Port comprises three wharf precincts adjacent to the Western Entrance deepwater channel. The Stony Point complex accommodates the PHDA operations centre and maintenance depot, harbour tugs and service craft, a terminal for the passenger ferry service to French Island and Phillip Island, and a public boat ramp. The Crib Point precinct, south of Hastings, contains two liquid product berths — one for the import of fuel products, and the other is flagged for development as an LNG import facility. The Long Island complex includes a heavy industrial estate, with a jetty used by Esso for exporting LPG and crude oil, and the Steel Works Wharf, owned and operated by BlueScope Steel in conjunction with its local manufacturing plant.
The Port is a significant contributor to the Victorian economy, with 1.5 million tonnes of commodities handled across all wharves annually, valued at approximately $1.4 billion. It also provides more than 1,000 jobs in the Hastings area. It supports offshore oil and gas platforms in Bass Strait and provides essential infrastructure for the storage, processing and distribution of gas and petroleum products across south-east Australia.
THE LOCAL PORT OF WESTERN PORT
Western Port is a local port managed by Parks Victoria, which is responsible for providing and maintaining non-commercial marine infrastructure, such as navigation aids, piers and jetties, moorings and berths, slipways, breakwaters and launching sites. Parks also manages several national parks, conservation areas and marine parks in and around the bay.
The township of Flinders on the Mornington Peninsula lies in the lee of West Head, a basalt promontory that marks the entrance to Western Port from Bass Strait. North of West Head, Kennon Cove is flanked by a gently-sloping sandy beach that ends at the 250m Flinders Pier. The cove provides a sheltered anchorage with good holding in depths of around 3m, with moorings north of the jetty. Flinders Yacht Club is located on the foreshore about 550m south of the jetty, with facilities catering largely for off-the-beach yachts and some keel boats.
The large fishing town of Hastings is located on a crescent-shaped bay opposite French Island, 20nm north of Flinders. Well protected from prevailing winds, it is probably the safest small boat harbour on Western Port and easily accessed by a long, narrow channel that branches from the commercial shipping lane about 4.5nm north of the Stony Point ferry terminal jetty. Hastings is home to the large Westernport Marina, which can accommodate 600 boats in wet and dry berths, and is serviced by a 40-tonne travel lift and marine facilities, including chandlery, sewage pump-out and fuel. Just north of the marina is a small harbour with a public jetty, moorings, a boat ramp and the Hastings Yacht Club.
YARINGA BOAT HARBOUR
Yaringa Boat Harbour is situated about 12km north of Hastings, and is accessed by a narrow channel marked by piles and dredged to about 2m at LW. The harbour encloses a modern marina with 150 floating berths for yachts and motor cruisers from 8–15m. Depending on availability, berths are offered for short-term and overnight visitors. All berths have power and water, and are protected by 24-hour security and CCTV cameras. Services include fuel (ULP and diesel), septic pump-out, gas bottle exchange, toilets, showers and a laundry. The well-equipped boatyard has undercover storage for power boats and mast-up storage for trailer yachts, and more than 20 on-site marine services and trades.
San Remo is located on Griffiths Point, the western tip of the Anderson Peninsula, opposite Newhaven on Phillip Island. Access to San Remo jetty is restricted to vessels able to clear power lines (18m) across The Narrows to its south and the bridge (12m) to the north. The jetty is used primarily by fishing vessels but space for recreational boats may be available on the outer southwest end in 2.2m LW. A new floating pontoon on the inside of the two jetty fingers has just over 2m LW on its outer side, but care is required when navigating in and out of it because the turn-around at the north end of the fixed jetty is tight and much affected by the tidal stream. South of San Remo, The Narrows open into Cleeland Bight in the lee of Cape Woolamai. Through it the Eastern Entrance channel has depths ranging from 3.6–10m all the way to Red Point. There is good anchorage on the west side of the Bight in depths of 2.5m LW over sand, and Parks Victoria has three courtesy moorings in the area.
The small township of Newhaven sits at the eastern end of Phillip Island overlooking The Narrows and has the only marina on Phillip Island. The marina is home to the Newhaven Yacht Squadron, founded in 1962 to cater to the disparate interests of the local community — sailing, cruising and angling. With 188 berths, the marina provides a safe all-weather haven for boats from 6–12 metres, with power, water and ablution amenities. A casual berth is usually available for overnight stays and longer-term casual berthing is offered to members on a monthly rental. A boat maintenance yard is equipped with slipping facilities and offers a range of marine services but no fuel. The marina entrance is highly visible with well-lit leads but should only be attempted at half-tide or higher, taking care to allow for strong cross-currents.
Rhyll is located on Phillip Island’s north-east shore, about halfway between Cowes and Newhaven. The town occupies a bluff with coastal mudflats to its north and south, and a wetland conservation area to its west that provides habitat for a wide range of bird life. Rhyll has a boat service centre, two jetties and a three-lane boat ramp which is accessible 24 hours. The state government plans to upgrade the launching precinct in the near future. Rhyll Pier also has a floating pontoon, both with adequate depth on the outside. It is accessed via a channel marked by piles and is sheltered from most winds, although a little exposed to N-SE winds at high tide.
Cowes is the main town and administrative centre of Phillip Island, with a hospitality precinct fronting a sheltered golden beach that faces French Island across the bay. Cowes Jetty was built here in 1870 and remains a popular attraction and docking point for the passenger ferry from Stony Point on the Mornington Peninsula. There are four Parks Victoria courtesy moorings west of the jetty. Anchorage in good holding sand can be obtained outside the line of yellow marks, although the holding is better east of the jetty. It is protected from SE-SW winds, but is exposed to winds from all other quarters. The run of tide is noticeable but not extreme. Landing may be made at the Cowes Jetty, but keep clear of the ferry berth. The Cowes Yacht Club, 500m west of the main jetty, hosts a variety of sailing events and is the only accredited Sail Training Centre on the Bass Coast.
FLINDERS YACHT CLUB
35 Lacey View, Flinders
WESTERN PORT MARINA
Mullet Street, Hastings
P: (03) 5979 7400
YARINGA BOAT HARBOUR
1 Lumeah Road, Somerville
P: (03) 5977 4154
NEWHAVEN YACHT SQUADRON
Seaview Street, Newhaven
P: (03) 5956 7515
COWES YACHT CLUB
Osborne Avenue, Cowes
P: (03) 5952 2330
PORT OF HASTINGS DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY
1d Stony Point Road, Crib Point
P: (03) 5979 5500
P: 131 963 or (03) 8427 2002
MARITIME SAFETY VICTORIA
121 Exhibition Street, Melbourne
P: 1800 223 022
VICTORIAN FISHERIES AUTHORITY (HEAD OFFICE)
1 Spring Street, Melbourne
P: 136 186