Australian wildlife, within easy reach

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Fairy penguins on Phillip Island’s Summerland Beach.
Fairy penguins on Phillip Island’s Summerland Beach. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Phillip Island Nature Parks

As the sky deepens to a dusky pink at Phillip Island's Summerland Beach, a two-hour drive from Melbourne, Australia, vague black shapes appear on the watery horizon. They move closer to where we sit on the sand, until we see that the dark masses are made up of individual blobs that gradually take on the form of tiny fairy penguins.

This is just one of the ecotours within easy reach of the city. For while these types of tourism experiences are often associated with remote areas, in Australia they can be found in or close to each of the state capitals.

We watched transfixed as hundreds of the little birds made their way from the water's edge to their burrows within the sand dunes, fatigued after a long day of hunting in the ocean. Each evening, between 300 and 750 of the little birds make this journey.

They paused timidly to check for predators before swiftly waddling home. To ensure minimal disruption to their journey, we were told to stick to designated areas so we don't damage the burrows or frighten the penguins; flash photography was strictly forbidden.

Sydney, too, is home to a number of ecological wonders. The Unesco World Heritage Area of the Blue Mountains is a 50-minute drive, but visitors don't need to leave the city at all to have a memorable ecotourism experience. After all, its spectacular harbor is the largest natural one in the world and is full of life beneath the water as well as along its shores.

Specialist operator Ecotreasures is focused on highlighting these natural assets while raising environmental awareness through "fun-based" learning. Owner Damien McClellan started the company in 2010 after noticing a gap in the market for ecotourism experiences within the city's limits. According to McClellan, its most popular tours are the Manly Snorkel Walk and Talk along with a paddleboard safari through the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.

Farther north, just off the coast of the Queensland capital city of Brisbane, nature experiences abound at North Stradbroke Island. Four-wheel-drive day trips from the city encompass a range of activities from diving, kayaking and surfing to sandboarding and fishing.

Over on the west coast, visitors to Perth can encounter a diverse range of species on Rottnest Island, a 90-minute ferry ride from the Western Australian capital. The island's surrounding waters can deliver sightings of dolphins, seals and sea birds, while snorkelers and divers can discover shipwrecks and reef formations. A cycle around the island itself also promises sightings of the local wildlife.

Meanwhile, in Adelaide Hills, just 30 minutes east of the South Australian capital of Adelaide, there are twilight platypus viewings at Cumbungi Sanctuary.

And from Darwin, you'll have access to crocodiles galore. Litchfield National Park, about 60 miles from the Northern Territory capital, is dotted with bright yellow warning signs bearing images of the snappy saltwater crocs that are thriving in the region. The safest way to see them is aboard a crocodile cruise.

It's all about getting close to nature, after all, but not too close for comfort.

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