Enjoy penguins, seahorses and many things marine at Low Head, Tas.
WORDS Gordon and Pamela May
On the eastern bank of the Tamar River mouth, Low Head boasts Australia’s oldest continuously operating pilot station, commissioned in 1805. A semaphore-flag telegraph system was introduced in 1835, whereby news of a ship’s arrival could be relayed to Launceston within minutes. Pilots, lighthouses and lead lights still guide ships through the river shoals, but the coded-flag semaphore was superseded by the electric telegraph in 1858.
More than 20 historic buildings remain of the pilot station complex, including a 19m-tall lighthouse and a shed for a foghorn that sounded at noon each Sunday. A former coxswain’s cottage now houses a charming café overlooking the river, and restored pilots’ cottages serve as quaint, self-contained holiday accommodation.
At the heart of the complex is the Maritime Museum. Its intriguing exhibits cover myriad aspects of maritime life, including examples of scrimshaw – delicate carvings and engravings on whalebone – made by sailors in their spare time. Other displays feature morse, semaphore and submarine-cable communications, navigational equipment and a cumbersome deep-sea diving suit.
Wet-suited 21st century divers can get their deep-sea thrills from scuba diving offshore from Low Head. Local operators run dive tours to nearby Hebe Rocks, which were named after a ship wrecked there 200 years ago. Giant kelp forests and a temperate-zone coral reef are renowned features of Low Head dive sites.
For aquatic experiences that don’t involve getting wet, cross the Tamar to Beauty Point’s newest attractions: Platypus House and Seahorse World. The crossing can be made aboard the Shuttlefish ferry from George Town (5km south of Low Head) or by road via the spectacular Batman Bridge.
Glass-fronted ponds in Platypus House give visitors a rare opportunity to easily observe Australia’s most famous egg-laying mammal. Guided 45-minute tours are very informative and entertaining, though all eyes stay focused on the platypus antics. Who would have imagined them lying on their backs, scratching their stomachs? An adjoining indoor garden is home to their monotreme relatives, the short-beaked echidnas. Children particularly enjoy squatting right beside them, as well as the opportunity to stroke a skink or two.
Seahorse World is a seahorse farm dedicated to the preservation of this pipefish species. Its well-lit aquariums perfectly display the colourful creatures. Beaked heads nod gently, prehensile tails curl and uncurl as the seahorses glide between coral and sea-grasses. An interpretation centre and theatrette add educational depth to the experience.
The complex includes a souvenir shop and the upstairs Seahorse Restaurant overlooking the Tamar. From that pleasant vantage point, it’s easy to become absorbed in the passing parade of yachts and ferries. Just remember to be back at Low Head before dusk if you want to see the penguins.
It’s easy to understand why Low Head Penguin Tours, the penguin-viewing operator, won a People’s Choice Award from the Tourism Council of Tasmania. Guides lead groups limited to 19-20 people in order to maximise personal attention. The guides are well-informed, protective of the penguins and sensitive to visitors’ hopes of seeing the birds up close.
Penguins return to Low Head rookery almost every night, only their numbers vary. Sometimes there may be around 20 birds, at other times, especially in summer, great waddling flocks arrive.
When the penguins come ashore, the guides exercise firm but tactful control over spectators, and everybody wins. The penguins aren’t intimidated by noises or movement and people are rewarded by having penguins shuffle right past their feet. Magic.
Low Head is the kind of place where tourers can easily pack several diverse experiences into a couple of days. It is also the kind of place people plan to visit for two days and stay for a week, especially if they get hooked on the exceptional river, rock and beach fishing.
But that’s another story.