Facility Spotlight: Sea World Gold Coast (Australia)

Facility Spotlight: SeaWorld Gold Coast. (Queensland, Australia)

Visited: August of 2014.

To be clear, Sea World Gold Coast is not affiliated with the American SeaWorld, instead being operated by Village Roadshow. Although my friend had warned me that the place was “kind of bogan”, I was not prepared for how underwhelming it was. Simply put, it was the most boring place I have ever been that had dolphins.

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

But let’s focus on the high points first: The polar bear habitat, which is among the most technologically advanced in the world, was spacious with impressive landscaping and ample enrichment opportunities for the animals. They were swimming, jumping off the “cliffs”, and having what appeared to be a grand old time. Who would have thought that in Australia these threatened arctic animals could have such a good life? Kind of ironic when you consider climate change is killing them.

Yes, that is a milk crate on its head and a ball in its paw.

Yes, that is a milk crate on its head and a ball in its paw.

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The dolphin habitats are spacious, sandy-bottomed, and fringed with a small beach for a naturalistic look. The park also makes an effort at being educational, with informative signs found throughout, and an interesting narrative during the dolphin show “Imagine” (since replaced with “Affinity”).

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Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Unfortunately, it seemed as though at least some of the dolphins were as bored as I was. While admiring the animals in the Dolphin Nursery, a couple brought their few toys over and placed them on the shore as close to my feet as they could. Having just visited the vastly superior SeaWorld San Diego, where the dolphins can freely interact with visitors as they choose, including having them throw toys, it was not difficult to guess what these fellows wanted.

It was then I realized that there was no staff around at all to answer visitors’ questions, give small scale educational talks, interact with the animals, or any combination thereof — something I frequently see in other facilities.  Eventually, someone did do a walk around the perimeter, which caught the dolphins’ attention, but he completely ignored them.

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Amity, an Indo-Pacific Humpbacked Dolphin

That said, at one point I did see some at a distance engaging in a training session, and the dolphins do seem to have a great relationship with their trainers, but being able to see more of this from a better vantage point would have been nice.  There are no underwater observation areas, either, which go a long way towards helping a person appreciate these amazing marine mammals.

A dolphin and its trainer during the new show "Affinity". Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

A dolphin and its trainer during the new show “Affinity”. Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

There was a lot of hype for the sea lion feeding, but as the feeding platform was at a distance from the main observation areas, anyone who hadn’t paid for the privilege quickly lost interest.

As for the sea lion show, “Fish Detectives”, it was remarkably similar to the clichéd “whodunit” story that was running at the unaffiliated SeaWorld San Antonio, right down to the animals’ names (one was named Claude instead of Clyde). Couldn’t they have come up with something more original?  Especially considering how cool sea lion naturally are…?  Honestly, I couldn’t even stay for the duration.

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“We’re much better than the shows make us look, I swear”

The small number of rides can only be described as lackluster. I wasn’t expecting something like Dreamworld, but SOMETHING to help kill the lengthy wait times between shows would have been nice. (Although interestingly enough Dreamworld has an excellent and much more interactive zoological area, and are one of the single largest contributors to tiger conservation).

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

I had intended to stay the whole day, but with overly spaced-out shows, absolutely nothing to do in-between, and with some of the animals looking just as bored as I felt, I left early feeling ripped off and far from inspired.  Several people have said I must have visited on a really bad day, and if I go back and have a good one, I will happily update as appropriate.  But as it is, with this being the only facility of its kind in Australia, it is unfortunate that if I didn’t already love marine life, Sea World Gold Coast would not have changed my mind.

Pass.

Tour Review: Dolphin Explorer

Official Tour Site

Where: Port Adelaide, South Australia
Cost: $8/adult, $6/child
Who is it for?: Hungry people, gawkers, children, anyone who is happy with a fleeting glimpse of a dolphin
Who is it not for?: Serious nature lovers and photographers.

Despite the abundance of dolphins in the Port River, including a population known to do “tricks”, there isn’t really anything available for whale or dolphin watching right out of Adelaide itself (although there are options further south at Victor Harbor), so the Dolphin Explorer pretty much has the local monopoly.  My expectations were low as locals had created the impression that it was more of a floating restaurant and/or party boat where seeing dolphins was incidental, but for a mere $8 I gave it a go anyway.

The scenery left something to be desired.

The scenery often left something to be desired.

Floating restaurant aside, the Dolphin Explorer is more of a river cruise than a wildlife tour.  Although you will most likely see cetaceans (a rarity among tours I have discovered — more on that in the future), the boat does not slow down or turn around when dolphins are sighted, so all you get are fleeting glimpses of the animals unless you’re lucky enough to be standing in one of the front corners should a dolphin decide to bow-ride (tip: stand in a front corner).

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The bird life was decent, with abundant cormorants (including the slightly less-common Black Faced Cormorant) and terns.

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The majority of people on the boat seemed satisfied with the tour, but as a serious nature lover and photographer I felt it could have been better.  Every other cetacean-watching tour I have been on had more maneuverable vessels that would at least slow down to better watch the animals in the unlikely event some actually showed up.  That said, for the price, the Dolphin Explorer does provide an affordable outing for everyone, especially families.  At least you actually see dolphins, so don’t write it off, but don’t go out of your way or expect too much either.

If you are a photographer: due to the nature of this tour, bring a very long telephoto.  I had my 80-400 and found myself wishing I had my 150-600 instead.

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UPDATE:  I went on several more tours, both with this operator and their competitor.  Ultimately, duds.  Dolphins were so far away only I made them out through my (this time) 600mm lens.  Most people were too busy stuffing their faces and drinking to care the one time one did come close.  Still do not recommend, unless you’re only there for the food.