The Great Australian Bight is the stunning, natural open bay stretching across the southern coast of Australia, south of the Nullarbor Plain. This special coastal area in Australia is a completely unique environment, home to a variety of marine species and endangered mammals. It is a key player in the country’s commercial fishing industry with some of the highest quality seafood in the country.
Ceduna is a major town on the eastern side of the Bight and one of the main places for visitors to base themselves for exploring this coastal area of Australia.
Here is everything that you need to know about the Great Australian Bight, including its natural and recent history, as well as, its many highlights.
What is the Great Australian Bight?
The Great Australian Bight is a large open bay that extends across the southern coast of both South Australia and Western Australia. Officially, it stretches from Cape Carnot on the Eyre Peninsula to Cape Pasley near Esperance.
The Bight is generally considered to be part of the Indian Ocean, or sometimes referred to as the Southern Ocean, with no landmass to the south until you reach the ice caps of Antarctica.
The Bight covers around 45, 822 square kilometres with ocean depths from a shallow 15 metres up to 6000 metres deep. The area is covered under the Great Australian Bight Marine Park which has similar protections to the many land-based national parks in Australia.
A natural history of the Bight
The naturally formed bay known as the Great Australian Bight came into existence when Australia and Antarctica separated around 50 million years ago. The coastline of the Bight is dominated by the Nullarbor Plain, an exposed limestone bedrock which was, in fact, a former seabed millions of year ago. This semi-arid plain offers little surface runoff or nutrients to the waters of the Bight. However, the unique seasonal upwelling of deep ocean water, around the Eyre Peninsula, by currents injects rich nutrients into the Bight which allows marine life to thrive.
The large bay is incredibly biodiverse due to the particular ocean currents of the area which inject nutrient-rich deep ocean waters into the bay. This allows a variety of species to thrive and it’s believed that around 85 percent of the known species in the water aren’t found anywhere else in the world. However, much is still unknown about the diversity of marine life in the Bight with ongoing research still being conducted by scientists.
It is known that the Great Australian Bight provides an especially important habitat for two species of marine mammals that are considered priorities for international conservation. The Southern Right Whales are listed as endangered and come with their young to these waters during winter. The Australian sea lion also breeds in the bay area and are listed as “near threatened” as they are endemic to Australia.
The Bight has suffered exploitation over many years, especially from the fishing, whaling, and shellfish industries. However, the Great Australian Bight Marine National Park was declared in 1996 in order to protect the waters and the Southern Right Whales and sea lion’s population. Although in terms of fishing, it contributes more than half of the country’s seafood supply, with the Eyre Peninsula, in particular, being known for its high quality and abundance of seafood.
Human exploration of the Bight
The Wangai and Spinifex Aboriginal peoples used the Nullarbor Plain and coastline as their hunting grounds for 40, 000 years.
However, the Bight was first encountered by Europeans in 1672 when the Dutch navigator, Francois Thijssen, sailed along the western edge. The entire shoreline of the Bight was later chartered by Matthews Flinders in 1802 during his circumnavigation of the whole continent.
It wasn’t until a few decades later that English explorer, Edward John Eyre, surveyed the coastline by land, crossing the Nullarbor Plain with his Aboriginal companion, Wylie.
The exploration attempts from Big Oil
As well as being one of the most biodiverse places in Australia, the Bight is also considered to have one of the largest untapped oil and gas reserves in the country. Exploration in the area has been undertaken since the 1960s and in the last few years, a number of companies such as BP, Chevron, and Equinor had planned further exploration of the potential reserves. Their proposals included drilling wells in the southern part of the Bight from 2017 onwards.
There was substantial community opposition to the proposed drilling from towns along the coast, as well as, from people across the country. The risk of oil leaks and potentially permanent damage to the biodiversity and fish stocks of the Bight would be catastrophic.
Despite public outcry and protests, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority approved the company’s exploration plans in 2019. However, BP, Chevron and Equinor have so far abandoned their plans citing the lack of commercial competitiveness, although there is, unfortunately, the potential for another company to take over the approved permits.
What is the Bight known for?
The waters of the Bight are particularly known for having an abundance of fish species. The unique environment of the large bay area allows a number of species to thrive in the waters, including Australian salmon, giant herring, mulloway and King George whiting. There’s also a significant influx of southern bluefin tuna in summer as they feed on prey in the warm waters. As a result, the Bight is one of the major fishing areas in Australia and is the country’s largest commercial fishery of southern bluefin tuna.
Other marine life that the Bight is known for includes Southern Right Whales, bottlenose dolphins, Australian sea lions and the leafy sea dragon, which also happens to be Sir David Attenborough’s favourite animal. In the winter months, many visitors flock to the coastline along the Bight to catch a glimpse of the Southern Right Whales which migrate to the warmer waters from May until October. There are a variety of places along the coast from where tours and land-based viewing can be enjoyed.
How to explore the Bight
There are a number of ways to explore the Great Australian Bight, depending on how you prefer to travel and your own interests. Much of the Great Australian Bight coastline is considered quite remote, which makes accessing the area a bit challenging outside of the few major towns in the region. Most of these towns are on the South Australia side of the Bight, which is more populated and has more amenities for travellers. For most people, exploring the Bight usually means basing themselves in one of the coastal towns such as Ceduna and exploring by road or sea from there. Otherwise, if you’re up for a road trip, then the coastline can be enjoyed by car with various stops along the way.
The Eyre Highway that runs from Port Augusta in South Australia across the Nullarbor Plain to Norseman in Western Australia is the main road from which to explore the coastal area. A large part of the road skirts along the coast and is the most common way for people to access the Bight.
A trip across the Nullarbor on the Eyre Highway is considered one of the best road trips in Australia and a highly rated bucket list experience for many people. From the road, it’s possible to stop at towns along the Bight’s coast such as Ceduna or even make detours to places like Head of Bight and the Bunda Cliffs. The highway is dotted with roadhouses that offer accommodation, basic supplies and fuel to travellers making the long drive. Whether you have a few days or a couple of weeks, a trip along the Eyre Highway is a great way to see the best that the landscape and coastline have to offer.
Of course, the best way to really appreciate the marine life and pristine environment of the ocean in the Bight is to explore the water as well. You can easily stop off the Eyre Highway and choose to get a closer look at the ocean with a variety of activities available.
There are fishing charters and whale watching tours, as well as, opportunities to go surfing and snorkelling from various coastal towns. These activities are mostly confined to the eastern side of the Bight around Ceduna and the Eyre Peninsula. There’s more on these activities below.
Things to see and do in the Great Australian Bight
The Great Australian Bight is home to some unique experiences and exceptional natural wonders that are worth exploring. The best things to see and do while visiting the Bight, include:
This flat, arid plain is one of the most unique landscapes in Australia. It is the largest exposure of limestone bedrock in the world and covers an area of 200, 000 square kilometres. This almost treeless landscape straddles South and Western Australia along the coast of the Great Australian Bight.
For many people, exploring the Great Australian Bight is synonymous with exploring the great Nullarbor Plain. The Eyre Highway that crosses the Nullarbor is also the main way to access and enjoy the coast.
Eucla National Park
Eucla National Park covers around 3340 hectares in the southeast corner of Western Australia. The southern edge of the park is bordered by the Great Australian Bight and is known for its sand dunes, limestone cliffs, and beautiful coastal views. It’s easily accessible from Eucla town on the Eyre Highway, which is a popular stop for travellers driving across the Nullarbor Plain.
This spectacular string of cliffs are the longest uninterrupted sea cliffs in the world. Where the Nullarbor Plain dramatically meets the Indian Ocean, the 100km of tall cliffs reaching up to 100m high are called the Bunda Cliffs.
There are a number of lookouts along the coast from where you can enjoy the view and feel like you’re standing on the edge of the world with nothing but ocean in front of you.
Head of Bight
This point is the northernmost extent of the Great Australian Bight. The stunning lookout and boardwalk at Head of Bight is one of the most incredible views you can find anywhere else in the country. If you time your visit between May and October, there’s also a good chance that you’ll spot Southern Right Whales or even humpback whales in the water who come with their young to the area in winter. It’s considered one of the best land-based whale watching spots in Australia.
Surfing at Cactus Beach
Cactus Beach at Point Sinclair is a world-famous surfing destination near Penong on the Great Australian Bight. It’s home to two left-hand breaks and a right-hand break that are considered some of the best to surf in the country. It’s mostly dedicated to experienced surfers with serious waves and a notorious prevalence of Great White Sharks. If you’re more of a beginner, then you can opt for more gentle waves around Fowlers Bay and Venus Bay.
Considering the Bight is one of Australia’s premier fishing areas, it’s not surprising that many people come to go fishing here. There are great chances of catching Mulloway, Whiting, Garfish, and Tommy Ruff around Fowlers Bay, Ceduna, and Smoky Bay. From jetty fishing to organised charters, there’s a variety of fishing experiences for everyone whether you’re a seasoned fisherman or a complete novice.
Enjoy the beaches
The beautiful and dramatic coastline of the Great Australian Bight also creates some incredible beaches. Venus Bay, Baird Bay, Fowlers Bay, and Penong all have stretches of sandy coast where you can sunbake, swim, surf, or fish. To the eastern side of the Bight on the Eyre Peninsula, you can also find some beautiful white sand beaches in Coffin Bay National Park.
The Eyre Peninsula is a spectacular triangular piece of land that juts out into the Southern Ocean of the Great Australian Bight. It’s a popular tourist destination with its beautiful beaches, pristine waters, national parks, and animal encounters. There are a few major towns from which to base yourself to explore the coastal area. Ceduna is on the far northwest edge of the peninsula, Port Lincoln is towards the southern tip and Port Augusta sits in the far northeast corner of the peninsula. It’s one of the main destinations that people head to when they want to explore the Great Australian Bight.
Walking or cycling
If you prefer to explore the coast and scenery of the Great Australian Bight at a much slower pace, there are walking and cycling tracks to enjoy. The Encounter Trail in Thevenard, Shelly Beach Dune Walk near Ceduna, which can all be found on here our Ceduna Map page, or nature trails in Coffin Bay National Park are popular places to soak in the coast on foot.
Ceduna is a major town on the eastern coast of the Bight in South Australia and one of the last major settlements before heading west on the Eyre Highway. The town is known as the Oyster Capital of Australia with some of the freshest seafood you’ll ever taste thanks to the abundant waters of the Bight.
Ceduna is a popular place to use as a base for exploring both the Nullarbor Plain and the Great Australian Bight. The Eyre Highway runs through the middle of town and is the last major settlement as you travel west along the popular road.
It’s also conveniently located for exploring many of the top things to see and do along the coast. From fishing and surfing to whale watching, you don’t have to travel too far from town to experience the best of the Bight.
Ceduna also has all the essential amenities that you need for a trip to the coast with a variety of accommodation options, a tourist information centre, and a variety of shopping in Ceduna.