Known contradictorily as killer whales and sea pandas, about 200 cute but deadly orcas are drawn to Bremer Bay, Western Australia, every summer. They come to hunt, feed and frolic in a deep-sea canyon, 24 nautical miles (45 kilometres) off the isolated south-west coast. Not only is it one of the few places in the world to see orcas in the wild, it’s the only place in Australia for tourists to embark on an orca expedition.

Apparently, yesterday was “pure Attenborough stuff”, but today is calm and quiet. Finally, after three hours at sea aboard the Alison Maree research vessel, we spot a pod up ahead.

Strangely, every orca is swimming very slowly, close to the surface. They are asleep. Another group appears nearby, also asleep. We’ve come all this way to watch ruthless, breaching, acrobatic, aquatic predators taking a nap.

This is fascinating for marine biologist Pia Markovic, who explains how orcas remain conscious while sleeping, allowing one half of their brain to stay alert. “To see them so relaxed and so vulnerable is very rare and interesting,” she says.

Ms Markovic is one of a team of scientists who come out on this boat every day to observe and document the orcas’ behaviour. Since 2013, the research expeditions have been funded by these tours, with the collected data shared with universities and used in scientific papers.

“This is uncharted territory, so we’re already seeing research that is significant internationally. It goes to show how much there is to know,” says Ms Markovic.

People viewing orcas

In other countries, orcas can have up to 70 per cent mortality rate in the first year of life; in Bremer Bay, it’s zero. This incredible survival rate suggests the area has ideal conditions: pristine water; no artificial noise; no oil rigs, commercial fishing, ferries or cruise ships; and a plentiful supply of fish, squid, whales and dolphins to eat.

To gently encourage a little interaction, the crew suggests we whistle at the orcas. Almost immediately, they start “spyhopping”, poking their heads out of the water to see what it is happening.

A few minutes later, hundreds of pilot whales approach the boat. By the crew’s estimation, there are 800 surrounding us. Cameras go crazy and everyone is thrilled to see such a big gang of sleek, black creatures. A sperm whale, beaked whale and striped dolphins also appear, while wandering albatross soar overhead.

According to the operator, Naturaliste Charters, the hit rate to see orcas is 96 per cent. Other species of dolphins and whales are virtually guaranteed, too. By the end of April, the orcas vanish, not returning to this sea panda paradise until next year. It’s not known where they migrate, but many regulars return each summer.

Naturaliste Charters’ 2022 season will run from January 2 to April 24, with daily departures at 8am. The eight-hour killer whale expedition includes lunch, snacks and drinks served onboard. Spend the night before in Bremer Bay or take the Busy Blue Bus tour from Albany.

Take me there

Drive: Bremer Bay is two hours’ drive from Albany or 5.5 hours south-east of Perth.

Stay: Tozer’s Bush Camp in Bremer Bay costs $15 per person per night.

Tour: The killer whale expedition costs about $385 per adult and $300 per child (aged 10 and over only). The Busy Blue Bus return tour from Albany costs $550 per person.

Explore more:

Wildflowers in Western Australia
Wildflowers in Western Australia

And while you’re there…

• There are plenty of activities for when you’re back on land – the local beaches are unmissable. John Cove, accessible via Bremer Beach, is nicely sheltered for families. For surfing, Blossoms Beach is popular. Snorkellers should head to Little Boat Harbour. Every beach has that perfectly clear, turquoise water and powdery white sand.

• Bremer Bay is also the gateway to Fitzgerald River National Park, one of the few UNESCO World Biosphere Reserves in Australia. Renowned for its spectacular scenery, flora and fauna, this botanical wonderland is perfect for bushwalking. Enjoy identifying some its 1800 plant species, 200 bird species and elusive animals, such as the honey possum and brushtail wallaby. From July to October, southern right whales come to calve in its protected bay, Point Ann.

• Stop by Wellstead Heritage Museum to see an eclectic collection of more than 6000 items of memorabilia, including vintage cars, motorbikes and tractors, a horse-drawn hearse and a 1953 tuk tuk from Thailand.

• For a pork-belly burger or a cleansing ale, head to Bremer Bay Brewing Company, which has opened in the town centre. Relax in the outdoor courtyard where old tinnies (the boats, not the beer cans) hang upside-down over the tables to provide shade.

• Wildflowers bloom year-round in many parts. Surrounded by about 280 hectares of uncleared bushland, Tozer’s Bush Camp is home to some of the rarest orchids. Tours are held in spring, but campers can follow a self-guided trail to see hundreds of native flowers.

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