Nelson Bay Dolphin Cruise & Sand Dunes Tour Review

Looking for an amazing day tour from Sydney? Dreaming of seeing dolphins in the wild? Then the Port Stephens day trip from Sydney with a dolphin watch cruise is for you! Not only does it take you on a Nelson Bay Dolphin Cruise, but you also get to spend a few hours sandboarding on Port Stephens sand dunes.

Even if the idea of sandboarding doesn’t rock your boat, walking among the Southern Hemisphere’s largest moving sand dunes in the beautiful late afternoon light is an incredible experience.

Port Stephens sand dunes

We took a variety of trips and tours from Sydney to Port Stephens over the years, and this tour is by far the best. You get to see and do so much but the tour is not rushed. It lets you savour every moment.

Our tour started with the 7.30 am pick-up in the city. We met Peter, our guide and driver for the day and climbed into his minivan. The minivan was the first pleasant surprise of the day. Instead of travelling around as a busload of 50 people, there were only about a dozen of us.

The drive to Port Stephens is just under 3 hours and Peter entertained us with intermittent commentary on the history of Sydney landmarks as we drove past them and then with some insightful anecdotes from Newcastle/Hunter Region history.

As we approached Port Stephens, it turned out that most of our group opted for whale watching rather than the dolphin cruise and their cruise was departing around 11 am. Whales are easy to see in Sydney, and we regularly go whale watching, but dolphins are much harder to see on Sydney cruises. While Port Stephens is home to a resident pod of Bottlenose dolphins and you can even spot them from the shore here.

So we dropped off the whale watchers at the wharf in Nelson Bay and the three of us had Peter and his snazzy black van to ourselves for the next two hours – the Nelson Bay dolphin cruise didn’t start until 1.30 pm. So we spent the time relaxing in some of Port Stephens’s prettiest bays.

Gan Gan Hill Lookout

Gan Gan Hill lookout in Port Stephens
View of Kurrara Hill, Stephens Peak and Mt Tomaree

To get the lay of the land we first visited Gan Gan Hill Lookout. Gan Gan means a white-breasted fish hawk (sea eagle) in the indigenous Gathang language and true to form, there used to be a sea eagle nest on top of one of the communications towers on this hill. Not much of it is left now. It was probably destroyed by the storms and the eagles decided not to rebuild it.

There are two parts to Gan Gan Hill Lookout: the lower, by the car park, and the upper which can be accessed by a short concrete path. From the lower lookout, you see the green expanse of Tomaree National Park and One Mile, Samurai and Kingsley beaches. From the upper lookout, you get the sweeping view across Port Stephens all the way to Hawks Nest and beyond, Tomaree and Shark Bay headlands framing the mouth of the port and a birds-eye view of Kurrara Hill, Stephens Peak and Mt Tomaree.

Shoal Bay

Shoal Bay - Nelson Bay dolphin cruise

Peter is the kind of guide you wish you had on all your tours: a fountain of knowledge without being overbearing, warm and friendly but happy to let you do your own thing, organized and at the same time perfectly chilled out.

From the lookout, he drove us to Shoal Bay with its crystal clear water and watermelon-like pattern of bands of seaweed in the shallows. Unlike the busy marina of Nelson Bay, Shoal Bay has the atmosphere of an upmarket but laid-back beachside community. With excellent coffee.

Fingal Bay

Fingal beach in Port Stephens

Next, we drove to my favourite corner of Port Stephens – Fingal Bay. Home to the infamous Fingal Spit – a sandbar that connects Fingal Beach and Fingal Island, the bay is stunning. Fingal Spit itself is as beautiful as it is dangerous. Created by two bodies of water crashing together, this sandbar claimed at least 15 lives. The tempting sandbar invites you to walk over it to the island and then disappears under the turbulent currents when the tide comes in.

But while walking across the sandbar unaccompanied is Ill-advised, the walk to the sandbar across the stunning Fingal Beach is jaw-droppingly beautiful. We didn’t have too much time to walk to the spit, but we spent some time strolling on the beach until it was time to head back for our Nelson Bay dolphin cruise.

Nelson Bay Dolphin Cruise

Bottlenose dolphin on Nelson Bay dolphin cruise

After a quick lunch in Nelson Bay (the lobster rolls at Little Mavs are amazing, if you are looking for a quick takeaway), we were itching to get to our main event of the tour – the Nelson Bay dolphin cruise. We all but skipped towards the marina and boarded the boat as soon as we could.

Knowing that dolphins occasionally like to ride the bow waves of cruise boats, we took up strategic positions at the front of the boat on the low deck. And while we waited for the rest of the passengers to board, we spotted a couple of dolphins right by the marina. They weren’t close enough for us to see them properly but the captain later announced that they were a mother and a young calf. This was a very promising start.

White-bellied sea eagle
White-bellied sea eagle

Apart from the dolphins, we entertained ourselves by watching pelicans glide above our heads like prehistoric pterodactyls, followed by a White-bellied sea Eagle gliding effortlessly on the lookout for lunch.

A couple of Welcome swallows camped up on the boat’s railing, one of them with some of its lunch still sticking out of its mouth. Even the gulls sitting on top of the quarterdeck seemed to be still swallowing their lunch. Must’ve been that time of the day.

Australian gannet on Nelson Bay dolphin cruise
Australian Gannet

Finally, the deckhand cast us off and we were on our way to meet the dolphins. The first ocean creatures we came across were the Australian gannets bobbing up and down on the waves and taking off once they realized our boat was not going to maneuver around them.

The first dolphins we saw was a nursery pod – a group of females, juveniles, and young calves. Unfortunately, they were too close to a sandbar and we couldn’t enter such shallow water.

Bottlenose dolphins nursery pod in Port Stephens
Nursery pod

So we watched them from a distance for a few minutes and then cruised on heading towards the heads, with the plan to go out into the open ocean hoping to find more dolphins. However, the closer we came to the heads the more turbulent the ocean became. Leaning on the railing at the front of the boat we were regularly splashed with sea spray as the boat thundered over the swells.

Eventually, the captain announced that the sea was too rough for our boat and we headed back for the safety of the bay. But then a call came on the radio that another boat had spotted some dolphins right near Yacaaba Head. So we turned around once again and headed for the swells, only now at considerable speed.

Finally, we came towards the other boat and soon saw the dolphins. They were heading towards us! And before we knew it, they were right underneath our bow. Two incredibly beautiful animals were swimming with us, riding the bow wave at astonishing speed.

The fact that they chose to come to us and interact with us reduced me to tears. Clearly playful, they were swirling in the water, turning sideways and almost upside down as if taking a look at us. They raced each other and then suddenly swam apart only to come back together seconds later.

Every few seconds they surfaced to breath without breaking stride and they seemed to be impossibly close.

Bottlenose dolphins on Nelson Bay dolphin cruise

They stayed with us for what seemed like forever but was probably closer to 10-15 minutes. Once they had enough, they effortlessly pivoted at breakneck speed and were gone leaving us in absolute awe of the encounter. I was happy to see that I was not the only person quietly brushing tears off my face. It is one thing to see wild animals in their element, and another to have them come to you to play.

There is so much we don’t know about animals, despite our advanced understanding of their biological and ecological functions and theories about their evolutionary history. As living creatures, dolphins are much more than the sum of their biological and ecological functions. They are animals with complex social and cultural lives. Studies have shown that they call each other by name.

It is easier to believe that dolphins choose to come and interact with humans, to play with the waves created by the boats, than that they function purely on instinct and approach tourist boats to catch a lift in order to preserve the energy they would’ve spent on swimming the same distance. Watching these two dolphins play and clearly enjoy themselves I saw two subjective someones, two persons who chose to break away from their pod and enjoy some playtime with loudly excited humans.

Stockton Beach

Stockton beach on Nelson Bay dolphin cruise tour from Sydney

Both our cruises, the whale watching and dolphin watching, finished at the same time, so we reunited with the rest of our group and headed to Stockton Beach.

Stockton Beach is epic even by Australian standards. This stretch of sand is 30 kilometres long, stretching from Anna Bay all the way to Newcastle. And because it is backed up by 26 kilometres of enormous sand dunes, it appears even larger.

To explore the beach and the dunes properly, you need a serious set of wheels. And this is what we got. As part of our tour, we were taken on a 4WD tour of the beach and the dunes before heading on a sandboarding adventure.

Kenneth, our guide and driver had some fascinating stories to share. First off, we drove about 2 kilometres along the beach. As we drove along, we passed several flocks of gorgeous Pied oystercatchers. These birds are quite common in Anna Bay, though I haven’t seen quite so many of them anywhere else.

Pied oystercatcher
Pied oystercatcher

Oystercatchers use their magnificent red beeks to dig up pipies (Plebidonax deltoides) or saltwater clams from the sand, split them open and feast on the soft flesh. To avoid their predators, pipies dig themselves quite deep into the sand. So what Keneth got us to do was to stand in the surf and swivel on our feet to dig them into the sand until we find a pipie hiding underneath.

Digging for pipies on Stockton beach
Digging for pipies on Stockton Beach

We had different degrees of success but in the end, Keneth had a handful of pipies in his hand. As I looked at them, I kept thinking that they are just clamps, they have no limbs to speak of. How in the world do they dig themselves into the sand?

Well, quite quickly actually. Once we placed them back into the surf we watched them literally disappear in front of our eyes. Even looking directly at them I couldn’t figure out how they were doing it.

Port Stephens Sand Dunes

Port Stephens sand dunes

Once we liberated the pipies, it was time to hit the dunes. These dunes have many names: Port Stephens sand dunes, Anna Bay sand dunes, and Stockton sand dunes, but their proper name is The Stockton Bight Sand Dunes of Worimi Conservation Lands. And they are the largest moving sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere. They move inland at the rate of something like 20 meters in 10 years.

At some point in the past, this part of the coast was covered in forest, like everywhere else in Port Stephens. But over thousands of years, these dunes grew into a mammoth desert.

What do Port Stephens sand dunes and Blue Mountains have in common?

Unusual things like an epic stretch of sand dunes next to the ocean always make me wonder how they came to be. The answer nearly knocked me off my feet. All this sand, 26 kilometres of it comes from the Blue Mountains! The sandstone formations of the Blue Mountains erode under the onslaught of the elements and the sand blown off the formations like the Three Sisters, finds its way into the rivers.

The rivers then bring this sand to the ocean. And due to the combination of the current and shape of this part of Anna Bay, this sand gets deposited on Stockton Beach.

Sunset on port stephens dunes on a tour from Sydney

While most of our group entertained themselves sandboarding down the dunes, we explored the dunes themselves. The panoramas from the top of the dunes are almost otherworldly, to the left the ocean stretches as far as the eye can see towards the horizon, to the right, the sea of sand undulates seemingly into infinity.

We were lucky to be on the dunes in the late afternoon just as the sun was beginning to set casting deep shadows and creating wonderful patterns in the sand. As if the sandy aesthetics were not enough, whales were breaching about 100 meters from the shore. You couldn’t have asked for a more fitting wrap-up for our Port Stephens tour with the Nelson Bay dolphin cruise. Sand and Sail in one day.

If this sounds like your type of adventure, book it now and be prepared to be swept off your feet by the magic of Port Stephens.

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3 thoughts on “Nelson Bay Dolphin Cruise & Sand Dunes Tour Review”

  1. What a great day you had on this tour. I haven’t been to Nelson Bay in years – but I think I will have to soon!


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