She isn’t alerting us to danger. Instead, she’s pointing out a baby banjo shark, also known as a fiddler ray (babies are called fry). It’s like a designer cross breed with its ornate patterned back and similarities with both sharks and rays.
Earlier, we’d been whisked away from the pelican feeding at San Remo on a high-speed Thundercat to skim over the bumpy ocean with Bella and skipper Ian (aka Captain Risky), who drops us overboard with a personal propulsion vehicle known as a sea scooter.
The welcome addition to our snorkeling adventure lets us cruise up to 4km/h and to a 10m depth, making the snorkeling easy for every fitness level. It also helps move us away from surging water close to the caves and propels us quickly to the bottom for a fish-eye view of the kelp forests.
We stop for a moment to take it all in: seafoam-green water splashing against the blush of pink granite rocks and shamrock-green ground coverings on cliff faces transporting us to far-away places as we bob up and down in the swell.
Under the water, the periwinkle-colored lichen and daffodil-yellow zoanthid coral create a watery impressionist smudge of colour, making me wish I’d remembered a waterproof camera to capture the moment.
Bella calls us over again and this time points out what might be the mother of the baby banjo shark. Georgie duck-dives down to get a closer look, just before the sea scooter batteries run out (about 45 minutes) and we hop back on the James Bond-esque fast boat to retreat to the mainland in minutes, still wearing our wetsuits.
Soon we’re back on dry land and ready to see the island from a different angle, this time on Super Cruzer e-bikes with their easy-rider appeal for any age or fitness level.
After a few spins in the bike shop carpark in Cowes, we’re on the open road heading to the boardwalk trails of Oswin Roberts Reserve, with its wiggly wooden trails leading through enchanted forest scapes with swamp paperbarks dripping sheets of bark above an emerald understorey. This time, I have my camera ready to take a photo of Georgie, but she’s too fast for me to catch as we head towards the Koala Conservation Reserve while wallabies hurriedly hop off the trails in front of us.
After dark, we head to the southern side of the island, just as the first tourists had in the 19th-century. Instead of watching the famous penguins, though, they watched thousands of migrating mutton birds, now called shearwaters, returning to their clifftop burrows.
The islanders are still interested in these migrating birds and are turning off their lights at night to help prevent the shearwaters becoming disoriented as they embark on the 15,000km annual migration to Alaska when a strong westerly wind blows.
The birds are drawn toward the light, and even the lights on the Phillip Island Bridge are turned off to help them. It’s a wonderful example of Phillip Islanders adapting their lives to assist the wildlife that shares their home.
The island was also the first place in Australia to move humans for wildlife when the Victorian government controversially bought back the homes at the Summerlands estate to allow the penguins’ homes to be saved – there are now 40,000 penguins here.
It was a move that is still believed to be a world first in environmental conservation, yet brought heartache to relocated residents who remember sleeping at night with the penguins close by – some even burrowing under their floorboards. We hear more about the fascinating history on a private ranger tour watching the dusk dash of little feet on the nightly penguin parade.
We’re given earpieces and binoculars and led to a private platform to watch large hundred-strong groups of penguins stumbling from the sea. A couple of lone penguins head past, showing off their dinky physiques as one of the smallest and oldest penguin species. We follow beside them on boardwalks, watching as they splash through puddles on their reliable road home.
“They don’t like change and take the exact same road home every night,” says Ranger Pip. “During the lockdowns, we’d still put the lights on each night for them, but they missed the crowds.”
It’s quite romantic in the warm air with the rain making mirrors on the water and the dimly lit path creating a softness in the darkness. It’s not lost on the penguins, who seem in the mood for love.
“It’s their honeymoon period and the last chance to mate before winter,” says Pip, showing us a penguin couple flapping wings, touching beaks and dancing, making a noise as if to say: “Back off, this one’s mine.”
But, unlike the island’s Cape Barron geese or shearwaters, who mate for life, these penguins are easily distracted and divorce rates are high – they may even have an amorous encounter or two on the way from the beach to their mate.
It’s always an exciting feeling to witness wildlife, and Pip reminds us of this as we wave goodbye: “You’ve just been around nature, which will make you feel good. Among a busy lifestyle, and with the way the world is going, you’ve had a flavour of something that is truly wild.”
There’s no chance of capturing the moment on camera, though, because photographs and flashes are prohibited – penguins have sensitive eyes and a sudden flash can disorientate them.
The next day, we take to the skies with Phillip Island Helicopters for a bird’s-eye view of the island. It’s a windy morning, and we almost cancel, but our pilot, Chad, reassures us that it’s beautiful flying.
He’s not wrong and we circle the island, taking in the Rhyll pier, the golden cypress tree-lined Cowes main street, and the impressive Grand Prix Circuit with racing cars, pocket-sized from the sky, speeding around the track. There’s also plenty of farmland, which I hadn’t noticed by car, including two wineries.
It’s a good vantage point for seeing the island from each end of its 26km length and 9km width (97km of coastline in total) – the second largest island in Victoria’s Western Port behind French Island.
At the end of the trip, Chad takes a photo of the three of us in the helicopter. On the last stop of our trip, we finally have a good photo memory, but just as I share it on Instagram, Georgie tells me it’s not teenager approved, so I dutifully remove it.
On this trip, memories are all we’ll have, which somehow makes them all the more vivid and I’m suddenly glad we didn’t spend too much time photo-taking. It reminded me that to experience the exhilarating nature and wildlife on Phillip Island, it may just be best to leave the camera at home and simply enjoy it.
Getting there: It’s an easy 90-minute drive from Melbourne.
Where to stay: Settle into Rhyll’s Boat House cottage at Oak Tree Lodge, a selection of wooden cottages set in beautiful English-style gardens.
Where to eat and drink: Choose from 150 types of gin at the elegant Grenache Wine Bar in Cowes or try the Coconut Margarita with some tapas and tacos at Kelp.
The writer was a guest of Destination Phillip Island Regional Tourism Board. This article originally appeared on Escape and do not necessarily represent the views of australiaexploring.com