Lighthouse cottage getaway: Montague Island

Stay on a remote south coast NSW island in an historic lighthouse cottage with only fairy penguins, a resident colony of playful seals and passing whales as neighbours.

It's like snorkelling in a huge aquarium. Spinning around us are three young Australian fur seals — twisting and turning as if performing a water ballet. In the crystal-clear water, silver bubble streams emerge from their sleek fur and delicate whiskers. Clearly, they are having fun.
Above us are the shores of Montague Island, but our eyes are only on the underwater basin, where long strands of red kelp sway with the pull of the tide and fish glide over granite slabs below. It's a beautiful marine garden that feels as safe as any suburban swimming pool, until we come up for air and see a 280kg bull seal scattering his harem as he makes a floundering charge across the rocks towards us. With bulging saucer-sized eyes, he dives into the sea like a torpedo. Fun turns to apprehension as all our faces bob under water to face him. But the grumpy old codger just shoots through, tossing his head as if to say, "Fooled ya."
We've come to Montague Island to stay at a 19th-century lighthouse cottage and as we clamber aboard our tour boat, Dreamtime, we're chuffed to have had such a thrilling wildlife adventure before arriving at our destination. An hour earlier, we had boarded the boat at Narooma on the NSW Eurobodalla coast; now we're coasting towards the island jetty.
Nine kilometres off the NSW coast, Montague Island is a rugged wildlife sanctuary that sparkles on fine-weather days, but looks remarkably desolate when lashed by a southerly buster, as we're soon to discover. Festooned with giant domes of granite covered in yellow lichen and a sturdy white lighthouse on its highest point, it looks like a one-year-old's birthday cake.
Fairy penguins live here all year round and 80 other bird species visit, many of them for the early summer breeding season. This is when it gets a little crowded on the 1.5km by 500m island.
As we climb up the steep hill from jetty to lighthouse, puffing and panting, Mark, the park ranger, tells us this is the route the fairy penguins take when they return from their daily fishing trips at dusk. They weigh in at only 1kg and are obviously fitter than us.
The two historic lighthouse "cottages" are more like mansions. Each one has a Victorian-style reception room and five spacious bedrooms. The front verandah faces east and has a 180-degree view over the Pacific. It's the perfect place to enjoy early evening drinks and spot whales.
Montague Island is one of the best whale-watching sites in NSW, thanks to its strategic location offshore. From September to mid-November, humpbacks breach and tail-hop, sometimes within 50m of the shore on their return journey south, but it's now February and even the slowest whales have made it to Antarctica.
It's been a hot, still summer day and before we can finish our drinks on the verandah a thunderstorm strikes. The wind picks up, the sky turns purplish black and fork lightning strikes the sea all around the island. Then there's a downpour so heavy it forces everyone inside, where as luck would have it, dinner awaits.
Just after sun down, the storm passes and we walk down the hill to the jetty to watch the return of the fairy penguins. No wonder they are so popular. Just 34cm tall, they're incredibly cute — graceful in the water and fumblingly clumsy as they waddle up the shore, often falling flat on their faces.
Swimming is prohibited on Montague Island, but "deep wading" is permitted. As it's a sweltering morning the next day, we practise our deep-wadding technique at an idyllic cove after breakfast. Submerged in the water up to our necks, we keep one foot on the seabed at all times. The NSW National Parks rule is to stop visitors swimming out and getting swept away by currents or pestering the resident fur seals, especially when they have pups.
A favourite pastime among other guests, judging from entries in the visitors' book, is to relax on the verandah and look out to sea. "Very soothing to the soul," one guest has written. When the lighthouse was built in 1891, sailing ships would have ploughed the waves on their way between Sydney and Melbourne. Whalers from Eden in southern NSW, each armed with a giant harpoon canon, would have passed searching for humpbacks and minkes.
The lives of the two lighthouse keepers and their families would have been hard, isolated and endlessly repetitive, especially in winter when storms would have stranded them without medical help, food and supplies. In a little island cemetery with just three graves, two contain children who died of suspected meningitis when a protracted storm cut off any hope of survival when medical help failed to arrive.
The next day, we are scheduled to be up early to swim with the seals again, but a southerly buster has swept in overnight and the swell looks threatening. As Dreamtime picks us up on the jetty, we are perilously close to being stranded, advises the captain, but we get away and head straight for Narooma, missing our second dip with the seals.
It's a rough return and we arrive on the mainland soaked, but exhilarated, and a little sad the storm hadn't gathered strength earlier. Who knows we may have been stranded for another day or two. Now that would have been a story.
Travel essentials
The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service is custodian of Montague Island nature reserve.
There are several ways to visit, including self-guided, self-catered stays — our chosen option. Prices: from $3600 for two nights at the lighthouse accommodation for up to 12 people. It includes transport to and from the island and exclusive use of the cottage. Bookings: Montague Island Tours.
There are also half-day morning tours all year round, with evening fairy penguin tours available in spring and summer. Prices: $130 adult, $99 for children under 15 years, family (two adults and two children) $430. Tour price covers transport to and from the island. Bookings: Narooma Visitors Centre.
The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and Conservation Volunteers Australia run hosted stays on Montague Island, where participants can get involved in fairy penguin conservation work. Prices: from $600 per person for two nights, for a minimum of six participants and up to a maximum of 12. Group discounts are available. Price covers transport to and from Montague Island, guides, all meals and conservation participation equipment. Bookings: Conservation Volunteers Australia.
Snorkelling with seals. Price: $33 per person on top of the price of the residential Montague Island package. Fin, mask and snorkel hire are included in the price. Bookings: Narooma Charters.

read more from