Wild Wonderland

Chris Whitelaw — 14 May 2020
It's the oldest European settlement in Victoria, but there's more than just history to be found here

Founded in 1834, Portland is the oldest European settlement in Victoria, and has evolved as the urban and administrative centre of the Shire of Glenelg, with a population of almost 11,000. Nestled in the lee of Cape Nelson, 360km west of Melbourne, the city overlooks a large natural harbour, Portland Bay, in a magnificent setting of dramatic cliffs, sweeping beaches, estuarine wetlands and extensive dune fields. The hinterland is a mosaic of heathlands, native forests and lush agriculture.

Throughout the landscape are spectacular and unusual formations that echo the region’s fascinating geological history — extinct volcanic peaks like Mt Richmond, Mt Eccles and Mt Napier, undulating lava flows, the ‘Petrified Forest’, and two-million-year-old limestone karst embedded with fossils of prehistoric fauna. Where rock meets the Southern Ocean, wind and wave action has carved blowholes, overhangs and deep caves into the cliffs.

Nine conservation areas protect almost 116,000 hectares of terrestrial habitats, including all of the coastal strip from Portland to the South Australian border, and the marine environment to the limit of Victorian waters, three nautical miles (5.6km) offshore. Australian Fur Seal colonies occupy rock platforms around the capes, while exposed reefs and islets are breeding colonies for resident and migratory seabirds. 


Portland lies within the traditional country of the Gunditjmara Aboriginal people, and numerous sites contain evidence of their occupation dating back at least 11,300 years. The most significant is the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, about 40km north-west of Portland, where the Gunditjmara constructed a complex system of channels, stone weirs and dams around Lake Condah to trap, store and harvest fish and eels. At almost 7,000 years old, Budj Bim is the world’s oldest and most extensive aquaculture system. In 2004, Budj Bim was included on the National Heritage List and was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2019.

In 2007, the Federal Court granted the Gunditjmara native title over almost 140,000 hectares of land and waters in the Portland region. A further determination in 2011 granted them joint native title with the Eastern Maar people to over 4,000 hectares between Portland and Port Fairy, including Lady Julia Percy Island. 


While charting the Victorian coastline in 1800, British navigator James Grant named Portland Bay after William Cavendish-Bentinck, the Secretary of State and Duke of Portland, and Cape Bridgewater after Francis Egerton, Earl of Bridgewater. In 1802 French explorer Nicholas Baudin named the bay Tourville, unaware of Grant’s earlier visit. 

By the early 19th century, whalers and sealers were plundering the treacherous waters of Bass Strait, and Portland Bay’s deep water provided sheltered, though uncertain, anchorage in wild weather. William Dutton established an onshore whaling station in 1832 and was joined in 1834 by Edward Henty, who brought his family and livestock from Van Diemen’s Land to begin farming and grazing in the area. By 1842 Portland had become the region’s port for importing supplies and exporting local products of whale oil, grain, wool and cattle.


During the 1840s and 1850s, Portland’s prosperity was fuelled by expanding agriculture, gold rushes that demanded labour and supplies, and the development of a boat building industry. But increased coastal traffic and commerce produced mixed fortunes.

Before the construction of breakwaters and deep-water moorings, Portland Bay was a precarious anchorage in the wrong conditions. Strong south-easterly gales often caught vessels unprepared and drove them ashore or sank them on their chains. Nineteen shipwrecks in Portland Bay joined a list of casualties along Victoria’s ‘Shipwreck Coast’ that would eventually number in excess of six hundred.

In 1884 a 32m lighthouse was built on the craggy cliffs of Cape Nelson. The light station had two unusual features: one was a 1.75m wall surrounding the keepers’ quarters with an extension to the light tower, to protect them from the harsh winds; the other was a Lookout House, complete with signal flags and telescope to “scrutinize passing ships of hostile intent”, thought prudent in a colony in the grip of the ‘Russian Scare’. These latter defences were augmented during World War II by a radar station and telephone link to the RAAF base at Mt Gambier. Today, the fully automated Cape Nelson light is operated by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, and casts its beam 21 nautical miles out to sea.


From the time of first settlement, the port played a pivotal role in the economic prosperity of the town and region. As well as enabling the growth of the wool industry, Portland became an important fishing port. But the destruction of vessels anchored in the unsheltered bay by prevailing winds and huge waves highlighted the need for a safe deep-water harbour. 

Spurred by economic growth, port infrastructure developed with the construction of breakwaters in 1880 and 1891 to protect shipping from easterly weather, and the connection of the railway to as far afield as Ballarat and eventually Melbourne. In 1945, the port was upgraded to promote decentralisation of Victoria's population and industry. Construction of Portland's main breakwater enclosing an inner harbour began in 1952 and was officially opened on 19 November 1960.

In the first privatisation of port facilities in Australia, the Victorian Government sold the freehold land and management rights of the port in July 1996. Since then, it has been traded a number of times and is now owned by the Port of Portland Pty Ltd, which is licenced by the government to provide international port services.


Portland Harbour lies 63nm east of Port MacDonnell and 34nm west of Port Fairy. An approach from the west must clear Cape Duquesne, Cape Nelson and Lawrence Rocks. From the east, vessels may pass either side of Lady Julia Percy Island. Coastal shipping and international shipping lanes lie 10nm and 25nm respectively to the south. Deepwater approaches allow ships to within 1.5nm of the harbour entrance before pilots are required.

The harbour is enclosed by two man-made breakwaters — the Main Breakwater extending northward, and the Lee Breakwater extending eastward from the town’s foreshore. The latter is open to the public with vehicle access for 1km, making it one of Portland’s most popular land-based fishing spots. The north-facing entrance channel is 13.5m deep leading to a 12.1m-deep turning basin that gives access to berths in the inner shipping harbour. 

The Port of Portland comprises four bulk and general cargo berths within the inner harbour, and a fifth special purpose ‘Smelter Berth’ dedicated to Portland Aluminium on the lee of the Main Breakwater. A sixth berth is located on the Lee Breakwater, which accommodates Portland’s two tugs, Cape Grant and Cape Nelson. The inner harbour is bordered on the west by a mix of bulk, grain and woodchip storage facilities, which are served by road and rail systems that bypass the city to allow 

24-hour access.

Strategically located between Melbourne and Adelaide, Portland is a key gateway for maritime trade and one of Victoria’s four proclaimed ports of entry for international vessels (the others are Melbourne, Geelong and Western Port). It specialises in the storage and handling of bulk commodities and serves the region's rich agricultural, forestry, manufacturing and mining industries as well as regionally-based aluminium and fertiliser producers. As many as 300 ships pass through the port each year, facilitating trade in more than 7 million tonnes of commodities, delivering nearly $4 billion to the regional economy. 

The port also receives several cruise ship visits each year. With the emergence of new and bigger supertankers, Portland has been proposed as an alternative to the controversial plans to deepen Melbourne's Port Phillip. 


The Local Port is located within Portland Harbour and is managed by the Glenelg Shire Council on behalf of the State Government. It has an all-weather, all-tide entrance and is protected in all wind directions, with good depths throughout becoming shallow and un-navigable close to the western shore. Tides are diurnal with a mean spring tide range of 0.9m and currents are low. Within the harbour private vessels must keep clear of port operations.

The 370m Fishermens Wharf is located along a canal that borders the commercial port’s storage facilities. Berths in 2m depths on the canal’s western side accommodate Portland’s crayfishing and charter boat fleet. Berthing of private vessels is prohibited.

The 268m Trawler Wharf is located west of the Fishermens Wharf and accommodates local deep-sea trawler fleet and itinerant vessels up to 300 tonnes at nine berths. The Wharf has a separate 100m floating pontoon for smaller vessels. 

Between the two commercial wharves is a slipway capable of handling 300-tonne vessels up to 40m long with 9m beams. It is the largest slipway in Victoria west of Port Phillip Bay and is operated by Portland Ocean Steel, which provides an extensive range of ship repairs and maintenance services.

From the Trawler Wharf, Henty Beach arcs north-west around the harbour, backed by a grassy recreation area, to the Portland Yacht Club and two four-lane boat launching ramps with fish cleaning tables and designated parking for about 26 vehicles and trailers. A small boat anchorage with swing moorings is located in this west side of the harbour, but no moorings are available for visitors.

In the north-west corner of the harbour, adjacent to the Portland Maritime Discovery Centre, is the Portland Bay Marina. Completed in 2013, this 70-berth floating marina can accommodate commercial and recreational boats 5-18m long and larger visiting boats up to 40m. All berths have electricity, water and full-time CCTV security. 

Adjacent to the north of the marina is a four-lane boat ramp with eight fish cleaning tables, fish weigh station, boat and trailer wash down area, fish waste bins, designated parking for 70 vehicles and trailers, and overflow parking for another 100 vehicles.


From November to May, the Great South Australian Coastal Upwelling brings nutrient-rich deep ocean water to the surface in the Portland area, supporting a rich abundance of marine life — deep-sea finfish, hoki and blue eye trevally, Southern rock lobster, abalone, squid and wrasse. Except for squid most fish stocks are managed by an annual quota allocation. 

Portland’s fleet of about 60 vessels lands almost 40 per cent of Victoria’s commercial catch, directly generating about $30 million in export and domestic earnings for the town. The industry is also one of the region’s largest employers, with major flow-on benefits through local seafood processing, transport, marine engineering, ship building and maintenance, fuelling, providores and associated businesses.


Portland’s marine, coastal and hinterland environments are spectacular settings for tourism and recreation. Numerous national parks and conservation areas in the Western District offer unique opportunities for camping, walking, caving, sightseeing and scenic driving, while Glenelg River and Bridgewater Lakes are popular locations for a variety of water sports. While the exposed ocean beaches are considered unsafe for swimming, surfing occurs at Yellow Rock, Murrells Beach, Bridgewater Bay Foreshore and Whites Beach. 

The proximity of the continental shelf and the seasonal upwelling currents make Portland a recreational fishing hot spot. Target species in the bay include morwong, snapper, coral perch, whiting, flathead, kingfish, and the prized Southern bluefin tuna. Fishing licences are essential and can be purchased from several outlets, including the local visitor information centre. Game fishing is available for keen deep-sea anglers and charter companies operate out of Portland. Eco-charters also include scuba diving and whale, dolphin and seal watching.



P (03) 5523 6111 or 0408 966 203

2788, 2794 (27 MHz marine radio)

VHF 16, 67, 72 and repeater 81

HF 2,4&6 (emergency channels), 2524 and 4483


23-25 Kunara Crescent, Portland

Office BH (03) 5525 0900

Pilots AH (03) 5525 0999

W www.portofportland.com.au


Cliff Street, Portland

P (03) 5522 2200

W www.glenelg.vic.gov.au


Lee Breakwater Road, Portland

P (03) 5522 2140 (BH)

E seasson@glenelg.vic.gov.au (Manager) 

or proberts@glenelg.vic.gov.au (Port Officer)


Lee Breakwater Road, Portland

P 1800 035 567

E portlandvic@glenelg.vic.gov.au


Travel Victoria Portland Coastal Historical


Chris Whitelaw