The Wonderful West

Chris Whitelaw — 11 June 2020
Located in Victoria’s south-west, Warrnambool is a wet wonderland full of nature, history and relaxation

Surrounded by lush rural landscapes and the sparkling waters of Lady Bay, Warrnambool is the largest provincial city on Victoria’s south-west coast, midway between Cape Otway and the South Australian border. With a population of around 34,000, it punches well above its weight in commercial activity, with a $3 billion economy based on agriculture, retail, education, health and professional services. 

Two kilometres from the harbour, the vibrant city centre is a neat grid interspersed with fine 19th century buildings and churches, unblemished by high-rise development.

Warrnambool’s temperate climate and coastal setting make it an attractive holiday destination, with safe swimming beaches, rewarding fishing, the historic allure of the ‘Shipwreck Coast’ and close proximity to the Great Ocean Road. During the winter months Logan’s Beach becomes a ‘nursery’ for southern right whales on their annual migration. 


In the language of local Aboriginal people, ‘Warrnambool’ has several meanings — running swamps, ample water and place of plenty — which epitomise the city’s riparian environment between the Merri and Hopkins Rivers.

Named by explorer Thomas Mitchell in 1836, the Hopkins River rises in the Great Dividing Range near Ararat. It is joined by 12 tributaries on its 270km journey, first through gentle hills then cutting a deep valley across lava plains before plunging over the Hopkins Falls for its final leg to Lady Bay. The river is tidal in its lower reaches and navigable for the last 8km when it broadens before entering the sea through an estuary east of Warrnambool. The estuary is popular with anglers for its highly valued recreational species such as black bream, estuary perch, mulloway, yellow eye mullet and oceanic Australian salmon. 

West of Warrnambool, the Merri River is formed by the confluence of Spring and Drysdale Creeks, and flows generally south for 30km to Stingray Bay, a small inlet that is part of the Merri Marine Sanctuary. Much of the upper and middle catchment of the river has been cleared for agricultural purposes, while the lower catchment encompasses most of the urban area of Warrnambool, which has been developed for industrial and residential use. The Merri estuary is popular for canoeing and fishing, while the protected white sand beach at Stingray Bay is well patronised by families during the summer months.

The river also feeds nationally significant wetlands south-west of Warrnambool, like Kelly’s Swamp and Lake Pertobe, which are habitats for 20 species of fish and large numbers of resident and migratory birds. Middle Island has a colony of little penguins, whose number was decimated by foxes in the mid-2000s. In a world-first program, in 2005 the colony was restocked with over 100 penguins and Maremma sheepdogs were introduced to guard them. Today, the penguin population exceeds two hundred.

Beyond Stingray Bay lies Thunder Point and a series of coastal nature reserves that stretch more than 20km west to Port Fairy. This pristine littoral brings together all the features that make the Warrnambool coastline one of the most picturesque in Victoria — outcrops of weathered sandstone, lava reefs and platforms honeycombed by crystal clear rock pools flushed by Southern Ocean swells, coves laced with beaches of crushed shells, and a long golden strand backed by towering sand dunes. Somewhere along this surf-misted shore lie the remains of the fabled ‘Mahogany Ship’, a 16th century caravel that may prove the popular theory that Portuguese mariners explored Australia’s southern coast 250 years before James Cook.


Warrnambool lies within the traditional country of the Kirrae Whurrong nation, whose 21 clans occupied an area of 5000sqkm from the Otway Ranges to the adjoining lands of the Maar and Eastern Gunditjmara people around Port Fairy. The shared tribal border through the Merri-Hopkins catchment was a place for gathering and sharing food and resources. Far from dividing them, it brought the clans together for trade, ceremonies and celebrations of their natural environment. The lower reaches and estuary of the Merri were popular food gathering and living areas, and midden sites at Thunder Point are registered on the National Estate.


Lady Bay was charted, and its prominent features named by a procession of early mariners — James Grant (1800), Matthew Flinders and Nicolas Baudin (both in 1802). In their wake followed itinerant whalers and seal hunters, who used the sheltered bay until the 1830s to process their catch and repair boats.

Pastoral development of the area began in the late 1830s as pioneers began to take advantage of the bay’s natural harbour. The town grew rapidly during the 1840s and 1850s and developed a boisterous maritime trade through the export of agricultural products and the import of supplies and immigrants bound for the inland goldfields. It was officially proclaimed as a port of entry and clearance in 1855.


The first jetty and breakwater were built in 1850 but silting at the river entrance and town foreshore posed difficulties for navigation that prompted the construction of lighthouses on Middle Island and Lady Bay Beach. These were later moved to Flagstaff Hill to act as leading lights for entry to the treacherous and shallow harbour. Lady Bay was also exposed to south-easterly storms that wrecked fifteen ships by the turn of the century.

Nevertheless, Warrnambool prospered and, during the 1870s, became the dominant port in the Western District, outstripping both Portland and Port Fairy in trade volume and customs revenue. By the 1880s, the Port of Warrnambool was a regular stop on the coastal steamer route and was handling more cargo than the Port of Melbourne, aided by the establishment of a local wool mill and several cheese and butter factories.

Around this time, the government reserve on Flagstaff Hill was fortified and a battery of guns installed as part of a general upgrade of the colony’s coastal defences amid fears of a Russian invasion. The fortifications and guns were restored after the complex was integrated into the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum, which opened in 1975.

However, the chronic problem of silting intensified and, despite prodigiously expensive works that included a substantial concrete block breakwater, by the 1890s the port could only be navigated by small craft. Warrnambool was overtaken by Portland in harbour traffic and exports, and virtually ceased to operate as a trading port after the 1920s, with road and rail transport proving the better option. The major function of Warrnambool Harbour today is to provide facilities for commercial fishing and leisure boats, and a venue for tourism and recreational fishing off the breakwater.

Warrnambool’s post-war fortunes continued to ride on agriculture, dairy processing and the local textile industry, which was boosted in 1948 by the opening of the Fletcher Jones clothing factory. By 2005, when the factory closed, the city had developed as a comprehensive service centre for the region, with employment concentrated in the retail, education, health, finance, tourism and municipal administration sectors.


The Port of Warrnambool is one of only two ‘State Marine Precincts’ west of Melbourne (the other being Portland) and is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register. It encompasses most of Lady Bay, a broad south-facing bay fringed by a sandy shore, with the harbour tucked into the western end behind a breakwater. 

Due to wave characteristics in Lady Bay, vessels can only be accommodated by swing moorings (rather than fixed berths) within the harbour, where anchorage may be taken in depths of 2–3m in the northern lee of the breakwater. Of the fifteen swing moorings within the Port, three are owned by the Warrnambool City Council (WCC), which issues annual permits for their use (fees apply).

The harbour currently caters for a commercial fishing fleet of about 10 vessels, private fishing and recreational boats, the Volunteer Coastguard and charter operators. There are limited facilities for visiting cruisers.

Port infrastructure consists of the breakwater and the timber viaduct which once joined it to the shore and the boat ramp. The 600m breakwater extends eastward and is constructed of massive 32-tonne keyed concrete blocks with rock armouring along the ocean side. It incorporates a lower landing for loading/unloading purposes, wide enough to accommodate vehicles, a low loader and mobile crane, and an upper level for pedestrian access along the length of the breakwater. The breakwater is serviced by fresh water, light and power, and a two-hour time limit applies to public landings. 

The viaduct running along the east side of the Merri River was originally a raised timber structure but is now filled with bluestone rubble and topped with an asphalt roadway (Viaduct Road). The area to the east of the viaduct is landfill reclaimed from the harbour, and a boat ramp, car park, cafe and sailing club have been constructed along the new shoreline.

Boats can be launched into the harbour via a two-lane concrete boat ramp supported by two adjacent jetties that act as queuing, fishing and pedestrian structures. The adjacent car park provides 52 marked car-trailer spaces, with additional 100 car spaces available in three parking areas throughout the port precinct. 

Although the boat ramp is protected by the breakwater in most conditions, it is still subject to wave-surge that can make launch and retrieval difficult in adverse conditions. Draught limitations due to ongoing sedimentation in the harbour may also inhibit the ability to launch and retrieve vessels from the boat ramp and limit functional access to landings at the breakwater.

Refuelling of commercial fishing vessels is undertaken using a mobile ‘cart’ towed along the lower landing of the breakwater. The Port has bins for disposal of non-toxic solid waste and recycling, with no facilities for the disposal of sewerage or oily bilge water. 


The Port is owned by the Victorian Government and managed by the WCC, which is responsible for the ongoing management and maintenance of port assets. Its functions include: the safe and efficient conduct of shipping and boating activities; the development and maintenance of port facilities; the dredging of the harbour; and the control of vessel navigation. The WCC also manages Flagstaff Hill and maintains the two lighthouses in that precinct.

Dredging is particularly important to the continued functioning of the harbour. Various extensions and modifications to the harbour and foreshore over the years have had a significant impact on coastal processes in Lady Bay. Over time this has increased sedimentation (an estimated 10,000 cubic metres of sand per annum), reduced depth within the port area and markedly altered the shoreline. A five-yearly dredging campaign has operated since 1978 to maintain safe, navigable access to the mooring area, breakwater lower landing and boat ramp.

Warrnambool harbour has been marked for further development and enhancement by a number of strategic planning documents, such as the Victorian Coastal Strategy and the Western Victoria Boating Coastal Action Plan. 

The Victorian Government has provided funding through the Boating Safety and Facilities Program for a new navigational aid and light on the end of the breakwater and will invest a further $420,000 in planning and design to upgrade the boat launching facility. The upgraded boat launch precinct will include a three-lane boat ramp, improved circulation around the launching zone, dedicated rigging, queuing and wash-down bays, fish cleaning tables, terraced seating and picnic furniture, interpretive signage and artwork. The car park area around the aquarium will be reconfigured with suitable locations for food trucks, market stalls and a lookout over Stingray Bay. 


Warrnambool City Council

25 Liebig Street, Warrnambool 

P 1300 003 280 or (03) 5559 4800


Port Engineer (Don Allen)

P (03) 5559 4662 or 0419 389 638


Facilities manager (benjamin storey) M 0409 797 842


Warrnambool Tourist Information Centre 

Flagstaff Hill, 89 Merri Street, Warrnambool

P (03) 5559 4620 or 1800 637 725


Warrnambool Coast Guard (VMR 817)

P (03) 5561 2625

VHF 16, repeaters 80, 81 and 88 on 27 MHz


Destination Travel Warrnambool Victoria


Chris Whitelaw