By Andrea Rowe Photos Yanni
Captain Troy Muir has grown up on Port Phillip Bay. Windswept, wide smiling and rugged, it’s possible that salt water runs through his veins from a lifetime on and under the water.
The Bay is 48-year-old Troy’s sanctuary, workplace, playground and legacy; and he loves sharing it with curious marine creatures and eco-adventure seeking visitors.
Troy’s family pioneered Port Phillip Bay’s premier dolphin swim tourism operation over 34 years ago. An institution on the Bay, the Sorrento-based business has won multiple awards for ecotourism and international respect for its contribution to marine research and conservation.
Troy’s parents, Tony and Judy Muir, salty legends in their own right, first launched Polperro as a research boat while advocating for regulations to protect Port Phillip Bay’s smiling ambassadors, the rare breed of Bottlenose Dolphins.
Melbourne’s Bay is home to 80 – 100 of a precious subspecies of dolphin known as the Burrunan, as well as a population of Common dolphins and Australian fur seals. They’re joined by sea dragons, cuttlefish, spider crabs, stingrays and diverse marine creatures and habitat.
Troy’s respect and care for them is as deep as the ocean.
Growing up in Blairgowrie, the bay was front and centre in Troy’s life. His father, the late Tony Muir, was a legendary local Master Mariner and diver who earned his living on and around the sea. So too did Troy, joining the deckhand and dive master trade, working on ferries, tugs and vessels throughout the Bay. Like his adored dad, whose picture watches over him from inside Polperro’s cabin, Troy is a man of the sea. And he’s happy to share it.
From behind the ship’s wheel, Troy gazes out across the timber vessel’s aqua and white trim towards a silver-blue horizon. He’s scanning for the tell-tale signs of dolphins, bow-riding the wake of the ferry, breaking the water’s surface or gathering beneath diving gannets feeding on schools of fish.
Troy and his trusty crew, (Ben Muir, a marine diver and eco-guide, marine biologist and eco-guide Jess Beckham, veterinarian and marine science eco-guide Tom Andrews, and climate scientist and dive master Sophie Stringer) are an oceanic force for good. The business provides schools with marine education programs matched to curriculum for geography, outdoor education and citizen science subjects like marine pollution and species monitoring. Polperro passengers are assured a seamless saltwater experience
“School groups, families, couples and locals have swimming with dolphins on their bucket list. But it comes with a respect for the marine life and the environment that we’re all lucky to send time in,” says Troy.
“The last thing we want to do is disrupt the habitat of marine animals; we’ve been doing this for a long time and we want to ensure the bay and reef life remain protected.”
This philosophy of marine conservation forms the backbone of Polperro’s operations. Troy and the crew, including his mother Judy Muir, an Order of Australia recipient for contributions to marine science education, are proud of their ecotourism operations. From the moment you step aboard the Polperro you’re encouraged to learn while immersing in memorable adventures.
“Many people don’t realise that 80% of the marine species we have in Port Phillip Bay are only found here, nowhere else in the world. The Bottlenose dolphins are endemic to these waters and Gippsland,” says Troy. “That’s reason enough to protect them in the wild.”
The wonder of marine experiences never grows old for Troy; dolphins remain a favourite.
“They’re incredible. From their different temperaments to how they socialise and forage. They have intricate communications as air breathing mammals, occupying space above and beneath the waves, and using sound to analyse their environment. They are an intricate part of a connected ecosystem and the health of the bay.”
“We’ve spent time watching and swimming with them, identifying each dolphin by their dorsal fins, which are as unique as fingerprints.”
It’s no surprise David Attenborough is one of Troy’s heroes. Like the BBC natural historian, the Polperro crew passionately contribute to research and marine regulation studies. They assist with marine mammal mapping, photography, recordings and hosting Marine Mammal Research teams on the vessel. They’re champions for marine conservation while ensuring all who board the boat have unforgettable marine adventures.
With two trips a day departing from Sorrento Jetty, the welcome from the crew is as cosy as the wetsuits you’re kitted out in for snorkelling.
“Port Phillip Bay temperatures average 18 to 21 degrees Celsius, depending on the seasons, but you’re always warm in the wet suits.”
Once a pod of dolphins is located out in the Bay, and their wellbeing and safety assessed, the crew prepare guests to slide into the water, holding suspended buoys to swim and snorkel with these curious creatures.
Encountering a dolphin while snorkelling in 2000 square metres of Port Phillip Bay is an unforgettable close encounter of the cetacean kind.
Troy says that “being up close to an intelligent, wild animal in their natural habitat is a privilege” and when the stars of the show, the Bottlenose Dolphins, move through the water, turning a thoughtful eye to observe you, you feel humble and grateful to be in their company. Incredibly social, they dart back and forth in a dazzling display of underwater acrobatics, sun sparkling off their skin, an adorable snout smile urging you to beam right back at them.
There are strict protection measures in place to ensure their safety. Troy is quietly proud that his family have championed a legacy of protection for this precious marine creature.
While the crew can’t guarantee dolphin sightings, they’ll work hard to ensure all on the boat have memorable marine encounters.
The Bay is also home to a population of up to 70 Australian fur seals.
The Polperro heads to a seal haul-out site in the South Channel, known as Chinaman’s Hat, where seals lounge and greet the vessel nosily. Slipping into the water with these oceanic acrobats, visitors snorkel alongside, over and under them. Their silky forms and inquisitive whiskers twitch as they buzz and click around swimmers. The crew keep company with swimming noodles and ongoing commentary on their habits. Captain Troy ensures non-swimmers enjoy the cavorting too, with front row seats from the bow and seal insights.
Back on the boat, it’s just as heart-warming, with Ben, still in his wetsuit good naturedly baking fresh scones and serving hot chocolates while marine biologist Jess shows images and research specimens. As undeniable ambassadors for marine life they talk thoughtfully about habitat impacts and threats.
“Plastics continue to be a problem, and we all have to do our bit,” but Troy recognises that community care has made a big difference “We had a bit of a renaissance in the ’90s where a sense of stewardship grew and the Bay became a part of Melbourne’s identity. That Melbourne ranks consistently as one of the world’s most liveable cities is a legacy of the health of the Bay.”
Heading back to harbour, Troy diverts for some dragon-hunting. Scone warmed snorkellers are back in the water, following the whimsical flutter of weedy sea dragons through kelp forests. It’s not unusual to spy the tail of a male sea dragon curling protectively around its egg.
“The seagrass provides the perfect feeding and breeding sanctuary for the colony. They forage and drift along so gracefully, showing us how diverse and entertaining our marine life really is.”
Troy and his team dive and dart on the boat and in the water as effortlessly as their adored marine life, ensuring guests are just as enamoured. Their inclusive nature ensures passengers of all abilities are accommodated.
It’s very much a family business. Troy’s partner Justine McNamara, a respected artist, works in the booking office, daughter Matilda-Pearl, emerging singer-songwriter, works a summer job as deckhand, and youngest daughter Bonnie is a swimming ‘super fish’. Brother Ben is eco-guide and dive master and mother Judy Muir contributes to their Advanced Ecotourism accreditation. The memory of patriarch, Tony Muir is treasured by them all.
While there’s no denying the underwater locals are the main attraction of Port Phillip Bay, the crew of Polperro and Captain Troy are something special too.
Peninsula Essence – January 2021