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Saltwater Eco Tours offers unique Indigenous tourism experience via boat

Rachael Knowles -

Queensland's Sunshine Coast welcomes a new tourism experience which sees travellers take to the sea with Saltwater Eco Tours to learn about the region's rich cultural heritage.

Launched during Queensland's Year of Indigenous Tourism, Saltwater Eco Tours operates out of Mooloolaba, taking passengers aboard a century-old historic timber sailing vessel, Spray of the Coral Coast. The tour hosts local Indigenous storytellers who share stories, traditions and culture of the Kabi Kabi people of the Sunshine Coast.

Saltwater Eco Tours is founded by Torres Strait Islander man, Simon Thornalley. From a young age, Thornalley has had a strong relationship with the ocean.

"I grew up on an ex-mission boat that was from Thursday Island, very similar to the boat we are using now, and I guess that's where the inspiration has come from. My Dad is a timber boat builder, both Mum and Dad spent most of their lives sailing around the world," he said.

Thornalley's family travelled up and down the Queensland coast until he turned six, when the family settled in Moolooaba. Thornalley later became a commercial diver, which enabled him to travel internationally.

"All of my experience I've had on the water as well as my passion for Indigenous culture, that is where the business model grew from," he said.

Saltwater Eco Tours' Simon Thornalley at the helm. Photo supplied.

Saltwater Eco Tours is unlike other tourism experiences operating along the coast.

"The Indigenous cultural experience is the number one [priority], that is really what I wanted to encompass in the experience ... an authentic local Indigenous experience," Thornalley said.

"Although there is a lot of Indigenous experiences all over Australia, we wanted something that was on the water, that reflected the culture from this area."

"You could look back on the land, back on the mountain ranges and hear those creation stories told by the local Indigenous people. And in combination with that, the vessel we have is 112 years-old so just being on that timber boat gives you the presence of history."

Spray of the Coral Coast is a restored classic 58 foot gaff-rigged, Huon-pine ketch. Its design is based upon Spray, the boat in which Joshua Slocum became the first person to circumnavigate the globe in the late 19th century.

Saltwater Eco Tours' Spray of the Coral Coast returns to Mooloolaba. Photo supplied.

Saltwater Eco Tours offers a series of tours, including the Cultural Tour, Sunset Acoustic Tour and Private Charters.

"There's more demand than ever for authentic ecotourism and Indigenous cultural experiences in Queensland," said Queensland Tourism Minister, Kate Jones.

"COVID-19 has had a huge impact on our tourism industry. We need new experiences like Saltwater Eco Tours to entice visitors back to the Sunny Coast and share the message that we're 'Good to Go in Queensland'."

Although only in its early stages, Thornalley hopes the business can expand in the coming years.

"I want to be more established within the tourism community, I want to create bigger and more exciting trips. I want to go further, be able to do full day trips, two day trips and move on from here and build that experience; build that reputation of an authentic, traditional sailing experience."

By Rachael Knowles

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