Sunshine Coast’s Saltwater Eco Tours Take Travellers on a Cultural Journey

Sunshine Coast’s Saltwater Eco Tours Take Travellers on a Cultural Journey

Words By Zara Hallett

Since first setting sail in 2020, Saltwater Eco Tours has become a popular tourist experience in Mooloolaba on Kabi Kabi/Gubbi Gubbi country. Saltwater Eco Tours was founded by Torres Strait Islander man, Simon Thornalley. Along with his partner Jenna, they manage a small, passionate team who provide an authentic Indigenous cultural experience. They have collaborated with the Local Traditional Owners of the Kabi Kabi first nation people, who are hosted on the tours to share their stories, culture, and traditions. 

Managing director and skipper Simon Thornalley descends from the Kaurareg people of Horn Island (Ngurupai) in the Torres Strait and grew up on Kabi Kabi Country in Mooloolaba. Inherited from his adventurous parents, his strong connection to the ocean developed from an early age.

"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.

Simon spent the first six years of his life sailing along the Queensland coast with his family before eventually settling in Mooloolaba. Prior to launching Saltwater, Simon explored oceans around the world working as a commercial diver.

“I've definitely come from the saltwater, it runs in my blood, with my family heritage from the Torres Strait,” he says.

Simon’s family and cultural heritage are interwoven with the ethos and operation of Saltwater Eco Tours. Through music, bushfood, and storytelling, the scenic tours immerse visitors in the rich Indigenous history of the Mooloolah River. For local Kabi Kabi people, this waterway was the lifeblood of their communities. 

“Mooloolaba means fishing net and [there were] many fishing nets at the mouth of the river,” local Indigenous tour guide Bridgette Chilly Davis tells a group of visitors on a sunset river cruise.

“The mouth of the river is significant to Aboriginal people. It’s about identity. My children my grand children were born on this river and so we still have that strong connection to country.”

Adding to the vibrant history of these tours is the vessel from which they operate. Spray of the Coral Coast is a 114-year-old heritage-listed timber sailing boat which Simon ambitiously restored.

In balancing the modifications required to become a commercial passenger vessel while maintaining its authentic aesthetic, the realisation of this dream became a costly financial endeavour. 

Saltwater Eco Tours then encountered further unforeseen financial setbacks. The launch of the business unfortunately coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of this, all operations stopped and being a new business, they were ineligible for government support. 

Simon reached out to Indigenous Business Australia, who had previously provided the necessary funding to start Saltwater Eco Tours. IBA further assisted the business by connecting Simon with key contacts across the Sunshine Coast and Queensland tourism industry, providing them with a customer base once the business could reopen.

Despite these challenges, Saltwater Eco Tours is now operating successfully and has received significant praise and awards, including: Eco Tourism Certification, Respecting Our Cultural Certification, TripAdvisor's Travellers Choice Award 2021-2022, Best of QLD Experiences 2022, Young Achievers Award - GOLG (QTIC 2021), and continual 5 - star reviews on TripAdvisor and Google Review.

While the business has only been operating for a few years, Simon hopes to continue expanding this dream.

"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."

At BW Tribal, we embrace the rich and unique knowledge Indigenous communities bring to the tourism industry. Head on over to our website to read similar stories