It's another perfect day in Dongara, a small town tucked away behind a row of rippled sand dunes on Australia's windswept west coast. The sky is a dazzling blue, the air unusually still, and ankle-high waves gently lap the brilliant white sands that surround this sleepy hamlet of a few thousand people. But in Dongara—the self-proclaimed Lobster Capital of Australia—perfection can spell trouble. Lobsters, the locals say, loathe calm conditions. They like the sky to be dark, the seas rough and the coast clear of pleasure craft and leisure seekers. Only then do these crustaceans emerge from the shelter of the reef and scuttle into the open—preferably right into a waiting lobster pot. "There are a lot of predators down there—octopuses mostly—waiting to suck the life out of the lobsters when they start migrating out to deep water," says John Merrick, Dongara's town chief. "So the crafty buggers wait for the sea to be cloudy before they start walking."
From the top man down, the residents of Dongara live for lobster. It's lobster that has transformed this place from a struggling bush outpost dependent on the fluctuating fortunes of the agricultural industry to a thriving township with perhaps more millionaires per capita than any other rural center in Australia. Lobsters have long crawled in vast numbers along the reefs fringing the west coast. But it's only since the introduction of a live lobster trade with Asia in the 1980s that Dongara's denizens realized the creatures they once fed to their dogs and nicknamed "cockroaches of the sea" have a higher purpose. Now, the industry is worth more than $200 million a year to the state of Western Australia and $25 million to Dongara alone. Lobsters are even valued as an optional currency. The Anglican priest will marry people in his quaint, historic chapel for the price of four lobsters (down the road the Catholic Church charges five).
With so much money washing around beneath the sea, it's not surprising that tourism has come almost as an afterthought to the citizens of Dongara. This is not the Gold Coast. Forget about posh resorts and restaurants. Accommodation tends toward well-appointed caravans or cabins overlooking the beach, and the culinary fare is, more often than not, limited to lobster. But being on a tourist byway means your pocketbook won't get hurt. Seafood gourmands who balk at paying $80 for a single lobster in Asia will find Dongara a haven of inexpensive but decent food. Dishes rarely exceed $15, and the dress code in many restaurants allows singlets, shorts and bare feet.
For the complete lobster experience, make like the locals and head for the harbor. The majority of Dongarans begin each day with a predawn trip to Port Denison to "pull their pots." Everyone from the town chief to the postman participates in this unlikely morning constitutional, trapping lobsters in pots baited with tuna and mackerel. Few go home empty-handed. Visitors can obtain amateur fishing licenses ($13) from the post office, while lobster pots can be hired from any of the town's bait-and-tackle stores.
The harbor is also home to Dongara's professional fishing fleet. Fishermen leave the marina around 3 a.m. to work the deep waters, returning by midday, tanks squirming with thousands of lobsters. Most are happy to take on board small groups of day-trippers—though keep in mind these are working boats, not chartered cruises. The comfort of passengers is not a priority. The day's professional lobster catch ends up at the MG Kailis Live Lobster factory on the marina. Here, visitors can feast their eyes on holding tanks containing up to 35,000 kilos of live lobsters, graded according to size, color and quality before being stunned in cold water, packed into crates and airfreighted to Asia. "The Japanese like the rich red ones because they're meant to be good luck," says manager Brad Trevenen. "The Chinese like the biggest lobster they can get—especially for Chinese New Year." The factory is open seven days a week in season (November to June); a nominal entrance fee applies.
When you're done treating your eyes, satisfy your stomach at one of the many lobster eateries. Those who like lobster unadorned should head to the Dongara Motor Hotel where the crustaceans are cooked the traditional way, in pots filled with seawater. At Southerlys Bar and Restaurant, on the ocean's edge, they're served with a garlic sauce on a bed of garden salad. At Toko's, arguably Dongara's finest seafood restaurant, they're baked in a cheese-based Mornay sauce. Whatever your taste, all you have to do is take Dongara's bait.