Listen. The engines idle as the swell pushes under the boat. To the right: the blue-green shallow and foam, as the water breaks on the rocks in a drama just within earshot. To the left: a Ulyssian wine-dark sea; constantly moving, unknowably deep and stretching to the horizon under silhouetted coal ships off the coast.
From the water, you can take it all in - the rocky headlands and the long stretches of sand down Nine Mile Beach. Surfers drop in on rolling waves, and fishing boats wander up and down the coast. There is a sense, as the boat tips and pitches and rolls with the sea, of being at once far away and right in the heart of the Hunter.
The cliffs off Caves Beach are millions of years old. The caves probably began forming around 6500 years ago. Plant fossils similar to those found in Antarctica, Africa, South America and India, suggest the land could have once been part of an ancient supercontinent that broke apart 180 million years ago.
The boat’s skipper, Dominic May, has a story like this for every stop on the 30-kilometre run from Newcastle Harbour to the Catherine Hill Bay jetty. On the water, he is a born entertainer spinning myth-like yarns about the area, infused with local knowledge and environmental science.
He tells a story about a great white shark that used to live under the jetty at Catherine Hill Bay that would rub against the pylons. It was an eerie reminder, he says, for around 100 workers who once loaded coal from the jetty to not fall in.
May founded his CoastXP tour company in mid-2018. His 20-seat vessel, Atmos, takes tour groups along the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie coast. He is formerly of Coffs Harbour and studied at the University of Newcastle.
Before he could begin taking touring groups out on the water, May had to pass several licensing requirements, including a local knowledge assessment of the harbour - the same test ship captains take.
"I had to study for that for around six months," he says.
Lake Macquarie Mayor Kay Fraser hopes companies like May's will entice greater numbers of international tourists to the area. Only around one per cent of the estimated 1.2 million visitors each year are from overseas.
End-of-year travel generates around $218 million from international visitors. Around 26 per cent of domestic day trippers come to the Hunter for its beaches and sightseeing, behind the most popular reasons - restaurants and dining, and visiting friends and family. Domestic overnight stays made around $1.7 billion in the Hunter in December 2017.
“Even a relatively modest increase in international tourism numbers would have vast flow-on benefits for Lake Macquarie,” Ms Fraser says.
May’s CoastXP company follows the launch of Lake Macquarie Cruises in December, the first regularly scheduled cruises on the lake in more than four years.