At 7:30pm on the 18th of November Willow and I travelled from Melbourne to Devonport on the Spirit of Tasmania.
If you are traveling with your car from mainland Australia to Tasmania your only option is the Spirit of Tasmania ferries. Though after reading this those of you travelling with pets may be inclined to have them flown over instead.
Spirit of Tasmania (SoT) provide very little information about the experience on their website and terms & conditions. When I first booked I was under the impression that they would be housed in a safe, climate controlled room away from the vehicle decks. This is not the case.
Boarding opens 2.5 hours before each departure time. The gate opens and you’re free to drive through the labyrinth of lanes to the ship. First stop is quarantine where they will likely check your vehicle for unsavoury items and biosecurity regulations. Coming into Tasmania it is not permitted to bring in fruits & vegetables so if you are travelling by camper van make sure you clear out your fridge.
Note: Dogs require documentary proof of being treated for Hydatid Tape Worm within 14 days before entering Tasmania. Cats are granted free passage without restriction. Clearly, because cats are better than dogs.
Next stop is check-in. You’ll need to present your photo ID and they will give you a keycard for access to your cabin or Ocean Recliner (Fancy word for aeroplane-like seat that doesn’t fully recline).
Now here is the tricky bit.
To travel with a pet you have to book a kennel for them – it clearly states on the SoT website that pets are prohibited from being left in vehicles.
Except this is NOT TRUE!
SoT DOES allow you to keep your pet in your vehicle provided you sign a waiver that you understand that it is dangerous to do so and that SoT accepts no responsibility for their safety.
I understand that this bizzare protocol was put in place after a traveller’s dogs tragically died on a crossing in 2011.
From SoT facebook post November 22nd, 2011:
Hi everyone. We do very much appreciate your comments regarding the recent tragic death of the two dogs. The cause of death remains unknown. There have been some reports suggesting the dogs died of Carbon Monoxide poisoning; however there is no evidence to support these reports and we are strongly refuting these claims. The vehicle decks of Spirit of Tasmania are regularly checked by a third party provider against Australian Standards for atmospheric pollutants and we have never failed any of these regular checks. Further, the incident on Friday night occurred on vehicle deck 6. Vehicle deck 6 is a hanging deck contained within vehicle deck 5. While all of Spirit of Tasmania’s vehicle decks remain ventilated while the vessel is at sea, vehicle deck 5 and 6 are not enclosed decks – they are both open to the air. Both decks are designed with an opening at the stern of the vessel. We carry more than 12,000 domestic pets per annum. This number does not include horses and other livestock. The transportation of these animals is on vehicle deck 3, 5 and 6.
According to The Advocate the dogs were inspected by three veterinarians who determined they had died from carbon monoxide poisoning. To my knowledge SoT released no further statement on the matter nor made any suggestion that the matter was even investigated by them at all.
If you choose to keep your pet in your vehicle you are presented with a green hanger for your rearview mirror at check-in. If you decide to keep them in the kennels you receive a yellow hanger. You can now continue driving onto the ferry.
SoT provide no information as to why keeping your pet in your vehicle is more dangerous than in a kennel on the same deck mere metres away. I have found no other reports of pets perishing during crossings and keeping them in vehicle seems to be the standard amongst the travelling community.
Here is why.
Kennels are located on vehicle decks 3 and 5. It’s a very noisy and unsettling environment metres away from boarding cars and people making their way to the upper decks. Passengers are instructed to place large pets in the bigger kennels however it is often the case that these fill up and larger animals suffer an uncomfortable crossing in a small kennel.
Each kennel is given a paper mat and a water trough that many cats and smaller dogs may find difficult to access. Passing by it was clear the pets were already distressed. Placing your cat or dog in a kennel next to a barking doberman is a disturbing prospect.
Although passengers are not allowed on the vehicle decks during sailing, anyone could open up your kennel during boarding/disembarking. Though if you bring your own padlock you are able to lock the kennel.
When you check-in you are not given a tag for your pet. SoT staff will apparently check on pets but once you place them in their kennel staff have no way of knowing whose pet is whose. If a pet has medical issue or is distressed staff have absolutely no way of contacting you during the voyage.
You are free to explore the decks and everything the ship has to offer (some bars, poker machines, and a restaurant, etc) while you’re pet is stuck in a kennel with absolutely no temperature control. The kennels are exposed to the elements. Boiling hot days with no air movement as you wait to set sail and freezing winter nights in the middle of Bass Strait.
Whether you put your pet in a kennel or keep them in your vehicle no passengers on the vehicle deck means you also have no way of knowing if your pet is safe. Even to check on them for a minute to alleviate your worry is not possible.
This was my second crossing with Willow. After being horrified by the conditions of the kennels the first time and armed with the knowledge that I could keep her in the van, I did exactly that. To ensure I was boarded onto ventilated decks 3 or 5 I made sure a kennel was booked. I set her up in the van with food and secured her water bowl in case of rough seas. Trust me, I was tempted to bring her into the cabin. I’m not saying that you are allowed to do this – just that someone with the inclination could probably get away with it.
We arrived in Devonport and when they called deck 5 to prepare to disembark I rushed down and found that she was comfortable in the home she was familiar with and not stressed as far as I could tell.
Reading reviews from Trip Advisor it’s clear there are many pet owners who have had unpleasant experiences on the SoT. To read them go to Trip Advisor’s Spirit of Tasmania page and search the reviews for ‘pets’, ‘dogs’, or ‘cats’.
But the worst thing… they now charge you money to watch a film in the cinema.