On the most recent ‘Abrolhos Islands and the Coral Coast’ expedition, as we emerged from the clear coral and fish-filled waters off a little island beach in the Houtman Abrolhos archipelago, a dripping guest exclaimed blissfully, “That’s my happy place!”
It’s a feeling I share and one of many things that explains my passion for Australia’s west coast, the Abrolhos in particular, undiminished after more than forty years of exploration. One of the delights of being part of the Expedition Team is seeing nearly all guests join in these adventures into that other universe below the waves, most snorkelling, others disappearing under bursts of scuba bubbles to greater depths.
The west coast trip from Fremantle to Broome (or vice versa) is a journey of wonderful contrasts both above and below water. The city of Fremantle provides a fabulous beginning or end with the Maritime Museum and the Shipwrecks Gallery offering visitors insights into the deep and rich maritime history of the coast we traverse. These include the First Australians’ connections, the earliest European encounters with ‘Terra Australis Incognita”, the dramatic English (one) and Dutch (four) shipwrecks and the various phases since Colonisation in 1829.
The Houtman Abrolhos Islands, as well as delivering those happy adventures exploring the beautiful coral/algal gardens the warm Leeuwin Current make possible so far south, demonstrate the constructive and destructive effects of the powerful ocean force. Sea level change, rising levels building coral mountains in an open sea, falling levels during ice ages joining the islands to the now-distant mainland. The range of habitats and life, both on land and in the sea, have you curious at every turn. The stories of the Batavia and Zeewijk wrecks and the events that unfolded on these islands in their wake are almost beyond belief, brought home when you get to stand in the places where they occurred centuries ago. Today some islands have shacks occupied by fishermen and those working on pearl or coral farms, the latest incarnation for those seeking a living from the sea.
You know a place is special when it has World Heritage status, and Shark Bay earns that by ticking almost all the boxes, the stark desert-meets-the-sea landscapes, the lush marine versus the harsh terrestrial environments and the historical contexts, particularly the Dutch, French and English exploration and later enterprises. Stepping ashore on those red dunes brings home what a tough place this is, and an appreciation of these ancient landscapes and those who have lived and toiled here.
The Northwest Cape that separates Ningaloo Reef from Exmouth Gulf is another desert-sea interface, with wonders found in both. The more tropical waters again give us beautiful snorkelling opportunities, especially with the coral reefs sitting right along the shore at the Cape and the offshore Muiron Islands. Despite its remoteness, there is a busy community serving the tourists that flock to the area to see whale sharks and humpback whales, manning the ‘communications towers’ (aka spybase?) or simply enjoying it as a retirement home. Who could wish for more!
The “Montees”, as you will soon call the Montebellos, is today a place to enjoy, for in the 1950s these islands were the site for devastating test nuclear explosions. A world-wide perspective of powerplays between nations is needed to understand the events that took place, and an awareness of the state of science at the time. The great thing about the Expeditions is that they make these places accessible and so we get the chance to ‘get the picture’ as seeing a picture by itself cannot do.
The name Dampier is well-known to most Australians as the buccaneering Englishman who explored these shores in the late 1600s. Today, the local iron ore and offshore oil and gas attract much attention, but what sets it apart for me are the astonishing landscapes, great jumbled piles of rusting rocks covering the landscape, golden spinifex clumps between, and on those boulders ancient petroglyphs telling of a changing landscape and the people who lived here.
Broome, like Fremantle with a huge maritime history and heritage, is again a fitting end or beginning to a west coast voyage, rewarding those who take some time to explore. And as a beginning or end to a voyage, the rewards of the shipboard travel are in the new friends made, the many stories and experiences shared, the inevitable “six degrees of separation” that will renew old connections or create new ones.
And any day at sea will have brought delights, breaching whales or bow-surfing dolphins, mirror calms or rolling swells, plunge-diving seabirds pursuing fish, phosphorescent life off the stern at night for those who keep their eyes peeled, and inevitably on the west coast, sunsets over the ocean to sign off another spin of our amazing planet. Try keeping me away!
Being aboard as a guest lecturer and guide ashore is both a challenging and rewarding experience, trying to reveal all that makes the places we visit so special to our guests. While the Abrolhos has been my main tramping ground, researching and writing about these islands earning me the title of “Abrolhogist”, it has connections further afield, both by land and sea in the natural world and through human history. Thus, it has been fabulous to join the Kimberley Coast expeditions, where again dramatic geological events and landscapes underpin all that you see, all that is happening.
So too, even though thousands of kilometres apart, the Houtman Abrolhos Islands have connections to the Spice Islands, their discoverer, Frederick de Houtman, being involved in the first Dutch forays into the spice trade of the East Indies in the late 1500s, early 1600s. Following his life story for the 400th anniversary of his discovery of the Abrolhos in 1619 took me into the archives in the Netherlands and drew on my extensive travelling through Indonesia, revealing a remarkable character. Getting to some of the more remote places and to the beautiful Banda with its dark history on Coral Expeditions “Raja Ampat and the Spice Islands” expedition in 2023 was hugely exciting, one I look forward too again in 2025. That trip too, into the heart of the coral triangle, has lots of amazing snorkelling, a chance to spend time in my happy place! Maybe I’ll see you there?
Meet Guest Lecturer Howard Gray
Natural and human historian – Howard has been captivated by the marine ecosystems and rich maritime history of the west coast of Australia for nearly four decades. The Houtman Abrolhos Islands has been of particular interest since his first visits in 1980. In the decades since, through his first-hand diving and exploring trips and delving into the research material and archives, he has built up a considerable knowledge of this amazing archipelago. Investigating its Dutch discovery and shipwreck history has extended his research into the East Indies, particularly the early spice trading era.