The waters of south-eastern Tasmania provide passengers on Coral Expeditions with an exciting opportunity to experience some of the world’s most unique, pristine, and inspiring coastlines. The uniqueness starts with the geology. The more northern coastline is dominated by a giant granite pluton which has forced its way up through the earth’s crust causing faulting and upthrust of the rocks above. The slowly cooling rock has allowed the formation of large crystals of quartz and feldspars. The southern coastline is dominated by the most substantial dolerite body in the world. This is an intruding molten rock, like the granite, but it has cooled more quickly and is composed of much less quartz and feldspars and is a much darker rock. After upthrust, both the granite body and much of the dolerite has been exposed by subsequent weathering and erosion of the softer overlying rocks. The pink granites of the Freycinet Peninsula and Schouten Island are famous for their quality.
Although the beaches along this part of the coastline are beautifully white and the waters crystal clear, it is the granite cliffs which are most spectacular. The cliffs are covered above the high tide mark with lichen of an intense red, a life form utilising a mutualistic relationship between a fungus and algae. The massive, rounded granite cliffs tower above the water and plunge down into its depths, providing a mecca for the more experienced scuba divers. The lichen is also present in many other colours providing a thin veneer over the pink granites. Earth movements have split Schouten Island into two different halves. To the east, the granite coastline is spectacular and pristine. To the west, the shoreline is composed of rugged sandstone with a thin coal seam running through it. At the northern end, in the passage between Schouten Island and the Freycinet Peninsula, there exists a group of beautiful beaches. This passage provides an ideal anchorage in most weather conditions with secluded beaches to tempt the passengers.
The jewel in the crown among the granites of the east coast is Ile des Phoques or Island of Seals. This not to be missed spot is a spectacular little island composed of pink aplite, a type of granite which glows red in the first of the dawn light. It lies between Schouten Island and Maria Island and is honeycombed with caves, both above and below the water. A large seal haul-out is found on the southern side, and the deep waters around the island allow for an excellent close-up inspection from the ship decks as we sail around. The often-crystal clear waters offer another underwater Eden and one of the reasons why National Geographic placed the underwater environment of Tasmania in the top ten in the world.
Further south is Maria Island, once a prospering settlement, now a National Park. It is an excellent example of a Marine Protected Area (i.e., a ‘no-take zone’) which provides rewarding snorkelling on the north-western end of the island. The western or passage side provides excellent beaches and another spectacular coastline that is a geologist’s wonderland. At the northern end, Fossil Cliffs provide a treasure trove of fossils. As you head down the coast from where the cliffs rise sheer out of the water to the peaks of Bishop and Clerk. The rugged coastline is broken midway down by remote and spectacular Riedel Bay with its pristine white beach. This is, in fact, a narrow neck of land joining southern Maria Island to its northern part and on the other side of this neck is Shoal Bay with its own beautiful, much more sheltered beach. The waters south of Maria take us past more rugged coastline broken by Eagle Hawk Neck. A ‘must do’ cruise in the Xplorer allows for spectacular up-close exploration of features such as Devil’s Kitchen and Tasman Arch. However, the highlight is to continue around into Waterfall Bay, an experience unique to cruising in Tasmania. The arches, sheer cliffs rising out of the water and cave systems make for a most spectacular sight. Under the sea is equally impressive with the arches and cave systems creating a very sought-after dive location for the more experienced underwater photographers.
Heading south from here the dolerite rocks add a new dimension to the rugged coastline, with sheer columns rising vertically as you pass by. Features such as the Totem Pole are a product of this tough dolerite rock. A close-up cruise in the Xplorer along any part of this coastline is well worthwhile. Further towards Port Arthur is Fortescue Bay with its own set of lovely beaches and walking tracks. This is the endpoint for the Three Capes Track or the start of the Cape Hauy Track if you are just doing a day walk. These are feature experiences in our annual Coastal Treks of Tasmania itineraries. Again, a cruise in Xplorer is a must do, taking you out past seal haul-outs to admire this spectacular coastline’s vertical rock columns like the Totem Pole.
Continuing down towards the Tasman Peninsula, your senses are already astounded by the fantastic coastline, only to be treated to the striking vista of Tasman Island. Here from the comfort of the ship you can view this extremely rugged and exposed coast, seeing seal haul-outs settled above the crashing waves. Albatross and numerous other seabirds can also be seen skimming the wave tops. The island itself rises steeply out of the water and provides little in the way of a safe landing. The original lighthouse keepers and their families had very tough and precarious ledges on which to make their landings. Along with their possessions, they were lifted from the supply boats in baskets onto their landing point before being winched up a very steep rail track. When passing the island, the isolation these families endured living in these sorts of locations, can be clearly seen. The coastline, continually pounded by ocean swells, remains very rugged as your Coral Expeditions ship heads into Port Arthur.
The final feature, passed as we head across to Bruny Island, is Cape Raoul, which is a welcome sight for the Sydney to Hobart yachts as it marks their final approach to the Derwent River and Hobart across Storm Bay. The inside of Bruny Island is a well-used and sheltered stretch of water called D’Entrecasteaux Channel, with some beautiful and even secluded beaches. The outside is more spectacular particularly at the southern end with the sheer dolerite cliffs of Fluted Cape guarding the entrance to Adventure Bay, a beautiful beach and historic first landing place for many of the early European explorers looking for fresh water and wood.
At the southern tip of Tasmania is the last shelter from the Roaring Forties, Recherche Bay. A lovely, sheltered beach invites a shore expedition where the early French explorers had lengthy contact with the local Aborigines. After passing Cockle Bay, the ship enters the gateway into the World Heritage listed Southwest Wilderness. There are no roads past this point. From here, if the weather holds, we can cruise around to Port Davey and Bathurst Channel. The vast seas and wild weather have etched this rugged coastline. It is well worth viewing this coast from the comfort of the ship.
If possible, the cruise can take in remote Maatsuyker Island with its resident seals and lighthouse. The islands around here are pounded by the westerly weather, with thousands of miles of open ocean to their south and west. Here, again the inhospitable coastline made landing difficult and life as a lighthouse keeper on the island very lonely indeed. As our ship heads into Port Davey, the ragged set of rocks called Breaksea Island can be seen guarding the entrance to Bathurst Channel. Breaksea Island provides proper shelter from the westerly weather.
The white rocks of Breaksea and the surrounding country at the entry to the channel are Pre-Cambrian Quartzite which offers little for the local vegetation in this high rainfall wilderness area. The area is pristine, and even the waterways are now fully protected. The tannin-rich waters drain from the Button Grass Plains surrounding Bathurst Channel and Bathurst Harbour. I was involved in the first diving expedition to this area in the 1990s. Diving with the CSIRO team we explored its unique habitats. The brown stain caused by the tannin cuts out the light very quickly, so most of the survey work was done with views in an open saltwater pocket of water which sits below the less dense tannin-rich freshwater above. Many unique marine organisms were discovered living in this dark algae-free world. Cruising along Bathurst Channel provides exceptional views of pristine wilderness areas. Calm days provide spectacular reflections of this untouched landscape that was once home to a clan of hardy Tasmanian Aborigines.
The Tasmanian coastline offers many unique and beautiful features which, for the most part, can only be accessed by small ship exploration. Our annual foray into these shores over summer is a magnificent way to get a new perspective and understanding of Australia’s island at the edge of the world.
Mike Sugden has been a Guest lecturer at Coral Expeditions for more than a decade particularly in Tasmania and the Kimberley. Mike has a passion for marine life and has been involved in research projects studying many organisms from the tropics to the cold waters of southern Australia. His home base has been Tasmania, and his love of the sea and Tasmania are reflected in the following article.