Voyage Log: Abrolhos Islands & The Coral Coast – Coral Geographer

Broome to Fremantle |   8 October 2023 – 20 October 2022

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Day 1: Broome Departure – 8 October 2022

This afternoon, we assembled at the Mangrove Hotel, where we were met by the expedition crew. After completing bag check-ins, we bussed to the port of Broome and embarked on the Coral Geographer. Some very welcome drinks in the Bridge Deck Lounge followed, allowing passengers to catch up with old friends or make new acquaintances.

Mooring lines were cast off at 17:00, and the ship sailed out of Broome port. After disembarking the Pilot off Gantheaume Point, our Purser, Manfred, led us through the mandatory safety drill and life jacket muster. By this time, the setting sun made the glowing red pindan sands on the receding shore contrast with the white sands of Cable Beach and vivid blue ocean, providing the first of many ‘photo opportunities’ on this trip.

A couple of whales, probably humpbacks, were seen as we turned southwest for the Dampier Archipelago. The call to dinner followed, and we enjoyed our first meal aboard, a wonderful selection prepared by the galley team.


Day 2: Sea Day – 9 October 2023

We awoke to calm seas and clear skies as we made our way down the Pilbara coast to the Dampier Archipelago. After breakfast, we received an introduction to the expedition from Expedition Leader Wayne and were introduced to the Expedition Team. Guest Lecturer Howard provided a very informative presentation on the geology, ecology, and historical context of the Dampier Archipelago and the Pilbara in general.

Following lunch, we had our first inspections of the engine room and the bridge. GL Keith talked about the uses and values of WA’s many islands in his Island Jewels presentation, focusing on the wide range of past and current uses for WA islands and their incredible value for nature conservation.

A few brown booby birds were spotted following the ship as we continued along the Pilbara coast. When we reached Port Hedland, we started to see the massive iron ore carriers waiting their turn to load their valuable cargo.

As the sun was setting, Captain Andy’s welcome drinks were enthusiastically attended and complemented by the delicious canapés prepared by Louis and the galley staff. Dinner followed, and many passengers turned in early, anticipating a very full day tomorrow in the Dampier Archipelago.


Day 3: Dampier Archipelago – 10 October 2023

We entered the Dampier Archipelago near Goodwyn Island with another glorious but hazy sunrise breaking. Our anchorage was between Enderby and West Lewis Islands, strategically located for visiting some of the historic sites in the archipelago. After breakfast, we ventured to Hampton Harbour, Dampier, to pick up two Murujuga Rangers, Peter and Sarah, and then traveled to the east side of West Lewis Island to visit the old pastoral station.

Unfortunately, the tide was not high enough to allow the Explorers to safely land the guests, so we returned to Hampton Harbour to visit Tidepole Island, just off the marina. En route, Keith and Howard pointed out the salt and iron ore loading facilities on the Intercourse Islands and at Parker Point.

Tidepole Island is more affectionately known as ‘Sam’s Island’ after the hermit Sam, who lived on the island from the mid-1960s to 2005. Sam had emigrated from Yugoslavia (as it was then) to work on the construction of Dampier Port at the beginning of the iron ore boom. Hamersley Iron (now Rio Tinto) provided a water pipe to supply Sam, and he used it to grow his own vegetables, striving to be as self-sufficient as possible. He welcomed visitors who often dropped in for a cup of tea. Sam progressively built up the beautifully adorned Sam’s Castle out of local rocks, which remains today.

While on the island and in the Explorers, Peter and Sarah provided insights into the significance of Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula) and the Dampier Archipelago to the traditional custodians.

After lunch, Howard presented a talk on the wreck of the British Ship Tryall in 1622 and provided some background on British atomic weapons testing on the Montebello Islands in 1952 and 1956.

The Explorers then took us to Marney Bay on Malus Island for a swim, snorkeling, diving for some, and beachcombing, followed by sunset drinks on the lovely sandy beach. The snorkelers and divers reported some excellent coral and fish viewing. Keith showed the beachcombers fresh hawksbill turtle tracks and explained the egg-laying process to us. A pair of pied oystercatchers shared the beach with us, and a pair of ospreys kept watch overhead. Wedge-tailed shearwaters were nesting under Sarcostemma bushes just behind the fore dunes. Some Sturt’s desert peas were flowering on the beach, providing great photographic opportunities.

After a wonderful gathering with a beverage or two, along with canapés, the Explorers took us back to the ship for dinner. After dinner, the classic Australian film ‘Red Dog’ was shown in the bridge deck lounge.


Day 4: Montebello Islands – 11 October 2023

After a smooth overnight passage west from the Dampier Archipelago, we reached our anchorage off the north end of Trimouille Island in the Montebello Islands around 07:00. Early risers spotted some humpback whales and seabirds feeding on schools of fish off the stern of the Coral Geographer.

Following breakfast, the Explorers divided into two groups. One group visited the ground zero site at Gladstone Point at the north end of Trimouille Island (Mosaic G1 atomic weapon, 1956), while the other group cruised down the inside (Lagoon) coast of Trimouille Island to the site 400m off Cocoa Beach, where the HMS Plym was moored in October 1952 with the first British atomic weapon on board. On the way, we observed several groups of mating green turtles and some female greens on the beach edges. Turtle tracks were also visible on the beaches, highlighting the potential impact of these explosions on the mating and nesting turtles at this time of the year. A goanna was patrolling the beach, searching for any clutches of early laid turtle eggs.

As the Explorers swapped sites, a group of seven bottlenose dolphins swam along the beach at Gladstone Beach, providing a great photographic opportunity. Once at the ground zero site, the Group Leaders (GLs) explained that this was the second of the atomic weapons tests, with the weapon suspended on a 30m tower to simulate a blast from an aerial bombing. They also discussed how the Montebellos were selected as the site and the significance of these atomic weapons trials in the context of the Cold War.

A short walk to the Louis William Lagoon resulted in the flushing of a few mala wallabies, and some mulla mulla plants still had their characteristic mauve flowers. Upon returning to the Coral Geographer, Keith presented on ‘Montebello Renewal – from destruction to conservation,’ an account of the efforts made over the last 30 years to restore the mammal fauna of the islands.

After lunch, the Explorers split activities again. One group went across the lagoon to the southern end of Faraday Passage, while the other visited Vodka Beach on Trimouille Island to inspect the concrete bunker on the southern point of the island and enjoy a swim. The group traveling along Faraday Passage learned about the early attempts at pearl culture in the early 1900s and visited the rock wall constructed in 1912 by Mr. Haynes to experiment with different water levels for pearl culture success.

The termite mounds seen on Hermite Island while cruising along Faraday Passage were not only important as homes for their resident termites but also served as shelters for small reptiles and some mammals. Goannas used them to incubate their eggs. Some reef herons accompanied us along Faraday Passage for a short distance. The low tide at the time prevented us from getting closer to the mangroves along the passage, but skillful navigating by the Explorer coxswains allowed us to exit Faraday Passage at its northern end.

The group that landed at Vodka Beach successfully climbed the dune to inspect the concrete bunker relic from the atomic blasts. It appears to have once housed electronic equipment, possibly for monitoring aspects of the blasts. A large roll of cable was left there 70 years ago. After admiring the views across the archipelago, we returned to the beach and found a few green turtles resting on the shore and in the shallows. There were both green and hawksbill tracks on the beach from earlier nesting efforts. Hatchling tracks, possibly from hawksbill turtles, ran to the ocean, crossed by many goanna tracks.

After a very full day of interesting activities, we returned to the ship on the Explorers for a relaxing dinner.


Day 5: Muiron Islands – 12 October 2023

As we awoke, the ship was approaching the northern end of North Muiron Island, our destination for today. Located only 20 kilometers from North West Cape, North and South Muiron, each around 500 hectares in size, are reserved for conservation and recreation. They were named by Louis de Freycinet, Baudin’s cartographer, in 1803 in honor of a young French soldier, Jean-Baptiste Muiron, who sacrificed his life to save Napoleon Bonaparte in 1796.

The Muiron Islands are important nesting sites for green, loggerhead, and flatback turtles, and they also host a large wedge-tailed shearwater colony. Overnight, the wind had risen, and the ship sought a more sheltered anchorage on the east side of the island. Even so, it was considered that the planned morning coral reef snorkeling would not be pleasant, so shipboard activities were arranged.

Keith presented a talk on the biology and ecology of the marine turtles of Western Australia and the significance of WA’s northern beaches for the five species that breed on them. He also provided information on the past and current threats to their conservation. The expedition crew organized some games in the bridge deck lounge for those interested in joining.

By lunchtime, the wind had somewhat abated, and in the afternoon, the Explorers were able to take the enthusiastic snorkelers and divers to pristine coral reef sites off the east coast of North Muiron Island. The water temperature was a pleasant 25°C, and the viewing of corals, fish, and turtles was remarkable.

Upon returning to the ship and enjoying a warm shower, Purser Manfred hosted his signature wine tasting event. We sampled three wonderful Western Australian wines, accompanied by delicious canapés. Along the way, we learned how to appreciate wine (see, swirl, smell, and sip), which wines pair best with certain foods (not always reds with red meat, whites with white), and some interesting fun facts about the wine industry. This served as an excellent appetizer for the evening’s drinks and dinner.

After dinner, the documentary ‘Whale Sharks’ was shown as the ship moved a short distance to its anchorage off the Exmouth marina, preparing for tomorrow’s activities.


Day 6: Exmouth and Ningaloo Reef – 13 October 2023

Early risers were greeted by dolphins herding fish against the side of the ship and feasting on them. As the sun rose, we were able to see several humpback whales with their calves, some very close to the ship.

An early breakfast was required today to ensure we were fueled up for a big day around Exmouth and Cape Range National Park.

The Explorers dropped us off at the marina, where we were met by four local coaches. These coaches took us through Exmouth town to the Vlamingh Head lighthouse, passing the 300m high communications towers of the Harold E Holt Naval Communications Station, which are used to communicate with submerged submarines using VLF radio waves. The town was built in the 1960s to support the now Australian Defense-operated communications base. The lighthouse was constructed after the wreck of the SS Mildura, a cattle steamer, which struck a reef and sank in 1907, leading to the realization that a light was necessary. It operated from 1912 until a stronger light at the Harold E Holt Naval Communications Base took over in 1967. The views from the high point on which the lighthouse is built were outstanding. We could clearly see both north and south along the coast, and the line of breakers indicating the location of Ningaloo Reef was obvious. Information panels provided us with further details about the site, leaving us more informed than when we arrived.

The next stop was the much-anticipated Turquoise Bay on the Ningaloo Reef, famous for its snorkeling opportunities right off the beach. We spread out along the narrow strip of sand and organized ourselves into groups as usual. Some of us headed for the water, some took a leisurely walk along the beach, while the rest took advantage of the chairs thoughtfully provided by the Expedition Team, sitting and enjoying the ambience of this World Heritage beach.

The snorkelers found that the corals were not as brightly colored as examples we had seen elsewhere, but the huge numbers of fish more than made up for this. There were so many fish that it was hard to know where to look. We spotted rainbow parrot fish, darts, angel fish, cleaner wrasse, sail-fin catfish (which are endemic to this area), and, everyone’s favorite, the clownfish. Several members of our group spotted juvenile green turtles and even three sharks, two white-tipped reef sharks, and one black-tipped shark. We all agreed that this had been one of the best snorkel locations of the trip.

After our morning exertions, we were delighted to find that cakes and cool drinks were available back at the buses. The drinks were particularly popular because the temperature had risen, and it was quite warm, making the return to our air-conditioned transport all the sweeter.

The next stop on our magical mystery tour was Yardie Creek in Cape Range National Park. This 50,000-hectare reserve is largely composed of an ancient coral reef, long since transformed into limestone. After donning our boots and filling our water bottles (as it was still warm), we set off along the Yardie Nature Walk. This led us to a spot with a magnificent view over Yardie Creek and Gorge. We were on the lookout for black-flanked rock wallabies, which tend to hide in the gorge caves during the heat of the day, but at this stage, we couldn’t spot any. However, we did see mangroves in which a colony of flying foxes was roosting.

As the next section of the trail, the Yardie Gorge Walk, was more challenging, some people decided to wander back to the shade of the trees where we had started the walk. A group of enthusiastic walkers continued up the side of the hill, eventually emerging at the top with spectacular views over the creek and the limestone walls of the gorge. We learned that these limestone formations were around 20 million years old. On the way up, we began to notice interesting patterns in the rock surfaces. These were coral fossils, and once we tuned our eyes, we found them everywhere. It was an incredible feeling to stand on a ridge made from a 20-million-year-old coral reef and gaze out at Ningaloo Reef, which is still very much alive.

On our return for lunch, we spotted a black-flanked rock wallaby on the edge of Yardie Creek. After having lunch under the tamarisk trees, we boarded the buses for the hour-long trip back to Exmouth, where we were dropped at the Information Centre, Aquarium, and Museum for a more cultural experience. Our final stop was for a short visit to the town center, where some of us enjoyed coffee, ice cream, bought some small gifts, and even had a beer.

We then boarded the buses for the short trip back to the marina and the waiting Explorers. Our journey back to the Coral Geographer was smooth and highlighted by several sightings of humpback whales and their calves.

After quick showers, many of us enjoyed a cool beverage in the bridge deck bar, happy to be back aboard our comfortable ship. It was a fantastic end to a fantastic day, and most of us slept particularly well!

Day 7: Bateman Bay – 14 October 2023

As the sun rose over Cape Range, the ship navigated through a gap in the Ningaloo Reef, just off Bateman Bay. Today’s planned excursion was for snorkeling, swimming, and beachcombing at Oyster Bridge at Bateman Bay in the Ningaloo Marine Park. Unfortunately, the persistent swell and wind made a beach landing unsafe, so Expedition Leader Wayne swiftly devised a Plan B. Howard presented an excellent introduction to the Shark Bay area, our destination tomorrow. We learned about the very interesting geology of the area, giving rise to the unique red-colored sands and Zuytdorp cliffs, as well as the early Dutch, French, and English exploration and naming of features, and past and present uses of this unique World Heritage Area.

Bridge and engine room tours were arranged, and many took advantage of some ‘chill’ time to read a book or play cards in the lounge. Following lunch, an art scavenger hunt was organized to provide an opportunity for guests to learn more about the beautiful art on board the Coral Geographer. This was followed by a cooking demonstration by our talented chefs, offering insights into life on board as a chef, food storage, and some tips and tricks.

The introduction to Shark Bay provided this morning by Howard was followed by Keith’s presentation on the Marvelous Mammals of Shark Bay. This was an account of why Shark Bay is so important for mammal conservation in Australia and the recent work in reconstructing the fauna on some of the peninsulas and islands in the area.


Day 8: Cape Peron, Withnell Bay and Dirk Hartog Island – 15 October 2023

Early in the morning, the Geographer approached Cape Peron at the north end of the Peron Peninsula. About half of the passengers chose to go ashore and walk the Wanamalu Trail from Cape Peron to Skipjack Point and back, while others opted for a more leisurely cruise in the Xplorer around the Cape.

Wanamalu is the Malgana name for the pied cormorant, and many hundreds of them were seen resting and drying their feathers along the shoreline. The walkers took about an hour to reach their destination, spotting tracks of euros, small rodents (possibly the hopping mouse), sand goannas, dragon lizards, rabbits, goats, and feral cats. On the return to our beach pickup point, many golden ghost crabs provided amusement along the beach.

Those cruising enjoyed spectacular views of the red cliffs, goats, a multitude of cormorants, and surprisingly, an Australian Sea Lion.

While guests enjoyed lunch back aboard, the ship moved to Withnell Point near Dirk Hartog Island, where we had a delightful swim, a short stroll on the beach, and the spectacle of congregations of crested terns and fairy terns. As we returned to the Geographer, humpback whales and manta rays made an appearance.

As we left Shark Bay, cruising close to Cape Inscription, Howard provided a summary of the historical significance of this site where Dirk Hartog left his plate, and Keith talked about Turtle Bay, one of the largest loggerhead turtle rookeries in Australia. Sarah gave a very comprehensive talk on humpback whales, with several pods appearing around the ship as she spoke.

Expedition Leader Wayne gave us an overview of tomorrow’s activities during pre-dinner drinks, and we settled in for another pleasant evening on the Coral Geographer as we cruised towards the Abrolhos.


Day 9: Abrolhos Turtle Bay – 16 October 2023

In the morning, Guest Lecturer Howard Gray provided a comprehensive introduction to the wonder that is the Houtman Abrolhos Islands. He covered their geological origins, their amazing bird and animal life, their fascinating history dating back to their European discovery over 400 years ago, and the human interactions through shipwreck and the exploitation of their guano, fish, and rock lobster resources. Howard asserted that these islands are Australia’s richest, both naturally, historically, and in terms of resources.

Guest Lecturer Keith Morris followed up with a talk on the biology, ecology, and conservation of the Australian Sea Lion, with the Abrolhos being their most northerly stronghold.

The ship anchored near Turtle Bay, and we went ashore to explore this ‘high island’ with its cargo of mainland plants and animals. Many were lucky enough to spot the Tammar Wallabies and several bird and reptile species. Others enjoyed the underwater marvels by snorkeling the reef just offshore.

A barbecue on the vista deck as the sun set was a perfect way to end the day, with the evening providing a prelude to our adventures tomorrow through the screening of the Batavia film.


Day 10: Abrolhos Beacon Island and Long Island – 17 October 2023

Our beautiful weather continued as we ventured ashore on ‘Batavia’s Graveyard.’ Guest Lecturers Howard and Keith guided us through the grim episodes that occurred on this island of shingle and sand in 1629, showing us the places where archaeologists have recovered many skeletons that verify the recorded history of mutiny, murder, and punishment. Now a peaceful deserted island, with an abundance of Bridled Terns unperturbed by our presence, it has an eerie presence that the ghost stories of fishermen have only heightened.

Some had a terrific snorkeling experience off the Xplorers at Beacon Island. The second group spent the morning ashore on Long Island, learning of its part in the Batavia story and exploring its birdlife and lagoons, where resting sea lions could be observed. A few even braved the increasingly colder water for a snorkel.

In the afternoon, the groups swapped, giving everyone a chance to enjoy another snorkel amongst the beautiful corals and other life that the Abrolhos are famous for. Divers aboard ventured to the wreck site of the Batavia, swimming above the cannons and anchors that still lie on the seabed and among the many species of fish that call it home.

It was a busy day, with sunset drinks and a beautiful dinner topping it off for our happy guests.


Day 11: Little Sandy and Post Office Island – 18 October 2023

Our early morning view overlooked a rather tiny sandy island nearby, marked on the charts as White Bank but appropriately called Little Sandy Island by locals. It proved to be rather magical when we ventured ashore on our morning excursion. Keeping to a small stretch of the island, we were able to view many species of birds at rest and busily foraging along the shoreline. A colony of Australian Sea Lions calls this place home, with a large male and his half dozen females entertaining us with their rolling slumber, while several youngsters engage in boisterous play.

Groups swapped around for a cruise along the edge of Rat Island, where the shacks and jetties of the cray fishermen create a unique setting. The stories of the early explorers, guano miners, and fishermen make this historically significant, like many other places in the Abrolhos.

Over lunch, the Geographer cruised south to Post Office Island. Onshore, Crayfisher Jessie Liddon provided insights into the island’s setting and his family’s long connection to the island. He shared information about the fascinating rock lobster he fishes for and the intricacies of the industry. Jessie’s mother, Jane Liddon, has diversified into pearl cultivation and explained the complexities of that process, including the beautiful jewelry she crafts from the pearls. Her incredible artistic skills shine through in each individually designed piece, specializing in mabe half-pearls, bracelets, and pendants. Daughter-in-law Michaela creates stunning fashion pieces that capture the beauty of pearls, precious stones, and resin with an Italian flair. Jane also supports an Indonesian village in Sumatra, where her fabric designs are transformed into stunning creations. It was a wonderful treat and privilege to be welcomed into their homes and learn so much about this remarkable place.

The groups swapped, with some enjoying a walk around the island, observing its birdlife and unique setting, and gaining insights into how the lives of the Abrolhos fishermen have evolved over the decades.

After another fabulous dinner, those with energy left joined Jacob for a games night in the bridge-deck lounge.


Day 12: At Sea – 19 October 2023

As we cruised towards Fremantle, Keith presented a fascinating overview of the two species of rock wallabies in the Pilbara. A delightful short film on the life of Jane Liddon, our host from yesterday, provided insights into the crayfishing industry some thirty years ago. Engine room tours were once again enjoyed by guests who marveled at the clever engineering and design work of this beautiful ship.

The afternoon provided an opportunity to learn about upcoming voyages and discounts for those quick off the mark, while Sarah tested the memory of guests with her Cruise Quiz, covering much of what we have seen and experienced. The slideshow of our voyage highlighted just how much we have done over the last 11 days and, when distributed by the Cairns office, it will serve as a great memento for all to reminisce with.

Captain Andy’s farewell drinks provided a terrific way to share some last minutes with newfound friends.

Day 13: Fremantle – 20 October 2023

Alas, after an early breakfast, our fabulous west coast expedition cruise came to an end, and Coral Geographer came alongside and tied up at Fremantle. There were many sad farewells between new and old friends as we returned to homes from all states of Australia and several overseas countries. Many guests will keep in contact with the new friends we have made along the way and through shared special moments in time. On behalf of all of the crew and the team at Coral Expeditions, we thank you for joining us, and we hope to see you again in the not-too-distant future.

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