Voyage Log: Ningaloo Reef 2021
Broome to Broome | 17 May 2021 – 27 May 2021
Master: Nathan Clark Expedition Leader: Brian Hall Assistant Expedition Leader: Cara Cavanagh Expedition Crew: Ilana Archer-Ebdon Dive Instructor: Sally Richards Guest Lecturer: Jo McDonald & Chris Cook
DAY 1: DEPARTING BROOME
17 May 2021
The First Day of our Adventure. We had all come from far and wide across Australia. Some had been travelling already for a month, some had just arrived, but all appreciated being in Broome. It’s such a dramatically beautiful town, with its ancient red soils and it’s hardened yet stunning plants thriving. If you only ever saw the landscape from a vehicle you might think of it as barren, but as we walked around the landscape, we could see a lot of the plants were flowering, with this a lot of butterflies. There had been more rain than usual this year, and the resilient plant life was thriving.
We all met at the Broome Civic Centre and went through the necessary pre-boarding formalities. We were soon approaching the Broome Port and were boarding the Coral Discoverer. She is a perfect vessel for our small group to get into the amazing locations we were hoping to visit over the next ten days.
We met the friendly crew, settled in, and prepared for our voyage. We had a fantastic dinner that evening and went to bed, exhausted from our travels, but with much excitement for the days to come.
Day 2: ROWLEY SHOALS
18 May 2021
The boat steamed all night to our destination: The Rowley Shoals! In renowned Coral Expeditions fashion, the action started straight away. We did manage to fit in a hearty breakfast first, of course. We were off to Clerk Reef on the Rowley Shoals. We set out on the Xplorer, this boat is so perfectly designed for, well, exploring. Today we used this vessel to get into a nice, protected spot within the reef and then use it as a snorkel and dive platform. We had great conditions, it was beautiful without getting in the water, low winds, clear skies, and turquoise waters. Underwater we all went off on our personal adventures to see what wonders lay beneath the surface. We snorkelled and dived in the lagoon in the morning and did the channel drift snorkel in the afternoon.
The Reef certainly did not disappoint, we all came back with stories of the hidden gems over the reef. Giant clams were the highlight, with some of the animals estimated to be around 150 kg’s, some were wedged into the reef, some of the ocean floor, but all had a wonderful variety of colours to show. Some of us found anemone fish, some looked for larger fish on the deeper drops offs, while others spent hours looking at the huge range in biodiversity found on the shallow reef top. A highlight was the large, rare Porcupine Ray (Urogymnus asperrimus), who had buried a large portion of her body in the sand. Our on-board Naturalist recognised this was a female who was missing the majority of her tail. Lady Ray calmly allowed us to observe her and capture a few images before we returned to the Xplorer and onwards to our floating home, the Coral Discoverer.
A small group on board in the morning watched the ABC documentary First Footprints with Jo McDonald and talked about the first arrival of people on the Australian continent. In the afternoon, Jo then presented on the Shipwreck of the Roaring Forties especially the Batavia mutiny on the Abrolhos Islands. The evening involved Captain Nathan’s Welcome-Aboard Drinks on the Deck Bar, followed by a delicious meal prepared by our wonderful cooks, and served by attentive hospitality staff.
Day 3: AT SEA
19 May 2021
After the bustle and excitement of boarding the vessel, followed by jumping straight in the water that morning it was nice to relax with a sea day. “Sea Days” are a fantastic way to get accustomed to “ship life,” meeting our fellow travellers, settling in, and enjoying whatever one chooses, in between impressive sunrise and sunset, watching the changing light on the magnificent Indian Ocean and the Pilbara coastal islands that we sailed past. We charted a course to Exmouth: the famed gateway to Ningaloo Reef.
Our two Guest Lecturers each gave a presentation during the day. Chris Cook is Naturalist and wildlife photographer, and his presentation was on Underwater Imagery. We heard some of the stories behind the images Chris has captured from around the world and were given tips on how we could capture great images this voyage. Jo McDonald is an Archaeologist and Rock Art specialist from the University of Western Australia who gave us a presentation on the Submerged Archaeology of the North West Shelf. This gave a great insider’s look at the work being done in the region, with some highlights on the recent discoveries found on the drowned northwest shelf. If you weren’t excited about snorkelling and diving on submerged archaeology before, we hope you are now!
Day 4: CORAL BAY AND EXMOUTH
20 May 2021
We started our day with a wonderful breakfast, there was much anticipation in the air for the day ahead. For a small town over 1,200 kilometres north of Perth, Exmouth has a huge reputation for a number of reasons. It is the gateway to Ningaloo Reef! We had to pack for multiple things as there was a lot of things crammed into one day. We boarded the Xplorer, and headed to the Exmouth Marina, where we boarded our coach, driven by the laconic Dave – with bubbly Zoe as our guide. We made a few stops along the way to Coral Bay. A lookout on the top of Cape Range gave us an amazing vista over the Exmouth Gulf and into a couple of dramatic gorges. Fabulous to stretch our legs and see the wonderful landscapes. For those of us who had been to here before, it was a great surprise to see how green the desert was! The recent cyclones (which devastated nearby Kalbarri) had unleashed an unusual amount of rain and the arid zone adapted plants were thriving in the normally harsh terrain. We also saw the memorial nestled on the edge of the Gulf to Australian soldiers WW2 war efforts which had been launched from Exmouth: which was bombed by the Japanese during the war. We saw a Nankeen Kestrel in a tree here, which Chris managed to get a lovely photo of!
We arrived at Coral Bay and immediately had options! Some of us turned right towards a juvenile shark nursery and those that just couldn’t wait to get in the water – turned left jumping straight in. We all time to get in the water and see the incredible coral and fish diversity that was thriving straight offshore. There is nowhere else like it on the Australian mainland, within seconds one is surrounded by large fish and over more species of coral one can count in a day.
While no baby sharks were found in the nursery, the intrepid walkers encountered a large number of blue-spotted rays – which are both poisonous and venomous, we were told by Chris! Some even more intrepid explorers went with Jo to look at a nearby Aboriginal campsite, located in the large blowout behind the sanctuary, while everyone else went back to snorkel in the Bay.
After lunch, the expedition packed up and we headed back to Exmouth town. After our comfortable ride, we had the option of spending time in town (the Bakery is famous for its doughnuts with Nutella!) or heading to the Ningaloo Centre which has a fabulous aquarium. Many enjoyed the interpretations about the American Base established by Harold Holt (ironically to track submarines, a few years before he disappeared off a beach in Victoria!) – and the Cyclone Room – which emulated Cyclone Vance – the cyclone with the strongest recorded wind-gusts to ever cross the Australian coastline: which destroyed Exmouth in 1999.
After cleaning up after an enjoyably long, hot, and salty day, we convened on the top deck for drinks on the amazingly calm Exmouth Gulf.
DAY 5: MURION ISLANDS
21 May 2021
The days started with a short steam -12 nautical miles – from Exmouth to the Murion Islands. Our first adventure on board the Xplorer had us squeezing through a reef channel at North Murion, thanks to our great skipper! We set up alongside an area crammed with underwater life. The colours of the coral and fish life were visible without even getting in the water: but it was truly incredible once we got in! We saw a myriad of coral species with so much variety to be seen in the hard, soft, and even gorgonian corals scattered across the reef. Going about their business were all the different species of fish, some of us loved watching the huge parrot fish crunch away at the coral, while others enjoyed watching the comical small fish defending their territory with the ferocity of a Chihuahua. There was endless life to be observed on this reef, but all good things must come to an end, and we headed back to the Coral Discoverer for lunch. Here we joined those remaining on board for the morning, who had learnt from Jo about Aboriginal life on the edge of the continental shelf – from 50,000 years ago until 7,000 years ago – when the Montebello’s and Barrow Island were at the edge of the continent because of lower sea levels.
After lunch, we headed back out to the Islands. Those who weren’t satiated by the morning’s adventures went back for more snorkelling and diving. A barramundi cod and several turtles were seen by the snorkelers. Others who wanted to check out South Murion Island did some beachcombing and bird watching. Lead by Chris this group learned about intriguing reef ecology, and the secrets that can be told by the gems we found along the beach. There was a colony of Crested Terns at the end of our walk along the beach, which we spend some time observing. A lucky few also saw some Osprey! Jo led a beach walk around to the northern tip of the island – where we saw lots of wallaby tracks, many empty turtle nests and the remains of several huge painted crays that had been discarded by fishermen (minus their most delicious edible parts!)
A pod of dolphins helped us celebrate the sunset champagne on the beach in the northern ends of south Murion Island! As the sun went down we watched the beautiful red skies turn into pink onto the blue water. The pair of dolphins came right in and along the shoreline with their baby, was a special way to end a great day!
DAY 6: EXMOUTH – SWIMMING WITH WHALE SHARKS
22 May 2021
This was an amazing day which most agreed far outstripped expectations! We all boarded the Xplorer with much anticipation, split into our two designated buses and headed to Tangabiddy Boat Ramp where there were many people also excitedly waiting for their charters.
Bus/Boat 2 (Jazz II) had an amazing crew: Captain Mick (who gave an excellent OHS presentation – north-western style!), Mark (cameraman), Stephan (who marshalled us on the deck) and Heather and Tash – our excellent swimmers who directed us in the water. While we waited for the spotter planes to be up in the sky, we had an orientation snorkel on the inner reef, and were inducted into our formation preparation for entering the water safely and efficiently.
It wasn’t long before the planes were up – and whale sharks had been seen! We prepared and entered the water in our two groups – and then swam for the next few hours alongside these beautiful leviathans of the deep. By a very efficient process of swimming for several hundred metres in formation; and then swapping groups – we all managed to swim alongside the whale sharks, keeping an appropriate distance, but being so close that all sorts of amazing details were clear. The patch near their left rear is unique to each whale shark – like human fingerprints, and Tash gave us an excellent info session, where amongst other things she talked about the citizen science program, whereby researchers are able to track the movement of individual whale sharks by tourist photos taken in great numbers at Ningaloo. Amazing!
There were delicious snacks on board to keep us fueled, and then when we thought the excitement was over the crew spotted a group of Manta Rays – and it was back in the water for some amazing synchronized swimming with six happily cavorting graceful rays!. We were ecstatic – and the crew confirmed incredibly lucky to have this added bonus experience. Truly extraordinary.
Delicious lunch from the renowned Exmouth Bakery followed (but no Nutella doughnuts! ;)) and then, for those who felt they had a bit more snorkelling in them – a final adventure on the outer Ningaloo reef. Turtles and fish life abounded, and visibility continued to be stellar. Those on Boat 2 were lucky enough to finish the day with a whale sighting! We returned to the Coral Discoverer, via a short shopping expedition in Exmouth, to have another idyllic evening drinks on the top deck surrounded by the shimmering twilight on Exmouth Gulf. Stunning.
DAY 7: SURRURIER ISLAND
23 May 2021
We left Exmouth early in the morning to steam for the Mackerel Islands – our specific snorkelling and diving target being Surrurier Island. This is another low limestone, sandy and spinifex island which sites above the water with a spectacular fringing reef. While the boat got in position, and Xplorer did some exploratory forays to find safe passage into the chosen dive spots, the onboard session involved Jo McDonald talking about Rock Art generally in north-western Australia. Most of the guests had seen rock art in different parts of Australia, and around the world, and so this talk was focused on the regional variability which can be found in this deep time record.
Once the Xplorer returned, everyone was off to experience what some thought was an even better array of corals and fish biodiversity than we had seen on the Murnion’s. We have certainly been spoilt for choice on this trip!
Those remaining on board in the afternoon turned out to be a group of avid bird watchers, and Jo participated in a session on the Birds of the Montebellos, in preparation for the following day’s expeditions. We learnt that several species – Spinifexbird and black-and-white fairy wren – have been reintroduced to the islands (in 2011), after the feral cats and rats had been removed. The monitoring program has been successful and these birds have now been found across many more islands than the original population reintroduced.
The session was much improved by Beth contributing photos she had taken of the bird species identified on the Montebello, as well as many she has captured in stunning photographs from Christmas Island and across northern Australia. She and Robyn – also a knowledgeable and avid bird watcher made this a very enjoyable and informative session!
DAY 8: MONTOBELLO ISLANDS
24 May 2021
The sun rose on the Coral Discoverer as she moored off the northern end of this amazing archipelago on the outer edge of Australia’s northwest shelf. While we ate breakfast, the Xplorer scouted Trimouille Island where our morning expedition would venture to explore ground zero for the 1956 British Nuclear test. We were particularly interested to see whether we could find any Rufus hare wallabies – which have been reintroduced (along with the birds) to the islands for biodiversity conservation. Only one fast-moving animal was seen on this expedition, but we saw many tracks and scats which revealed their widespread presence. We also looked for the two re-introduced bird species mentioned in yesterday’s onboard session, but mostly we saw terns and ospreys: the latter involved in some nest building across the bay.
Across this part of the island, which is marked by a cairn and warning signs, there are less obvious indicators of the atomic test: twisted metal structures, broken glass, and embedded building materials across the landscape. The grey impending rain set the tone to what could have been a grim reminder of nuclear war: but our expedition encountered a healthy spinifex landscape – no doubt rejuvenated by the recent tropical storms which have hit the northwest coast.
Over lunch, the expedition team scouted Campbell Island – where some archaeological excavations were conducted in the late 1990s by Peter Veth and the team. Hayne’s Cave and Noala Cave are located just above the beach rock and limestone shoreline of this island on the other side of the straight. Unfortunately, the falling tide meant we weren’t able to land there for the expedition, and so we scouted a good beach landing, near the wreck of the Plym on Trimouille Island for the afternoon’s expedition. After lunch Jo gave a talk about the rock art and archaeology of the Dampier Archipelago – in preparation for our visit to Dolphin Island the next day; after which we set of on our afternoon expedition!
The afternoon’s expedition involved a blustery boat ride south across the straight to Campbell Island, and at a talk by Jo about the 27,000-year-old evidence of Aboriginal occupation in the two caves, dating to the period when this was part of Australia’s coastline during the Last Glacial Maximum (Australia’s version of the Ice Age). While we were bobbing on the sea, we also watched a fabulous duel between two ospreys and a sea eagle, fighting over a fish! Eventually, the two ospreys landed on the nest (which we had thought was a large sea-eagle nest, above Noala Cave), claiming it as their own! We then crossed the bay in increasingly bumpy waves to climb above Cocoa Beach, south of Main Beach on Trimouille Island to a ‘lighthouse’. When we reached this, we realised it was an aircraft navigational aid, only a few metres high!
Four Rufus-hare wallabies were spotted – again – moving very fast through the spinifex! And after observing lots of lizards burrows on the way up and down the dune, John managed to capture a Gouldian Sand Monitor – who was very surprised at John’s agility! Chris found a dead scorpion and Jo a large very weathered Melo (baler) shell halfway up the hill: evidence of Aboriginal people have used this as a water carrier, sometime before 7,000 years ago.
Both day’s excursions were fabulous – and the healthy biodiversity evident in the vegetation, animal and bird life was remarked upon by many. As soon as we were back onboard the Coral Discoverer, the anchor was weighed – and we started our overnight steaming towards the Dampier Archipelago.
DAY 9: OFFSHORE DOLPHIN ISLAND
25 May 2021
We awoke to a rolling swell as the boat dropped anchor off the northeast tip of Dolphin Island. Also in sight were Legendre Island to the north-west – and the township of Karratha to the east, across Nicholl Bay.
An early expedition team briefing on the Bridge talked about options for the day – as it was clear that the swell and high winds were going to make launching the Xplorer from the Discoverer too dangerous unless the conditions improved. We gave ourselves a 10 am deadline, after which shipboard activities would need to be undertaken instead! Unfortunately, the weather continued to build – and so we had a number of different impromptu session in the Bridge Deck Lounge.
Simon gave a very entertaining talk about his previous life as a pearl diver working in the Broome area – and stories tall and true! About life on a prawn trawler (and encounters with tiger sharks, whale sharks and manta rays). His 30minute talk morphed into an easy 90-minute raconteur which held the captive audience entranced and entertained. A hard act to follow, Jo then ran through a more detailed introduction of the Dampier Archipelago, talking about its harsh historic period, and the development of industry in this landscape. We also did a detailed introduction to the rock art of the region, and we would have also done some sketching of turtle designs (a lā the UWA rock art field-school training) – had there been enough time between Simon and lunch! Everyone was entertained – which was the important thing! And then as we launched, the captain decided, as the conditions were worsening that we would steam north, rather than rocking on the anchor for the afternoon. There was no chance that the Xplorer could be safely launched and re-berthed, and so while disappointed that first-hand experience of the rock art was not possible, the nature of expeditioning and natural forces meant we all set into the afternoon with calm acceptance.
A quiz competition held by Ilana on collective nouns of different animal species saw three teams fighting it out, and eventually, the winners were declared and happily wore their winning Coral Expedition caps to dinner!
DAY 10: AT SEA
26 May 2021
Having rocked and rolled all night through a gale and 3 m swell we awoke to a slow steam northward to Broome. We were all thankful of the excellent calm conditions we had experienced at the beginning of the trip, and especially during our Whale Shark Experience! The rolling seas were beautiful – from the comfort of the dining room; and the fresh air on the outer lower decks (the upper decks were closed for safety reasons) was exhilarating. Because of the weather (with a crosswind and swell in opposite directions) the boat was constrained to 7 knots – making the trip to Broome a likely 20 hours.
Lucky there was a lot of onboard entertainment planned for the day! Chris gave several talks about underwater marine life and photography… and various people were glad of the opportunity to finish their books! Sally (Dive Instructor, not Master!) led a very entertaining quiz – which was fiercely (but politely) fought by a number of well-named competing groups (E.g. The Ningaloo Knowitalls; the Dodgy Doctors) – but finally, the Slartybartfasters won!
The Captain’s Drinks followed by delicious roast dinner was completed by watching the lunar eclipse from the back deck – the high wind and spray made this a unique experience! Overnight we steamed towards Broome, with the weather abating. Sunrise came as we steamed into Broome Bay with the super moon setting. We pulled into port around 8 am: what an adventure!
Day 11: Arrive Broome
27 May 2021
We said our farewells to each other and the cruise today. Thanks to all guests for their adventurous nature and best wishes for the future from everyone here at Coral Expeditions – Until next time, Jo and Chris.