Cairns to Cairns | 23 October 2023 – 6 November 2023
This trip diary was compiled by: Adj Assoc Prof Adam Smith, Professor Paul Hardisty, Dr Joey DiBattista, Dr Samantha Tol, Toni Massey, Joanne Stacey
Day 1: Cairns
23 October 2023
We embarked at 1700 and the vessel departed Trinity Wharf at 1700 to begin our 14-day cruise and citizen science expedition of the Great Barrier Reef. We assembled on the Bridge Deck Lounge for a safety briefing and introduction to the crew of Coral Discoverer, as well as a briefing from Expedition Leader Ben on tomorrow’s activities. Adam Smith gave an introductory talk about the purpose of the expedition, aims and different citizen science tools guests can learn and use. He quoted Jacques Cousteau ‘The future is in the hands of those who explore’ and Sir David Attenborough ‘It is an especially loud message for Australians, who have the privilege and duty to look after this ‘ecosystem like no other’. Guest lecturers and staff will learn about and use up to nine citizen science tools and survey methods to identify species and reef health and contribute to scientific knowledge and marine park management. We enjoyed pre-dinner drinks and a tasty three-course meal which included a taste of seafood, golden snapper, chicken, and pavlova. Guests were seated on round tables of six which was an excellent configuration for getting to know each other and sharing stories of previous cruises, travel, and expectations of the trip. After dinner, we completed forms for snorkeling and SCUBA diving activities (if certified) and guests were issued with masks, snorkels, and fins.
Day 2: Mackay Cay
24 October 2023
The day commenced with ideal weather, presenting calm seas and crystal-clear waters as we navigated towards Mackay Cay. This location served as our initial opportunity for snorkeling along the reef and proved to be an excellent choice. Guests had the freedom to access the water from the shore, choosing their preferred depth and duration for exploration. Despite being an inshore reef, the water exhibited good visibility at approximately 10 meters with a temperature of 25 degrees Celsius. Positive remarks flooded in regarding the remarkable coral cover, diverse marine life, and the abundance of fish species.
Later in the afternoon, the Coral Explorer ventured into slightly deeper waters at Mackay Reef for a vessel-based snorkeling session. Here, the water visibility extended between 10 to 15 meters, showcasing a rich tapestry of both hard and soft corals alongside numerous fish species. The expedition yielded hundreds of photographs, with guest lecturers and participants initiating uploads of their findings to iNaturalist for identification in the voyage log. By day’s end, we had contributed 31 observations spanning 29 species to the dataset.
Captain Simon graciously hosted the Captains Welcome Drinks as we set course northward toward Lizard Island. The evening meal presented delightful options such as Australian Lamb with a nut crust, paired with red and white wine. Post-dinner entertainment included a film screening of ‘David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef,’ leaving guests captivated. Additionally, guests had the opportunity to borrow underwater cameras and phone housings, capturing their inaugural underwater photographs featuring fish, clams, corals, sharks, and more.
Day 3: Lizard Island
25 October 2023
Our day commenced with an early start at 5:30 am, catering to enthusiastic walkers keen on exploring Cook’s Look. This particular site holds historical significance as it marks the summit where Captain Cook ascended to survey the Great Barrier Reef, seeking a possible route for navigating the Endeavour out of the intricate maze it posed. The ascent to the summit presented a challenging mix of loose gravel paths, steps, and rocky scrambles over granite formations. Despite the difficulty, ample time allowed us to pause, catch our breath, marvel at the panoramic views, and observe the intriguing trees, shrubs, and orchids. This trek served as inspiration for gardeners, history enthusiasts, and those eager to maintain an exercise routine. At the peak, a stone cairn designates Captain Cook’s lookout point, along with a visitor’s book and a flag stored in a waterproof box. The book invites visitors to mark their presence, while the flag serves as a prop for memorable photos.
In the morning, we ventured to snorkel along the reef edge on the southern side of Watsons Bay. This area showcased low hard coral cover (5-10%) and up to 50% soft coral coverage in certain regions. Despite this, the reef boasted a plethora of colorful reef fish, notably herbivorous grazers, butterfly fish, coral trout, and a protected female Barramundi cod. Additionally, several guests were fortunate to spot a large octopus. Numerous photos were captured and added to the citizen science application, iNaturalist.
Later in the day, we revisited Watsons Beach and explored the ruins of the Watson Homestead, delving into the tragic narrative of Mary Watson, her son, her Chinese servant, and the consequences faced by the indigenous tribes. Our snorkeling adventure continued towards the Clam Garden, situated about 100 meters from the shores. En route to the gardens, many guests were surprised by the sight of multiple green turtles feeding on seagrass in shallow waters. The gardens presented a diverse landscape featuring soft coral, staghorn coral, and numerous giant clams (some reaching 1.2 meters in diameter and estimated to weigh around 150 kg). Additionally, small, vibrant burrowing clams were spotted.
Our primary citizen science activity involved CoralWatch, where guests utilized small cards to record coral health. Over 140 observations were logged, encompassing plate, boulder, branching, and soft corals. Professor Paul Hardisty delivered a presentation on the ‘State of the Reef,’ while Dr. Joey DiBattista highlighted ‘Emerging Technologies for Marine Monitoring,’ encompassing genetics and citizen science.
As the sun set, we relished canapés and drinks on the beach, fostering engaging conversations and laughter, concluding a day packed with exploration and learning. Dinner offered a delightful selection including beef tenderloin, reef fish, and cauliflower steak, accompanied by red and white wine, concluding with a scrumptious dessert of strawberry cheesecake.
By the end of day 3, a total of 132 observations spanning 89 species had been recorded by three observers and one identifier in the Citizen Science of the Great Barrier Reef Project.
Day 4: Lizard Island
26 October 2023
Our second day anchored off this arid, rocky island, notable as one of the initial island research stations within the Great Barrier Reef, commenced with morning snorkeling at North Point, followed by an afternoon session at MacGillivray Reef. During these excursions, our team of citizen scientists observed certain indications of coral distress – minor bleaching and some fluorescence. These findings are particularly concerning given the timing in October, as temperatures in the Great Barrier Reef typically rise throughout the summer due to heat accumulation in the ocean. Historically, coral bleaching events involving 8 or more degree heating weeks haven’t occurred until February or March. However, with the current shift of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) towards a warming phase in the Pacific, there’s reason for apprehension.
The part of MacGillivray Reef that we explored, close to the sand cay, exhibited conditions largely aligned with the AIMS October 2022 long-term monitoring report. We observed regions with notably low coral cover, featuring substantial turf algae. Conversely, some areas displayed high coral cover on the reef slope, including significant bommies dominated by tabulate Acropora table corals and Pocillopora, with minimal presence of more delicate but rapidly growing branching species like staghorn. This reef experienced its peak coral cover in 2013, dropping to a low of approximately 10% following the significant mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, which severely impacted reefs in this vicinity.
Both reefs we visited showcased a diverse array of fish species, with Adam’s midday lecture aiding many of us in refining our fish identification skills. Sharks, rays, sea cucumbers, giant sweetlips, and Maori wrasse were among the species observed. We’re anticipating information on whether our trajectory will lead us into the Coral Sea or if weather conditions will necessitate a southern route.
Throughout our exploration, several guests spotted sharks and turtles, while also observing early signs of coral stress or witnessing coral iridescence.
Day 5: Fitzroy Island
27 October 2023
Due to ongoing issues with the boat lift on the Coral Explorer, the Captain made the decision to reverse the original journey itinerary. Consequently, we sailed south overnight and reached Fitzroy Island early in the morning amidst scattered clouds and light winds.
The morning activities revolved around snorkeling and a visit to the turtle rescue center situated on the island. During this visit, Elizabeth encountered Charlotte, a turtle, and they shared reflections on eighty years of life on Earth. Charlotte is coping with a condition affecting her navigation abilities in open water, and the center’s staff remains hopeful for her eventual return to the ocean.
Toni’s midday lecture on marine archaeology piqued everyone’s interest for our upcoming snorkeling expedition to explore the wreck of the Foam later in the trip.
In the afternoon, those who embarked on the steep path leading to the lighthouse discovered a structure resembling a hybrid between an airport control tower and an insane asylum. Its white-tiled exterior evoked visions of a malevolent lighthouse keeper tormenting captive patients. The ascent to the summit was breathless, followed by a descent through granite pillars and windswept sheoak trees leading back to the beach. Conversely, those who chose to relax enjoyed a quieter afternoon with beer and chips at the bar.
Day 6: Beaver Reef and Yamacutta Reef
28 October 2023
One of the amazing things about a trip like this is the people. Everyone on board, one soon learns, has fascinating stories to tell about the things they’ve done, the places they’ve gone, the work and the challenges and the love and loss they’ve experienced. Mark and his daughter Dominique, for example, are not only a pair of fish in the water, they also love mountain-biking (fish with bicycles). Mark is a spinal surgeon, a fact doubly impressive because of his very difficult upbringing. Marie-Helene is from New Caledonia, and though a guest on this trip, she is a current employee of Coral Expeditions. After five years of service, the company provided her with this trip as a bonus. A self-described free spirit, she previously worked on the private yachts (yes, plural) of Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire who previously owned the Chelsea Football Club. On this expedition, she is working very hard not to be a crew-member and enjoy herself. It’s hard, though, she says. She loves to be of service.
With the aft deck lift now out of commission, the expedition has reverted to using the ship’s three zodiacs for ship-to-shore and ship-to-site science. The morning brought rougher conditions than we have enjoyed over the past few days, with stronger southeasterlies that made landing on Beaver Reef’s small sand cay difficult. Despite this, many of the team snorkeled the reef and practiced getting into the Zodiacs from the water. That afternoon, Adam announced that the expedition had broken the 1000 observation mark in iNaturalist.
The snorkel and dive on Yamacutta Reef in the afternoon was also done from the Zodiacs, and by then most of the team had become much more comfortable with the new set-up. Scientists working on the GBR use these types of boats extensively, so the Coral Expeditions group was getting a real taste of what it’s like day-to-day doing marine science.
Day 7: Goolboodi (Orpheus) Island
29 October 2023
We visited the James Cook University Research Station and received a guided tour of the laboratory, aquarium, and accommodation. During our visit, we ventured out to the point and made several observations related to mangroves.
Guest lecturer Adam Smith delivered a comprehensive talk covering the history of Orpheus Island, encompassing discussions on traditional owners, exploration, squatters, leases, research endeavors, citizen science involvement, tourism, and management practices.
In the afternoon, we engaged in snorkeling activities at Yanks Jetty, previously a degaussing station utilized by American warships during World War II.
Throughout the day, we actively participated in various methods of citizen science, employing tools such as iNaturalist, CoralWatch, eDNA analysis, and Eye of the Reef.
Day 8: John Brewer Reef
30 October 2023
John Brewer Reef, known as the Coral Greenhouse, offers an immersive experience integrating marine science, coral cultivation, and artistry, standing as a prized gem within the Great Barrier Reef. It’s a source of immense pride for us to share a day on the reef with friends and family from our hometown of Townsville.
The opportunity to join the Coral Explorer cohort and crew for a snorkeling excursion at John Brewer Reef and to showcase the Museum of Underwater Art was beyond exhilarating. With the Explorer anchored above the Coral Greenhouse, we slipped into the water, gaining a stunning aerial view of the Greenhouse structure and its artful elements like ‘coral trees’ and young ‘gardeners.’
The marine life around the reef and art site teemed with vitality, hosting schools of circling, shimmering Giant Barracuda, graceful Longfin Batfish, and the tranquil presence of a Potato Rockcod nestled within the Greenhouse. The frenetic energy of the fish darting among the Greenhouse and nearby reef was remarkable.
Adam delivered a presentation detailing the Museum of Underwater Art’s background and its commitment to science communication, reef conservation, and local community involvement. During our time there, we collected our second eDNA sample from the Great Barrier Reef, with guests contributing by filtering and fixing the samples.
The afternoon snorkeling session was nothing short of amazing. We explored the reef’s blue holes, encountered the Ocean Sentinels, and concluded with a drift along the reef’s outer edge. The coral wall offered a shimmering view of the diverse reef ecology. Schools of fish, vibrant corals, and the occasional shark sighting made this snorkeling experience truly exhilarating.
If I were to sum up the day, ‘rapture’ would be the word. The robust health of the reef, the abundance and variety of fish, the vibrant corals, and the thought-provoking artistry culminated in a truly fantastic day.
Day 9: Foam Shipwreck
31 October 2023
The weather couldn’t have been more ideal for our visit to the historic shipwreck, Foam, which foundered over 130 years ago on Myrmidon Reef. Guest Lecturer Toni provided fascinating insights into the wreck as we set out at 8:30 am. With over 90% of the passengers never having experienced a historic shipwreck dive, the excitement was palpable. The ocean was calm, and the water, astonishingly crystal-clear (with 50m visibility!), offering perfect conditions for both snorkeling and diving. Toni conducted a snorkeling tour of the wreck, allowing guests to witness various shipwreck remnants including a ballast mound, winch, anchor chain, water tanks, and a few iron knees. Adding to the morning’s excitement, Adam Smith stumbled upon an anchor fluke – a previously unrecorded discovery! The anchor, nearly buried in sand, represents a significant find and will be reported to the Commonwealth to contribute to the Conservation Management Plan of Foam.
Never before has Foam attracted so many Citizen Scientists conducting such a diverse range of surveys, including Coral Watch, iNaturalist, Reef Census, and a photogrammetry (3D survey) of the site. Despite past destructive cyclones in the area, it was heartening to witness substantial healthy coral and a high abundance of fish life. Among the highlights of the site, aside from the wreck, were the impressive giant clams.
‘Foam ran aground on Myrmidon Reef in 1893 due to strong currents. It’s the only known wreck on the Great Barrier Reef of a Queensland labour vessel actively engaged in the labour trade at the time of wrecking and holds significant importance for South Sea Islanders, hence its placement within a Protected Zone.’
Post-lunch, Toni delivered an engaging presentation about the ‘secret life of the shipwreck Foam’ at the Bridge Deck Lounge. Later in the afternoon, Engineer Mark offered an insightful Engine Room Tour, followed by a Wine Tasting session by Josh, paired impeccably with canapés prepared by Chef Ruth and her team.
What a truly fantastic day it has been!
Day 10: Tregrosse Reef
1 November 2023
Today saw everyone embarking on a true adventure to an area in the Coral Sea that Coral Expeditions had never visited before – this was Tregrosse Reef. This large reef houses the Diamond Islets, and as there were no cays, we made use of the Zodiacs. We departed at 8:30 am with calm sea conditions and sunny weather – perfect for snorkeling and scuba diving with great visibility (40m vis) to boot. Scuba dive leader Cai was extremely impressed with the diving – especially with the giant Dogtooth tuna (apparently as big as a station wagon!) and the sharks and large fish that were spotted. The snorkeling was also outstanding with lots of healthy corals and an abundant fish life – perfect for the citizen science iNaturalist and coral watch that was undertaken on the site. The afternoon was complemented with Guest Lecturer Sam Tol who presented ‘How a lack of knowledge is a dangerous thing’.
Day 11: East Diamond Islet
2 November 2023