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Charlie Bettini, with an early interest and family connections to the sea, has progressed through his career from Deck Hand/Explorer Driver to Master on Coral Expeditions’ vessels. He outlines his career pathway in the next article, and this is followed by some of his most memorable times while sailing in the Great Barrier Reef. His second article also demonstrates his passion for this extensive natural phenomenon and his pleasure in taking people to experience it.
As I child I always had a fascination with boats. Rather than play in a sand pit with toy cars and Tonka trucks, I had an old wooden punt filled with water that I used to push toy boats around in. My playground, from as old as I could swim, was the wharves and ship yard located behind our house on Wagonga Inlet, Narooma, on the south coast of New South Wales.
I was given my first boat after learning to row at about age five. I still remember waking up in my bed on my birthday that year with a heavy weight on my feet and finding a large Lego cargo ship in a box ready for me to unwrap and assemble (with the help of my dad of course). While we were putting all the pieces together, I remember asking him what the different parts were called and what they did. He knew exactly where the heavier blocks needed to be located. Dad was a seafarer, who had also been guided as a young fellow by his own seafaring father, and he explained to me the role of ballast.
Some 19 years later in 2008 I became the third Charlie Bettini of my family to obtain their Master Class 5, after completing my studies in Bundaberg at the Burnett Heads campus of Wide Bay College.
After a few years of driving ferries in the Whitsunday Islands (half way up the long Queensland coast) I had an itching for more adventure rather than the mundane business of being a bus driver on water. As a result of this wish for change, in March 2011, I attended the Certificate of Safety Training at the Whitsundays Training Academy with the hope of joining a larger vessel to gain enough sea time to upgrade my qualifications. During this course, I was instructed by Captain John Lynch who had been one of the first masters of the only SOLAS registered international vessel on the Australian shipping register. SOLAS stands for Safety of Life at Sea, an international convention recognising safety at sea.
At the end of the course Captain John held a career seminar and provided some information on a few of the companies he had worked for in the past. Coral Princess Cruises (since rebranded as Coral Expeditions) was one of the companies he recommended which could provide numerous opportunities for someone with my qualifications. I saw pictures of his adventures cruising to Coral Princess Cruises’ many exotic destinations…..and I knew I wanted to see those amazing sights for myself and hoped that Oceanic Discoverer (since renamed the Coral Discoverer) would bring me the adventures I wished for.
At the end of the seminar Captain John pulled me aside and asked me if he could pass my details onto Coral Princess Cruises’ HR manager because they contacted him from time to time to see if he knew anyone who could fit the bill for a position with their company. I was more than happy to oblige and gave him my contact details hoping I would one day receive a call.
Less than two weeks later, on my 26th birthday, I was in Darwin standing proudly in my new uniform as the Oceanic Discoverer berthed at Fort Hill Wharf, Darwin. Next afternoon we departed for Koolama Bay and the King George River on the Western Australian Kimberley coast.
On arrival just 24 hours later I was on the Xplorer, tender to the Oceanic Discoverer, looking at the largest flow in the King George River anyone had seen in quite some time. This was due to a huge end of wet season rainfall following Tropical Cyclone Carlos in February 2011.
My first season cruising the Kimberley, driving the Xplorer and inflatable tenders, was an exciting time.
After enjoying all the wonderful itineraries the Oceanic Discover had to offer over nearly four years, including the inaugural New Guinea Circle cruise of 2013, I felt it was time for a new challenge and was keen to take up more responsibility. With this in mind, at the end of 2014, I moved to Cairns and took up the position as Mate on the Coral Princess II, cruising primarily between Townsville and Lizard Island.
Shortly after that I was proudly wearing a new uniform, sailing on the now re-named Coral Expeditions II when the original owners of Coral Princess Cruises, Tony and Vicky Briggs, passed the company over to current owner, Paul Chacko.
In 2015, I was both humbled and proud to be nominated by my peers and selected by Coral Expeditions’ newly formed Management Council, as one of 12 staff members to receive the Directors’ Club Award. This was one of Paul’s initiatives to recognise the important role the crew play in providing a first class product and experience for guests travelling with Coral Expeditions.
By the end of 2015 I was studying in Brisbane for my Master qualification (for less than 35 metres in near coastal waters), a certificate of competency which would qualify me to be master of either the Coral Expeditions I or II. Although I had no real expectation I got the opportunity to do just that as within three months of returning from college I was asked if I would like to take on the role as Master of Coral Expeditions II. Obviously, I had no reservations in saying yes to such a great opportunity and undertook a month of training before departing on my maiden voyage on Monday 28th March 2016, almost five years after joining the company.
During my first swing, I had many challenges including a medivac and a critical systems failure. I also assisted with the unsuccessful revival of a Lizard Island resort guest who unfortunately drowned; and even took part in an unsuccessful search and rescue operation for a helicopter which had crashed into the ocean off Cape Tribulation. A baptism by fire, yes, but the confidence I gained from dealing with these situations made me feel I could cope with whatever situation may arise in the future.
I have now completed two and a half years as Master of Coral Expeditions II with my incredibly professional and hardworking team behind me. I have enjoyed countless highlights as well as exciting challenges along the way. One which fell into both categories included successfully locating and rescuing two missing sailors who had spent the night on an upturned catamaran.
I am looking forward to the future and the challenges ahead of me that will progress my career as a professional seafarer. Coral Expeditions is the perfect platform for me to achieve my goals, giving me opportunities to grow as the company grows too.
The pioneering days of Tony Briggs, founder of the company that is now Coral Expeditions, plying the waters of the Great Barrier Reef in his Fairmile, the Coral Princess, are literally over a lifetime ago for someone of my age.
But I still get the same feeling of excitement when I pull into a new destination as Tony must have felt every day as he pioneered expedition-style cruising on the Great Barrier Reef’s magical waters.
The Great Barrier Reef means many things to many people. For some it represents a thing of beauty and adventure, for others learning and education while for others it’s a means of income. For me it is a combination of all the above. To be able to share my passion for this natural icon as a means of employment is a great privilege. The Coral Expeditions Great Barrier Reef cruises have given so many before me the same opportunity to share our passion by showing guests destinations of incredible aesthetic beauty both above and below the water and enabling them to walk away with a better understanding of our planet.
The great thing about the Great Barrier Reef itself is the educational opportunities it provides to learn about not only the marine environment but the geological and climatic history of the Earth as well. The Great Barrier Reef is a reminder of both how fragile, yet at the same time resilient, Mother Nature can be.
Life on the Great Barrier Reef is all about maintaining balance and living in harmony which is demonstrated by the many symbiotic relationships found within the ecosystem where, if one organism did not have the other to rely upon, it would struggle to exist. Juxtaposing that concept are the fierce battles for space and territory between other reef creatures and the violent nature of the predator-prey relationship between many of them. One of the reef’s most loved creatures, the sea turtle, falls prey to one of the ocean’s most feared, the tiger shark, a stark reminder of both the beauty and ferocity of the creatures that make up the local food web of this ecosystem. A visit to Fitzroy Island gives passengers possibly one of the best opportunities in the Cairns region to enjoy the chance to snorkel side by side with turtles while these magnificent animals cruise about, munching away in the safety of the fringing reef, almost unaware of your presence. At Fitzroy Island another fantastic opportunity also awaits – a visit to the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre. Getting to see the volunteers at the centre doing their important work of treating sick and injured turtles then nursing them back to full strength before releasing them into the wild is a great and memorable experience enjoyed by Coral Expeditions guests.
One ecosystem of particular importance to the reef is the coastal mangrove systems found around some of the islands within its waters and lining the shores of the adjacent mainland. Hinchinbrook Island, for example, not only displays the most incredible mountain views with tropical rainforest sloping from its peaks right down to the edge of the waters of the Coral Sea, but more importantly for the reef, on its western shores it is home to the most extensive mangrove system in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park zone, found along Hinchinbrook Channel. This part of the ecosystem acts as a breeding ground and nursery for many of the fish that call the Great Barrier Reef home in their adult life.
To wake up early and see the sunlight spill over the mountains and onto the canopy of the rainforest and mangroves is one of the most picturesque sights along the entire Queensland coast. Taking in the unique estuarine system along the Hinchinbrook Channel as you cruise and enjoy breakfast or a BBQ lunch surrounded by the beautiful vistas it provides as a backdrop, is an unexpected delight for so many. To witness the change in attitude towards the mangrove ecosystem in some guests during their cruise contributes enormously to my own job satisfaction.
People whose pre-conceived notion of the mangrove forests is something of a smelly, mosquito-infested wasteland acquire a new understanding of their rich diversity and importance to neighbouring terrestrial and marine ecosystems, including the Great Barrier Reef.
Catching glimpses of the marine mammals who call the Great Barrier Reef home while cruising its sapphire-blue waters creates lasting memories for our guests. It is mesmerising to watch one of the numerous species of dolphin effortlessly riding the pressure wave created by the bow of the Coral Expeditions I as it steams along. The sheer joy these creatures are feeling is shared by the passengers lucky enough to witness their acrobatic display. Dolphins can maintain the speed of the vessel with the slightest kick of their powerful tails then add a slight change of angle of their sleek body to leap clear of the water, almost as if showing off their skills to those watching the performance from the decks above.
Just like the human species who wish to escape the cold southern winter, two species of cetaceans take an annual break from the frozen Antarctic in the warm waters of the Great Barrier Reef. Dwarf minke whales and the mighty humpback whale complete an epic journey covering over ten thousand kilometres to spend time in the tropical waters of the Great Barrier Reef.
Coming face to face with one of these often curious and inquisitive creatures can be a truly life-changing event. Witnessing a fully grown adult humpback launch up to 40 tonnes of bodyweight clear of the water and re-enter with a thunderous crash really is an unforgettable spectacle.
Another is to watch a humpback calf suckling from its mother. These are truly among nature’s most committed mothers. Every year they push their body to extreme limits. First to migrate all the way north to give birth in warm tropical waters, then to produce the up to 600 litres of milk a day required to nourish the growing calf well enough to both store body fat as insulation against the cold upon return to the feeding grounds in Antarctica and to provide the energy to swim the 10,000 odd kilometres to get there. All of this without feeding herself for up to three months!
The historical significance of the Great Barrier Reef in Lieutenant James Cook’s voyage up the east coast of Australia has great appeal to many history buffs. It is so inspiring to listen to the story of how Cook and his men managed to rescue themselves from certain death after striking Endeavour Reef on 11th of June 1770.
It is exciting to follow Cook’s passage north to the point where he found refuge and the correct conditions to be able to careen and repair his vessel on the bank of the Endeavour River (in the harbour of what is now known as Cooktown). A visit to the monument at the exact location where he repaired his beached vessel is a special treat for anyone with an interest in Australian maritime history. Visitors to this northeastern outpost also have the unique opportunity to explore the Cooktown Museum, which is now home to the actual anchor and cannon the crew of the Endeavour jettisoned to re-float the vessel. They can discover how these items were found and salvaged from Endeavour Reef over 200 years later.
Following Cook’s journey after his crew managed the exceptional feat of repairing and re-floating their vessel, many passengers aboard Coral Expeditions II often find their way to the bridge and marvel at the equipment our vessel has that enables us to weave our way through unseen reefs and shoals, thereby gaining a true appreciation of how difficult and terrifying it would have been on the Endeavour without the luxury of modern navigational equipment.
Spending time at Lizard Island is another memorable experience for Coral Expeditions guests to enjoy. The tranquil turquoise waters of Watson’s Bay are home to unbelievably colourful giant clams, and there’s the opportunity to take an early morning hike to the summit of Lizard Island and again follow, almost exactly, in Cook’s footsteps. The peak offers the same view Cook took in when he scaled it to try and attain an escape route from his tribulations of navigating such treacherous but biologically stunning and beautiful waterways. This view is truly a one of a kind for those lucky enough to see it. Stretching back towards the white sand hills of Cape Flattery across the endless shades of blue and green created by the channels and reefs straight down the hillside to the incredibly aptly named Blue Lagoon directly below.
The Ribbon Reefs are known as some of the healthiest examples of the coral reef environment along the entire length of the Great Barrier Reef. With an easy snorkel off the back of the Coral Expeditions vessels, weaving your way above the cracks and crevasses of the reef wall at Ribbon Reef Number 9 is guaranteed to evoke visions recalled from every documentary made featuring footage of the spectacular underwater wonderland of coral reef systems. Those lucky enough to go one step further and enjoy the experience of scuba diving at the world-class Ribbon Reef Number 3 are in for an exhilarating experience of sensory overload. Huge schools of fusiliers scoot up and down the outside edge of the reef while parrotfish splashed with every colour of the rainbow contentedly chomp away at the algae that grow on the reef structure. All of this is happening around you as you do the impossible – breath under the sea’s surface. Ribbon Reef Number 3 remains one of the premier reef sites to visit even as it recovers from the effects of coral bleaching it experienced in 2016
As we now know the health and survival of the reef is critical to the health of our oceans and ultimately to all life on earth. At Coral Expeditions we strive to limit our impact while providing the opportunity for our guests to experience and learn about the stunningly beautiful and ecologically important Great Barrier Reef. This results in more people gaining awareness of the impacts we, as humans, have on our surrounding environments.
Seeing the ecstatic faces and hearing the pure joy in their voices as our passenger’s comment on what they have witnessed and learnt, is for me the most important, satisfying and unforgettable experience that the Great Barrier Reef can provide. I refer to this natural wonder as my “office” and as far as I am concerned I work in the very best office in the world!