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Often described as the ‘Galapagos Islands of the Indian Ocean’, there are few places in Australia with more biodiversity than Western Australia’s Houtman Abrolhos islands.
The Abrolhos Islands were formally recognised as a place of exceptional historic and natural heritage value in 2019 when it became Australia’s newest National Park, simultaneously marking the 400th anniversary of the first European sighting of the islands. The archipelago was recently deemed an Ocean Hope Spot by Mission Blue, scientifically identified as being critical to the health of our Ocean.
The Houtman Abrolhos marine park comprises 122 islands and associated coral reefs lying some eighty kilometres west of Geraldton, Western Australia. They are the southernmost true coral reef in the Indian Ocean and one of the highest latitude reef systems in the world.
The name the Houtman Abrolhos stems from early 17th-century Dutch mariner, Frederick von Houtman, who happened upon, then mapped, the southern half of present-day Western Australia.
Almost colliding with these islands, he marked “Abrolhos” on his charts, said to be a contraction of the Portuguese term ‘abre os olhos’, meaning ‘open your eyes’.
More than 150 years before Captain Cook set foot on the east coast, the Abrolhos islands were first sighted by Dutch ships in 1619. Noting the “level, broken country with reefs all round it”, VOC officer Frederic de Houtman warned the islands were “very dangerous to ships”.
Unfortunately, Houtman’s message went unheeded by Commander Pelsaert and the crew of another Dutch VOC ship, the Batavia, which a decade later ran aground in the archipelago carrying the richest cargo ever to leave the Netherlands.
When Pelsaert and some crew took off for help in a longboat, a larger group of survivors led by Jeronimus Cornelisz stayed behind on Beacon Island. With rations short and Pelsaert’s return in doubt, mutineers became murderers when Cornelisz’s followers proceeded to slaughter more than 100 men, women and children. Of the 322 people on board the Batavia when it sank, only 116 made it to the port of Batavia.
The saga is one of the most dramatic in Australian history and has spawned an opera and several books.
Today, while safe anchorages abound among the islands and mainland, these waters remain a challenge for navigators. Visitors can snorkel and dive in the crystal clear waters of the wreck site, go ashore at Beacon Island and see a remarkably preserved canon lying in shallow water, and visit Long Island where mutineers were hanged.
More than 60 vessels have been documented as lost in the archipelago over the centuries, the most famous being the Dutch ships Batavia and Zeewijk, wrecked in 1629 and 1727 respectively. The total number of vessels which met a watery grave in Abrolhos waters may never be known.
A visit to the Abrolhos is not complete without stepping ashore on historical sites such as the ‘island of angry ghosts’ (Beacon Island, Wallabi group) where 126 men, women and children were massacred by the bloodthirsty mutineers over 400 years ago.
Lying in the southward-flowing Leeuwin Current, the marine environment in the Abrolhos Islands is a meeting place for tropical and temperate sea life. Common marine mammals include Australian sea lions and bottlenose dolphins, while over 90 species of seabird make the site one of the world’s most important seabird rookeries.
More than twenty species of shark have been identified at the Abrolhos, including Port Jackson sharks, tiger sharks, whaler sharks and wobbegongs. Various species of rays have been recorded at the Abrolhos Islands including the manta ray and the white-spotted eagle ray.
Accessible only by water or scenic flight, many of Western Australia’s natural wonders have been protected by their pure isolation, and the Houtman Abrolhos Islands are no exception.
The remote archipelago is best experienced by small ships with expert guides showcasing the best of the natural environment and deep history surrounding the region.