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“Get ready to see something really special,” says Expedition Leader, Dave Keech, as guests step off our hydraulically operated tender platform into a Zodiac. The sun is high in the cerulean sky one afternoon in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
Dainty white-winged Terns hover overhead, carefully picking out their next meal from the glassy water. There is nothing but open water visible for miles around, save for a handful of isolated islands to the northeast.
Then, in the haze of the afternoon sun, 400 square kilometres of reef emerges from the Indian ocean before your eyes. First, the ocean appears to bend, then the edge of the reef appears and as the huge mass becomes more exposed, seawater begins to rush over the sides. The effect is overwhelming, like being surrounded by hundreds of miniature waterfalls.
You notice gentle ripples appearing in the surrounding water, as Dave stops the Zodiac and turns off the engine. The water is still for a moment. Suddenly, a tiny brown head pops up to take a breath. Then, you’ll see another one. Green sea turtles surround us. Soon, you’ll realize there are hundreds of bobbing heads along the channel. The wildlife in Australian coral reefs is world-famous, but Montgomery Reef is truly something to behold.
“What you are experiencing is not an illusion,” explains Dave with a beaming smile on his face. “It is not land, either. This is a giant marine ecosystem becoming exposed as the tide drops.”
There’s a reason why excursions to Montgomery Reef are among the most fascinating coastal expedition experiences in Australia. “Even the most seasoned travellers can’t help but grin with childlike wonder when they witness this extraordinary phenomenon.”
On the reef, scores of egrets are poised, ready to snatch a mouthful of food. Dave points out a White-bellied Sea Eagle soaring above. This magnificent bird of prey is also on the lookout for exposed fish and crustaceans. Besides these avian companions, the whole place feels completely wild and isolated.
The story of this natural environment comes to life as Dave shares its history and cultural significance.
Indigenous aboriginals have had a long history here. It has been observed that they rode out on rafts made from a double layering of tied together kapok mangroves using the tides, and were nicknamed the ‘tide riders’.
More intriguingly, a ‘vanishing tribe’ has been recorded as living on the high cliffy islands near Montgomery reef subsisting off the rich marine ecosystem across an estimated 7,000 years. The Yawijibaya people, reported to be ‘giants of the north’, stood up to 7ft tall and were of superior physical makeup. Soon after a French film crew visited in 1929 the Yawijibaya people consisting of some 300 individuals vanished without a trace, sparking one of the North West’s greatest mysteries.
This reef was named by maritime explorer Philip Parker King, after the surgeon of his ship the Bathurst. Today, the reef falls under the management of the Kimberley Dambimangari community and is part of the Camden Sound Marine Park.
As you listen to Dave speak so passionately about this place, one can’t help but become aware of how much of a privilege it is to witness this extraordinary and diverse marine habitat first-hand.
“For me, Montgomery Reef offers endless wonder” he muses. “I turn a corner, and I never know what wildlife will be there to greet me.”
Heading back to our expedition ship, Montgomery Reef glimmers in the distance but the experience of seeing this natural wonder leaves a profound and lasting impression.