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Minke Whales during the Citizen Science Voyage 2021

Voyage Log: Citizen Science on the Great Barrier Reef 2021

Cairns – Cairns  |  30 June 2021 –  10 July 2021

Master: Nathan
Expedition Leader: Richard
Assistant Expedition Leader: Emily
Dive Instructor: Sally
GBR Legacy Team: Paul, Charlie, Dean & Alistair

Jump To: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 |  Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6Day 7 | Day 8 |  Day 9 |  Day 10 |  Day 11

Depart Cairns Day 1 - Citizen Science Voyage

Day 1: DEPARTING CAIRNS

30 June 2021

A lovely warm winter’s day, albeit overcast – as we all met our fellow passengers and soon-to-be friends at the Pullman Hotel in Cairns. Luckily the rain held off as we jumped into the bus for the short ride down to the marina, before excitedly boarding the majestic Coral Discoverer.

As the ship departed the wharf, the guests had some time to settle into their new homes for the next 10 days, before participating in the safety muster drill – where we all discovered we looked dashing in bright orange! During the muster we got to meet most of the helpful crew onboard, and got an overview of not only the people, but the ship, and of course the thrilling itinerary ahead. The scientists onboard with the Great Barrier Reef Legacy (GBRL) team also told us about their involvement with the activities onboard, detailing how, as early as tomorrow, they will collect coral from Sudbury Reef to add to the BioBank in Port Douglas!

Without being too overloaded with information, the guests now had time to soak in the atmosphere at pre-dinner drinks, where we got a more specific run-down of tomorrow’s plans, with the ease of a drink or two in hand. Afterwards, a delicious dinner of lamb rack or salmon and a tasty little treat of desert helped to satisfy all and get them ready to settle in for the evening as we steamed towards Fitzroy Island for a calm anchorage for the night.

Sudbury Cay Day 2 - Citizen Science Voyage

Day 2: SUDBURY CAY

1 July 2021

A sleep-in till 8am was welcomed by all to start their holidays. Breakfast was enjoyed in the dining room where the large windows showed the expanse of the sea – what started as an overcast day quickly turned into surprisingly calm and sunny conditions.

Snorkel equipment and logistics briefings started in the comfortable bridge deck lounge – We were more formally introduced to the GBRL team, how they will be collecting the coral today (and why!), and how we will be able to watch. They plan on hopefully doubling the collection they currently have, which is at about 8% of the total GBR biodiversity.

While those who were only interested in seeing the reef from the safety of the surface went to collect their equipment, those a little bit more daring (or certified) stuck around for the general dive equipment briefing with onboard dive instructor Sally.

At 11:00am Paul from GBRL gave a talk entitled “Citizen Science on the Great Barrier Reef”, detailing what other projects and activities the team will be undertaking during this trip, including Eye on the Reef and Coral Watch surveying – and how we can personally be involved in collecting data.

After a delightful lunch, by 14:00 we were all ready and rearing to transfer over in the Xplorer to Sudbury Cay. Anchoring nearby the coral transfer vessel, the snorkelers jumped in to cool, clear water to explore the sand-separated bommies. The certified divers geared up, did some quick dive refresher skills, and then went over to see the GBRL team collecting corals in about 7m of water – before going to explore and seeing a white-tip reef shark, a swimming flatworm, and an upside own jellyfish – amongst other things.

Coming back to the boat by 16:30, everyone had time to have a hot shower and get ready for Captain’s Pre-Dinner Drinks. We had a lovely re-cap from the GBRL team, where they surpassed expectations by collecting 35 different species between their two dives – getting the BioBank collection up to a whopping 22% of all known GBR coral species. Charlie, also known as ‘The Godfather of Coral’, also managed to identify a brand new species for the area. Truly a leap forward for coral science!

Dinner was served at 1800, where the guests could unwind and discuss amongst themselves also, what they had discovered that day during their time out in the water at the beautiful Sudbury Cay. Most were rather exhausted and went to bed afterwards, but the curious few stayed up and watched the documentary for the evening.

Cooktown Day 3 - Citizen Science Voyage

Day 3: COOKTOWN

2 July 2021

We began the day with a relaxed 7 o’clock breakfast ready to head off to the historic Cooktown. We departed in the Xplorer and alighted at the Cooktown pontoon where we were greeted with some of the local kids fishing. From there Richard led us on a walk through Cooktown where we viewed many monuments and learnt a lot about the town. We finished up at the Cooktown Museum where we got to look through and learn even more. They have a lot of very interesting collections there.

We then had the opportunity to have some free time in the town, head back to the ship or join Richard and Emily on the Grassy Point walk. For those who went on the walk it was very enjoyable and the view from the top was fantastic. Everyone else enjoyed their free time adventure in the little town.

Once back onboard we enjoyed our lunch. It was then time to hear from one of the most knowledgeable people in the marine biology world, Charlie, as he talked to us about ‘Expeditions of Discovery’. This was a fantastic opportunity to hear from an expert in the field and I know we all learnt a lot!

Following Charlie we had a short coffee break before meeting back in the Bridge Deck Lounge as we needed to prepare for the following day where we would hopefully be swimming with Dwarf Minke Whales. Alistair talked to us about the whales and their behaviour while Dean taught us the safest way to swim with them as well as the three golden rules; don’t swim towards the whales, don’t touch them and don’t let go of the rope. By the end of the talk it was safe to say we were all very excited about tomorrows activities.

Predinner drinks were served on the sundeck, it was quite windy but very enjoyable followed by a delicious dinner once again. Afterwards, Richard briefed us on the next day’s itinerary which we learned would be very fluid, all dependent on the whales!

Minke Whales - Citizen Science Voyage

Day 4: RIBBON REEF NO.9

3 July 2021

We got up bright and early as today was the day we hoped to get up close and personal with the Dwarf Minke Whales. It was a very fluid morning and everyone was on high alert for the ocean visitors. The Great Barrier Reef Legacy team began searching at first light and we were all very excited to find them straight away. They were very polite however, and let us get through breakfast before Simone managed to spot the first whale of the day just after 9 o’clock. We all got very excited but were unable to get in the water just where we were as there was a bit too much swell and chop.

We continued on with our plan to get as close as possible to Lightning Bommie which is where large numbers are known to congregate. They did not disappoint, and they arrived not long after we were anchored. We congregated on the back deck as soon as we got the call while Paul dangled off another tender as “Minke bait”. He kept them entertained while the rest of us loaded into the Xplorer and made our way out to join Paul. Even from on-board the Xplorer the sightings were incredible.

We began with getting group 1 in the water followed by group 2 who both experienced incredible sightings of the Dwarf Minke Whales from in the water. Some people from group 3 missed out as the Minke sighting unfortunately concluded before everyone had a good look. As it was lunch time we headed back to the Coral Discoverer to enjoy our lunch and have a rest. Just as the crew were packing up we did catch sight of another whale playing around the vessel but they quickly lost interest. During lunch the crew kept an eye on the water and found a few more whales keen for another look at us. Those who missed out in the morning as well as anyone who wanted another go were loaded into the Xplorer for another try.

The wind and swell had picked up a little but it didn’t bother the whales! The encounter was just as good in the morning with the whales coming very close to those in the water several times, swimming up and down the line while also delighting those still onboard the Coral Discoverer with breaching and nodding on the surface. Everyone had a fantastic day with the Dwarf Minke Whales.

It was a tired but happy group that headed to predinner drinks where Dean and Alistair did a recap of the day where we learned a lot of statistics about the day including learning that Alistair managed to get several skin samples that he could take back to the lab for genetic testing. Dinner once more was amazing and we concluded the night with a documentary on Dwarf Minke Whales chosen for us by Alistair.

Lizard Island Day 5 - Citizen Science Voyage

Day 5: LIZARD ISLAND

4 July 2021

Today we had several options of what we wanted to do. Some of us got up early to do a walk to Cooks Look with Dean and Emily, or head to Blue Lagoon with Sally. We grabbed a quick snack for breakfast then got in the Xplorer and shortly arrived at Watsons Bay on Lizard Island. We split off and those heading on the Cooks Look walk retraced the steps of Captain James Cook, all the way to the summit. It was a tricky walk, very steep in places but the view from the top was more than worth it! On the way back down we came across one of the yellow spotted monitor lizards for which the island was named. He walked right past us and we all got a great view.

The group that walked to Blue Lagoon were treated to a walk along the beach once they reached the other side of the island and they also had an encounter with one of the lizards! The island was clearly well named! Once back on the beach we were treated with a delicious breakfast wrap prepared by our galley crew. We then relaxed on the beach or went for a morning snorkel on the fringing reef at Watsons Bay. We were also joined by those who chose to stay on the ship for a hot breakfast onboard. After everyone was back, the sea legacy team took us through the monitoring projects that we could be a part of in the water. Some chose to take part in the Eye on the Reef Rapid Monitoring Project while others participated in Coral Watch. We managed to collect some great data on the state of the reef.

Once we were all out of the water we headed back to the Coral Discoverer for lunch and some relaxation. In the afternoon we had the option to head back out to the island for more water activities or enjoy some relaxation time onboard. For those that stayed behind we watched a rescreening of the Minke Whale documentary. Those who went back to the beach collected some more data, had free time for a snorkel and Sally did some introductory dives for those who were interested. We saw a lot of fantastic coral, giant clams and herbivorous fish. Some lucky people even spotted a stingray or a moray eel!

We came back to the ship for a well deserved break as well as predinner drinks. Sally handed out certificates to the intro divers to congratulate them on their achievement! This was followed by another delicious dinner in the dining room and a documentary called ‘Mystery of the Minkes’.

Lizard Island Day 6 - Citizen Science Voyage

Day 6: LIZARD ISLAND

5 July 2021

Some of us got up early again for a walk across to Blue Lagoon, this time with a plan to collect rubbish thrown up by the ocean for the organisation Tangaroa Blue. We managed to collect a great deal from the short search that we conducted. The rest of us enjoyed a lovely hot breakfast onboard and joined the walkers afterwards for a relaxed snorkel. Sally also took a few more of the intro divers for their first dive of the trip. It was a very successful morning with most people spotting turtles and having a great time exploring the Clam Gardens. Some people also completed a few more Eye on the Reef surveys and Coral Watch monitoring. Once we returned to the beach we enjoyed some tea and coffee.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch and afterwards we a had a choice of activities for the afternoon with the first option being to stay onboard to enjoy some fantastic talks by Charlie on corals, then by Dean who taught us more about the Coral Biobanks and their importance. The second option was to head over to Turtle Bay for a fantastic swim. It was a rough trip across in the zodiacs but once there we were lucky to find a lovely sheltered bay, clear visibility and some great snorkelling conditions. We enjoyed a snorkel in the sheltered waters before heading back to the Coral Discoverer for a welcome hot shower. As the conditions did not ease we had drinks onboard which were complementary with some delicious canapes followed by a fabulous BBQ dinner in the dining room.

Ribbon Reef No9 Day 7 - Citizen Science Voyage

Day 7: RIBBON REEF NO.9

6 July 2021

We began the day with a delicious breakfast followed by some Dwarf Minke Whale spotting. We got our Minke bait in the water (Paul), but it seemed like they were more interested in delighting everyone watching from the decks of the Coral Discoverer than swimming with the Minke bait. We passed the morning with a presentation from Dean, ‘Deep Reefs, Beyond the Photic Zone.’

By 1100 we hadn’t had them pass by the Legacy team on the line so we instead settled in for lunch onboard as the crew relocated us closer to Ribbon Reef No. 9.  After lunch we headed out straight away to make the most of the low tide breaking the swell from behind the reef. This led to some fantastic conditions for snorkeling and diving from the Xplorer. The coral was so fantastic that even when we came back to the Xplorer for a rest Emily suggested we head to the Coral Discoverer for a short break, then those who wanted to could head back out to the reef for another fantastic look at the coral. The conditions were perfect and the visibility was incredible for enjoying the healthy and abundant corals.

Not everyone chose to come though and anyone who stayed onboard enjoyed a presentation from Alistair entitled ‘The Minke Project’ where we heard all about his research on these fantastic animals across the years. This led us into a relaxed pre-dinner drinks upstairs and then into dinner followed by another great documentary, one of Dean’s first entitled ‘Edge of Nowhere’.

Ribbon Reef No3 Day 8 - Citizen Science Voyage

Day 8: RIBBON REEF NO.3

7 July 2021

We began the day yet again with some fantastic whale watching with our first encounter, according to Alistair, even before dawn! We had some special citizen scientists onboard, Tommo and Gail, who assisted Alistair and the Legacy team for several hours to collect some fabulous data on a mother and calf. These adorable visitors swam around a few of the legacy team who were tasked with taking photos and collecting specimen samples for hours. Alistair let us know that it was one of the most memorable Dwarf Minke Whale encounters he’d ever had!

Unfortunately we were unable to get in the water with the mother and calf as the swim with whale permit does not allow us to get in the water with the young animals. Instead we headed out to Ribbon Reef No. 3 where we were able to moore the Xplorer to a bommie that was full of fish and coral life. We were able to snorkel over the top or dive at the edges. Some people even managed to circumnavigate the whole reef! The visibility was great once again!

We got back onboard for some well-deserved lunch then headed out once again for a second look at Ribbon Reef No. 3. We got a great look at the marine life with lots of people managing to find anemone fish (Nemo’s) as well as abundant parrot fish and even a few nudibranchs. A successful day for everyone in the water. We got back in time for a hot shower and a rest before pre-dinner drinks and a fantastic dinner followed by a 60 Minute piece called ‘A Whale of a Time’ before heading to bed.

Mackay Cay Day 9 - Citizen Science Voyage

Day 9: MACKAY CAY

8 July 2021

We began the day with a delicious breakfast then were quickly on our way across for a fabulous snorkel from the shore of the deserted sand cay. We slowly made our way to the water with Paul leading a guided snorkel for those interested. Truly a special treat to be shown the reef by an absolute expert. For those who preferred a rest onboard we had a transfer back to the ship. Others stayed on the cay and enjoyed some tea and coffee then went back in the water for another swim around. The more you looked, the better the coral got!

We enjoyed lunch onboard then we had two options, the first being to watch a presentation from Charlie about climate change and its effects on the Great Barrier Reef. A sobering subject but an incredibly important one. The second option was to enjoy a snorkel from the Xplorer further from the cay where the coral was a little more established. Though the visibility had dropped since the morning swim we still saw some fantastic marine life.

We then headed back to Coral Discoverer to catch Alistair’s talk summing up our experience with the Dwarf Minke Whales. We also had the opportunity to ask him some final questions about these beautiful animals. We then enjoyed pre-dinner drinks before our delicious dinner in the dining room. Afterwards we joined Sally in the Bridge Deck Lounge for the Coral Discoverer Quiz Night! Much debate and excitement ended with ‘Vodka Cruisers’ winning and taking home some fabulous prizes (not the least of which was bragging rights)!

Day 10: FITZROY ISLAND

9 July 2021

Today was a chose your own adventure kind of day. We enjoyed a relaxed breakfast onboard before setting off for Fitzroy Island. Some of us chose to take the walk to Nudey Beach – named after the numerous nudibranchs that live in these waters. The walk there was through the rainforest ending with a walk along the beach or a relax in the sun. We were able to then enjoy a bit more time there or make our way back to visit the Turtle Rehab Centre. Tracy was our guide for the day and she introduced us to Sunny, the green sea turtle who was around two years old and would very soon be healthy enough to be released back into the wild. She was extremely informative and she explained the importance of the organisation and told us stories of the turtles that had come through the centre that they had rehabilitated. Truly a worthy cause.

We then returned to Coral Discoverer where we took a break over lunch before Richard gave us some information on some of the other itineraries that Coral Expeditions will be sailing in the future. Following this we headed back to the beach at Fitzroy Island where most of us settled in for our final fantastic snorkel from the beach and most of us even managed to spot a turtle or two – A truly special experience. Others chose to take the walk up to the lighthouse. It was a steep walk however an enjoyable one through the rainforest and woodlands to the top. We were treated to one last spectacular view of the island and the Great Barrier Reef before heading back for a well deserved dip. We headed back to Coral Discoverer for or a rest before Captain Nathan’s Farewell Drinks.

It was a special and sad time where we sat together on A Deck Aft and enjoyed each other’s company for the last time. Captain Nathan spoke a few words of farewell as did Richard. We were also wonderfully surprised when Christine stood up to thank the crew but above all the Great Barrier Reef Legacy team for their efforts, knowledge, experience and company throughout the trip. Truer words were never spoken. We were unbelievably lucky to have them onboard sharing their experience with us as well as turning us all into Great Barrier Reef scientists! We enjoyed our final dinner onboard before retiring for the evening.

Cairns Arrival Day 11 - Citizen Science Voyage

Day 11: ARRIVING INTO CAIRNS

10 July 2021

We began the day with putting our luggage outside our cabins ready for departure. Our last breakfast onboard was a special one; waffles! After we docked we made our way to the gangway where we said our fond farewells to the crew and the Great Barrier Reef Legacy Team. Hopefully we will get the opportunity to see everyone again very soon and we will always treasure the memories of this very special cruise through the Great Barrier Reef.

On behalf of both Coral Expeditions and the Great Barrier Reef Legacy Team we would like to thank you for bringing your energy, humour and positive attitudes to help us on our mission to protect one of the most incredible ecosystems on the planet! We couldn’t do our work without you and we hope that this experience has been educational and inspirational for you all. We wish you well on your future travels.

Mackay Cay Day 9 - Citizen Science Voyage GROUP PHOTO

Media release

Coral Expeditions leads Citizen Science Expedition on the Great Barrier Reef

Dwarf Minke Whales, Coral Surveys and a new species discovery mark inaugural voyage

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