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Expedition Leader: Dawn Singleton
The following trip diary was written by Guest Lecturer: Lea McQuillan
We gathered at the Pullman Hotel in Cairns met by shoreside staff to go through SailSAFE requirements before boarding the bus. Accompanied by fellow travellers from all around Australia, we arrived with much anticipation to find our new home for the next 7 exciting days, Coral Geographer, waiting patiently for us Trinity Wharf. Everybody boarded at 3.30 pm, to be met by Captain JB and crew.
Happy to be on board, refreshing coffee washed away any traces of travel weariness. Warm welcoming smiles and tasty muffins were gratefully received as everyone made themselves at home and began exploring the various spaces, corners and places around our ship. Our purser Shelly conducted the mandatory safety and muster drill. Expedition Leader Dawn then introduced her team and the highlights of our Outerknown Adventures on the Great Barrier Reef voyage to come. Formalities over, everybody was finally able to enjoy a drink or two and watch Cairns disappear in the distance as we passed by the coastal landscapes of Cape Grafton and the looming massif of the Malbon Thompson range in the background.
Well known as the place where James Cook careened the Endeavour for repairs after a very narrow escape from an offshore reef, the town has recovered from the stagnation of previous decades to become another of North Queensland’s tourism must-see and the economic and administrative center of the Cape. The Xplorer delivered guests onto the foreshore in rather more speed and comfort than that experienced 250 years ago by another group of seafarers.
Guests could choose to have the morning at their leisure to do as they saw fit, they could hop aboard a bus with a local guide and explore greater Cooktown, or join Guest Lecturer Lea and Cara for a ramble along historic Charlotte Street. The trail passed by Cook’s actual landing site and showed off many of the old buildings still standing from the town’s tumultuous gold rush period when thousands of people poured in enroute to the fabled Palmer River goldfields. Both options ended at the James Cook Museum. This historic two-story building – once a convent – is now a world-class facility that paints a fascinating picture of the region. As well as famous displays like Endeavour’s cannon and anchor, other galleries showed items of daily life, the ancient presence of the Guugu Yimithirr Aboriginal people, and the legacy left by the disproportionate numbers of Chinese immigrants that arrived hoping for riches.
The next destination for Coral Geographer and company was to one of the most culturally significant places along the entire Far North Queensland coast on many levels.
Jiigurru rises majestically from sea, accompanied by its attendant satellite islands. Together they form the physical manifestation of the ancestral stingray that is a totemic spirit for Dingaal. The Indigenous people, for millennia, used this place to rejuvenate both body and mind.
Non-indigenous people know it better as Lizard Island – named by James Cook who landed here in an attempt to find a way of the reef labyrinth that had so nearly brought his enterprise to a halt. Goannas, then and now, were abundant and obvious.
The island is fringed by beaches and reef and has for many years been a getaway for those seeking privacy and exclusivity.
The granite peak of Lizard Island was made famous by James Cook, who had climbed the hill in 1770 to try and get a good vantage point that would allow him to passage out of what he called the ‘labyrinth’, what we now call the Great Barrier Reef.
The weather was not kind to us this morning and so instead of the challenging climb to the summit of Cook’s Look, our adventurous hikers opted for an early flat cross-island ramble to the Blue Lagoon that forms the exposed weather side of the island.
The rest of us joined the beach at a more respectable time. Once on the beach, it was time to take our clothes off, and put some more clothes back on – those mandatory stinger suits! Reports from underwater were of many fish and lots of giant clams, despite the overcast conditions.
Lunch over, it was back to the beach for snorkeling and exploration. Guest Lecturer Lea and Marie took participants through the various habitats -mangroves, woodland, and sand dunes. Lea pointed out biological oddities along the way. Climbing the granite hill of Chinaman’s ridge offered us stunning views of Watson’s Bay. The ruins of the Watson family cottage provided the backdrop for a poignant story of misunderstanding and tragedy for both parties – new arrivals and the old.
Watson’s beach has a large population of giant clams – easy to reach from the shore, easy to find (they don’t move much!) and perfect for novice snorkelers to become familiar with their equipment and skill up for the main events in the days ahead.
As the ship approached we could see the magnificent sandstone cliffs, very different from the granite boulders we had been clambering up and around on Lizard Island. We landed on a pretty beach beneath the cliffs, and began our stroll across the island. We were 340km north of Cairns and the island is known as Stanley Island but is Yindayin, as it’s called by the local Aboriginals. The Aboriginal Yiithuwarra, or “saltwater people”, lived throughout the Flinders Islands for more than 2,900 years, until about 70 years ago.
We know that some ships landed on the island and carried people away. Even before the first European ship sailed past in 1606, a number of fit young men were coerced aboard Indonesian sailboats to fish for sea cucumbers in the rough local waters. In the 1880s, still more young men were recruited to work on small luggers, or fishing boats, in the highly lethal pearling and fishing industries. And then it all came to an end. Details are sketchy, but by the late 1930s, Yindayin was nearly empty of its traditional people. Authorities soon removed the remaining Yiithuwarra, taking them to missions on the Cape York Peninsula for fear they might lead an invading Japanese force to food and water.
After a true expedition-style trek across the island, under and over fallen trees and climbing through vines we made it to the boardwalk and rock art galleries. There had to be hundreds of on the rock face: images of ships, canoes, birds, and turtles. We searched the walls and overhangs for the last image that was reportedly painted here: a dugong, the endangered sea cow that was once central to this Aboriginal culture. It was painted roughly 60 years ago by the last Aboriginal man born on the island. We soon spotted it: a bulbous, deep red creature with bright white stripes.
After lunch, we headed out on the Xplorer once more, this time to investigate the remote Davey Cay. We had some great fish and coral viewing along the edge of the bommie drop-offs and a spot of seabird twitching. This tiny island is known as a breeding spot for Brown Boobies, and it did not disappoint. Lots of Brown Boobies and Crested Terns roosting above the high tide mark.
If you look at a map of the northern section of the Great Barrier reef and Cape York, trace as far up as the town of Coen, then go east for quite a long way, you will then arrive at a small patch of coral surrounded by open sea.
This is Osprey Reef, one of a dozen or so Coral Sea reefs that stand independent of the main reef network much closer inland.
There is good news and bad news about coming here. It is a long way and the bad news is that adverse weather may make your trip a waste of time and fuel. The good news is that the water around the reef is renowned the world over for exceptional clarity and prolific marine life.
We had good news. We had winds light to variable – good news 300 km out from Cairns- and consequently had an entire boatful of desperately eager snorkelers and divers.
First stop. False Entrance. Due to the 30 meters + horizontal visibility, the morning’s activities were, by way of introduction, a snorkel along the coral wall. Ramparts of coral limestone buffeted by ocean swells and cyclones fell away to the black depths 2 kilometers below. Everywhere there were fish. Big, little, swimming actively – either looking for a meal, or trying to avoid becoming one – or passively waiting in ambush. Several species of sharks were sighted – one being a particularly unafraid Hammerhead. Xplorer returned for lunch conveying a bevy of excited expeditioners comparing videos and sharing sightings. Roll on this afternoon!
After lunch, back into the tender it was for another look at this magical place. This time we were at the site known as Admiralty Anchor. While the snorkelers entered from the front and sides of the boat the divers, after a briefing from Instructor Cara, entered from the stern and descended into another world.
A few sharks, curious and totally non-threatening, circled around briefly before peeling away. Other species lay languidly on the sand, waiting until nightfall when they would start hunting. Shoals of barracuda and trevally circled about or stood station along the sand gutters. Smaller fish went about their business while the grumpiest of them all, male Titan Triggerfish, afraid of nothing, faced up to anything that came on their territory – including us!
How could anything follow Osprey? Well, Ribbon #5 was a strong contender.
These “ribbons” are a chain of long, attenuated, barrier reefs stretching from about Port Doulas north, that afford excellent shelter from ocean swells. They are also relatively young and are biologically very active.
And so, it proved. Guests had been forewarned that coral on the outer reefs was often stunted and small due to weather but here, in more sheltered waters, diversity in appearance and colour could flourish.
A small issue with the Explorer platform did not prevent us from enjoying this amazing reef, after all we are true expeditioners. Thus, instead of using the Explorer, we used Zodiacs to transfer us to the reef and as platforms on the reef for all activities. Three zodiac loads of increasingly confident guests began exploring the reef.
Unlike many parts of the greater reef, this locale has been relatively untroubled by bleaching. New coral growth was evident everywhere. Spikes, plates, brains, boulders, staghorns, all competed for a place in the sun and room to grow. It is sometimes easy to forget that everything the guests saw was some sort of animal.
During lunch Coral Geographer moved to Ribbon Reef No. 2. Sandy tracts interspersed with coral outcrops reaching towards the surface – each garlanded with dozens of fish species – for whom this one ‘bommie’ is their entire world. Snorkelers on the surface could simply float and watch as they went about the business of being a fish on a reef.
The special animal on the second snorkel site were the fabulous clownfish. So numerous on this reef and we saw three different species including the Great Barrier Reef Clownfish, the Tomato Clownfish and the Pink Anenome Fish.
The calm warm and clear waters invited us to spend hours exploring this paradise. There were Fluted Clams, Sea-stars, Featherstars, soft and hard Corals, Sponges, Ascidians, Clownfish and Sharks. And there were at least five different types of sea-cucumbers including black, sandy black, spiny Stichopus and floppy wet-sock Synaptid sea cucumbers. It was like being a kid again, searching the reef for all sort of animals.
After dinner Maria then hosted the world- famous Coral Expeditions Voyage Quiz in the Bridge Deck lounge
Fitzroy Island is a continental island close to the mainland. Six thousand years ago it wasn’t even an island at all, being isolated only when sea levels rose. Its granite slopes covered with lush rainforest and gleaming coral beaches have been a magnet for visitors too, and locals of, Cairns for many years,
There were several options this morning. The first was a challenging (and very early!) walk up to the lighthouse with sweeping views of Grafton passage to seaward. This lighthouse was decommissioned only in 1992, making it the last manned lighthouse in Australia and possibly the world. The track is steep and the morning was sultry with rain threatening but luckily not a drop fell from the sky. There were 10 of us keen and crazy hikers who left early for our conquering of Fitzroy Islands highest peak. With a misty breeze chilling us down we clambered towards the top. The walk joined a road and then terminated at the lighthouse looking out towards the Coral Sea.
For those not hiking to the peak this morning, the was either snorkeling on offer or a wander along the beach. The snorkeling started from the beach, straight from underneath rainforest that leaned over the green water. The vegetation was dominated by Callophyllum inophyllum, a plant with a scientific name that rhymes! The water was initially a little murky, understandable given the recent rains and the closeness to the coast. However, if we swam further down the beach and around the boulders, it cleared considerably and there were clouds of fish.
This destination was closer to Cairns and was chosen as an example of an inshore reef, that is, one that is not close to the continental shelf. Visibility is often not as good as it is out wide, but, in order to give the guests a taste of as many reef ecosystems as possible, a visit to one of these patches is always enjoyable.
After lunch again headed over to Fitzroy Island. There was an easier walk on offer that allowed guests to experience a taste of the lowland rainforest community. The walk was a track over to Nudey Beach, which offered safe swimming and panoramic views to the mainland. Along the way, Expedition team member Mel, pointed out some of the plants and gave a bit of an insight into rainforest structure and ecology. The track was damp from overnight rain and several species of lizards scurried about – some in their breeding finery – whilst up in the trees, figbirds, friarbirds and fruit pigeons flitted about. Beautiful!
Snorkelers enjoyed more time exploring the reef. It was calm and serene, with fish floating below us with the coral interspersed amongst the sand. Terrain consisted of little patch reefs within a larger matrix intersected by sandy channels. At the end of the day snorkelers had a fulfilling experience floating amidst shoals of fish and the odd turtle; some within inches of their masks.
Back on board and following a refreshing shower, the guests viewed a selection of photographs taken during the expedition, from above and below the water. That night we enjoyed drinks on the captain, with the Captain’s Farewell party being held on the Vista Deck with Fitzroy Island as a stunning backdrop. We paid heartfelt tribute to the crew who had worked so hard to make their Coral experience so memorable. After which it was time for our ‘final supper’ on board, a wonderful Australian barbeque. A great way to celebrate the end of the voyage in true Great Barrier Reef style.
This morning we packed up our things, and said our goodbyes, or perhaps au revoir, to our new friends of the High Seas, taking home some amazing memories of a wonderful expedition – the weather, the company and the setting were something truly special.
After a wonderful expedition of so many varied surprises, so many different perspectives, cultures, landscapes, creatures, celebrations, conversations, presentations, so much sunny weather and good vibrations, it was time to wish our fellow travellers and new companions farewell.
We would, we hoped, sooner or later, come across each other in some exotic place, out on the water, once again to enjoy a journey of peoples, places & wildlife, learn & see some new things in this beautiful world of ours & certainly share a good laugh or two along the way.
We thank you for sailing with us on our Great Barrier Reef cruise, we do hope that our paths will cross again.