Voyage Log: Abrolhos Islands & The Coral Coast – Coral Geographer

Fremantle to Broome |   30 November 2022 – 12 December 2022

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Day 1: Fremantle departure for the Houtman Abrolhos Islands

30 November 2022

After journeying from our homes around Australia to the Port of Fremantle and negotiating the Covid testing regime, it was a delight to board the Coral Geographer and explore the beautiful ship that was to be our home for the next 12 days. The views over the port and city of Fremantle from the top deck were magnificent as we set sail mid-morning.

With the safety drills completed, Chief Purser Arron and Expedition Leader Melanie introduced the crew and expedition team and outlined the plans for the ‘at sea’ day on our passage to the Houtman Abrolhos Islands. Lunch gave us a wonderful introduction to the culinary delights we can expect over the many days that will follow.

In the afternoon Guest Lecturer Howard Gray gave a comprehensive introduction to the wonder that is the Houtman Abrolhos Islands in their geological origins, their amazing bird and animal life, their fascinating history dating back to their European discovery over 400 years ago and the human interactions through shipwreck and exploitation of their guano, fish and rock lobster resources, proving his assertion they are Australia’s richest islands, naturally, historically and in resources.

Captain Andrew Lynch hosted our welcome with drinks and exotic canapes in the Bridge deck lounge and Melanie outlined plans for our first day at the Abrolhos. A wonderful dinner awaited and I am sure by then everybody was well and truly ready for a rest after a long and eventful day and in anticipation of tomorrow at Houtmans Abrolhos.

Day 2: Post Office Island, Pelsaert Group of the Houtman Abrolhos Islands

1 December 2022

Arriving early morning at the north-east end of the Pelsaert Group gave us our first glimpse of the low islands that form most of the Abrolhos, some of them topped by brightly coloured fishermen’s shacks that sit precariously close to the waterline.

Our morning excursion took one group ashore to Post Office Island where Crayfisher Jessie Liddon guided us around the shingle banks of the horse-shoe shaped island with its beautiful turquoise lagoon, explaining the setting and his family’s long connection to the island. Later he told us all about the fascinating rock lobster he fishes for and the ins and outs of the industry, currently going through turbulent times.

Jessie’s mum Jane Liddon has diversified into growing pearls and explained the complexities of that process through to the beautiful jewelry she crafts from them. Her incredible artistic skills are seen in every piece, individually designed for each pearl. She specialises in the mabe half-pearls and the bracelets and pendants they lend themselves to. Daughter-in-law Michaela produces stunning fashion pieces capturing the beauty of pearls, precious stones and resin with an Italian flair. Jane supports an Indonesian village in Sumatra where her fabric designs are turned into stunning creations. What a wonderful treat and privilege to be taken into their homes and learn so much about this remarkable place, many wishing they could stay behind with them and many taking some of Jane and Michaela’s treasures home with them.

The second group enjoyed a snorkel and dive at Post Office Island along the island edge, giving us a taste of the beautiful corals, fish and other marine life that the Abrolhos is famous for. In the afternoon, the two groups swapped over.

Later in the afternoon Guest Lecturer Keith Morris gave a presentation on ‘Island Jewels’, telling us about the special features of WA islands, their flora and fauna and the management and re-introductions that have been undertaken, much of it in his working life with Government conservation agencies.

Afternoon drinks in the Bridge Deck Lounge were followed by a beautiful meal featuring rock lobster from the Abrolhos. Those with energy stayed up to view a Blue Planet special – ‘a natural history of the oceans’.

Day 3: Houtman Abrolhos Islands – Easter and Wallabi Groups

2 December 2022

Our early morning view overlooked a rather tiny sandy island nearby, marked on the charts as White Bank but appropriately called Little Sandy Island by locals. It proved rather magical when we ventured ashore on our morning excursion. Keeping to a small stretch of the island, we were able to view many species of birds at rest – Pacific Gulls, Caspian Terns, Roseate Terns, Pied Cormorants, Silver Gulls and Crested Terns – and busily foraging along the shore were many Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings. A colony of Australian Sea Lions make this place home, a large male with his half dozen females and several youngsters. The snorkeling along the edge of the island was wonderful, with the plate and staghorn corals and their variety of fish and other life. The nudibranchs and sea hares had us entranced with as did a young Sea Lion, inquisitively investigating us and playfully interacting.

Groups swapped around for a cruise along the edge of Rat Island where the shacks and jetties of the cray fishermen create a unique setting, with clouds of sooty terns in the background. The stories of the early explorers, guano miners and fishermen make this historically significant like many other places in the Abrolhos.

As the Geographer moved north to the Wallabi Group we enjoyed another beautiful lunch and viewed the islands where the grim Batavia wreck and aftermath played out. With ideal sea conditions – a rarity on the exposed reef edge – the divers aboard later ventured to the wreck site of the Batavia, swimming above the cannons and anchors that still lie on the seabed and among the many species of fish that make it home.

The ship anchored near Turtle Bay and we went ashore to explore this ‘high island’ with its cargo of mainland plants and animals. Many were lucky enough to spot the Tammar Wallabies and several bird and reptile species. Others enjoyed the underwater marvels, snorkeling the reef just offshore.

Drinks and canapes on the beach as the sun set ended another perfect day.

Day 4: Beacon Island (Batavia’s Graveyard)

3 December 2022

Our beautiful weather continued and ashore on ‘Batavia’s Graveyard’ Guest Lecturer Howard took us through the grim episodes that occurred on this island of shingle and sand in 1629, showing us the places where archaeologists have recovered many skeletons that verify the recorded history of mutiny, murder and punishment. Now a peaceful deserted island, with an abundance of Bridled Terns unperturbed by our presence, it has an eerie presence that the ghost stories of fishermen only heightened.

The groups swapped around giving everyone a chance to enjoy another snorkel amongst the beautiful corals and other life that the Abrolhos are famous for.

As we enjoyed lunch, we waved goodbye to the Abrolhos and departed for Shark Bay. During the afternoon an Art Scavenger Hunt was enjoyed by many, taking in the beautiful artworks found throughout the ship. Later Howard introduced us to the astonishing geology, marine and animal habitats and life and the long human history of Shark Bay – our next destination – dating back through 22,000 years of Aboriginal occupation to European discovery in 1616 by Dirk Hartog and the shipwreck, guano, pearling, pastoral, fishing and tourism activities to today. It is little wonder it became one of Australia’s first World Heritage sites, ticking not just one but all four of the criteria required.

The stark steep landscape of the Zuytdorp Cliffs appeared as we settled in for another enjoyable evening meal with the complimentary wines. Afterwards, those with energy left joined in a games night in the bridge-deck lounge.

Day 5: Shark Bay – Withnell Bay, Dirk Hartog Island and Cape Peron

4 December 2022

The early risers enjoyed a view of Cape Inscription, famous as the site where Dirk Hartog left his plate, and Turtle Bay, one of the largest loggerhead turtle rookeries in Australia. After breakfast, Guest Lecturer Keith Morris gave a most interesting account of the many mammal species that once inhabited the islands of Shark Bay and his work in the re-introduction of them, in habitat restoration and in feral animal removal that has enabled them to recover.

We were soon anchored off Withnell Point and prepared to go ashore. A series of salt / brackish water lakes behind the beach provided birdwatchers with great opportunities. Pelicans glided overhead and silver gulls mingled with a large flock of crested terns. Reef herons and black-winged stilts and many migratory shorebirds fed in the shallows of the lakes.

While guests enjoyed lunch back aboard, the Geographer moved closer to Cape Peron at the north end of Peron Peninsula. Around half of the passengers elected to go ashore and walk the Wanamalu Trail from Cape Peron to Skipjack Point and return, the others decided a more leisurely cruise in the Xplorer around the Cape would suit them. Wanamalu is the Malgana name for pied cormorant, of which many hundreds were seen resting and drying their feathers along the shoreline. The walkers took about an hour to reach their destination, seeing tracks of euros, small rodents (possibly the hopping mouse), sand goannas, dragon lizards, rabbits, goats and feral cats. From the Skipjack Point lookout we saw rays and some small sharks. On the return to our beach pick-up, several golden ghost crabs were seen along the beach.

After boarding the ship, we weighed anchor and headed north towards Ningaloo. Expedition Leader Melanie gave us an overview of tomorrow’s activities during pre-dinner drinks, and we settled in for another pleasant evening on the Coral Geographer.

Day 6: Bateman Bay, Ningaloo Marine Park and World Heritage Area

5 December 2022

After a leisurely breakfast the ship had a ‘fire and abandon ship’ drill, and all guests were invited to participate with the crew. We mustered in the Bridge lounge and donned lifejackets, and then followed the crew to the lifeboats where their operation was explained. Meanwhile the ship had cruised into Bateman Bay in the Ningaloo Marine Park, and after lunch one of the Explorers departed for a beach landing at Oyster Bridge. We had hoped to snorkel and search the beach for turtle tracks, however, the 20+ knot south-west wind and swell made the landing unsafe, and the excursion was aborted. As an alternative Keith gave a talk on the marine turtles of WA which highlighted the importance of WA beaches and waters to the global conservation of these ancient creatures as the ship headed to Exmouth.

Later in the afternoon Arron the purser presented a well-attended premium wine tasting experience for the quests. He expertly showed how the various wines could be paired with the delicious canapes prepared by the talented chefs on board. The pre-dinner drinks and briefing by Mel on tomorrow’s activities followed. After dinner an excellent David Attenborough documentary on the fascinating lives of great white sharks was shown in the Bridge deck lounge.

Day 7: Exmouth

6 December 2022

We arrived at our anchorage just off the Exmouth marina at 0630 and after an early breakfast were aboard the Explorers by 0700 to begin our bus tour of some of the Cape Range and Ningaloo sights. Our bus drivers provided an excellent account of how Exmouth began life as a town to build and operate the Harold E Holt US naval communications base in the mid-1960s but has grown into one of WA’s key tourist destinations.

Heading towards the west coast of North West Cape we stopped at the Vlamingh Head lighthouse built in the early 1920s, for a scenic view of the tip and beaches of North West Cape. These beaches are important turtle nesting sites during the summer months. Turquoise Bay in the Cape Range National Park was our next destination for a longer stop to swim and snorkel in the crystal-clear waters of the Ningaloo Marine Park. A strong current was used to our advantage to move us along the beach with little effort, viewing the multitude of fish and coral as we went. Some saw some turtles, probably greens, and others some small sharks and schools of mullet.

After morning tea, we headed south along the Ningaloo coast to Yardie Creek. This is the only permanent creek system on North West Cape and its entrance to the ocean is usually blocked by a sand bar, as it was today. Most of us took a 500m trail into the low inland gorge of Yardie Creek where we saw the very attractive, black-flanked rock wallaby and noisy black flying-fox. Along the way the native figs were fruiting, and termites had been adding mud to their distinctive tall brown mounds dotted through the landscape. An osprey and grey reef heron were seen flying along Yardie Creek. Singing honeyeaters and grey butcherbirds were flying between the Acacia bushes. Unfortunately, the only signs of other mammals were that of rabbits. After lunch under the tamarisk trees, we reboarded the buses for the hour-long trip back to Exmouth where quests were given the choice of investigating the local brewery, coffee shops and shopping opportunities in Exmouth town, or visiting the Ningaloo Discovery Center and Aquarium. The buses returned us to the marina for pick up by the Explorers and return to the Coral Geographer.

Pre-dinner drinks and a wonderful BBQ dinner, featuring prawns, pork sausages and steaks were held on the upper sundeck as we were treated to lighter winds and another wonderful sunset. Several dolphins entertained us with their antics at the stern of the ship later in the evening.

Day 8: Muiron Islands

7 December 2022

After an early, short crossing from Exmouth to the west side of the Muiron Islands, one of the Explorers undertook a recce for possible landing sites. Meanwhile Howard presented a talk on the Montebello Islands – Tryal to Atomic Tests which provided an excellent background to this remote archipelago we would be visiting in the next few days.  The strengthening winds and swell made access to the islands from the west unsafe, so the CG moved to the more sheltered east side. Once securely anchored, a group of enthusiastic snorkelers and divers were taken to the clear waters off North Muiron Island for some underwater exploration of corals and fish. Those remaining on board were able to undertake tours of the engine room and bridge. Returning for lunch a family of three ospreys provided good viewing as they flew over the ship. After lunch we landed on the north-east sandy spit of South Muiron Island to explore the beaches for turtle activity and participate in snorkeling and diving activities. Several fish feeding balls were seen in the water with seabirds and larger fish sharing the rich offerings. The beach walkers found several fresh turtle tracks and signs of recent nesting, and there were mating pairs of green turtles just offshore.

The strong wind forecast for the next few days forced a change in the program, so that instead of going to Serrurier Island for the day tomorrow, we would head direct to the Montebello Islands via the west side of Barrow Island.

After dinner a documentary on whale sharks, for which the Exmouth region is famous, was shown in the lounge.

Day 9: Montebello Islands

8 December 2022

After a smooth overnight passage north past the west coast of Barrow Island we reached our Montebello Islands anchorage off Balfour Point on Trimouille Island around 0630. Earlybirds saw the lights of one of the oil well monopods between Barrow Island and the Montebellos. After breakfast, we had intended to do a walk to the Trimouille light tower but the landing at Vodka Beach was considered unsafe given the wind and swell conditions. Instead, some of the quests were taken to the north-west end of Trimouille Island, the site of a British atomic weapons test. Others were taken to nearby Drambuie Bay on North West Island for a swim and beach walk. Those on Trimouille Island found the concrete plinth recording the second British atomic explosion in 1956. The first British atomic weapons test was undertaken in 1952, with the bomb exploded within the hull of the frigate HMS Plym off Main Beach further south on Trimouille Island. A third explosion occurred on nearby Alpha Island later in 1956. After taking note of the radiation warning signs, we walked a few hundred metres south of the plinth to overlook the Louis William lagoon. On the way we flushed several Mala or central Australian Rufous hare-wallabies from underneath the low vegetation. Some patient guests managed to get some excellent pictures of these elusive marsupials. Keith explained that this population of mala had been introduced to Trimouille Island in 1998 as insurance against their extinction in central Australia where they still naturally occurred. From an original 31 individuals the population has grown to more than 400 of these endangered marsupials. Unfortunately, since 1998 the wild populations in central Australia have become extinct so the population on Trimouille Island is now the only wild population remaining.

Those on North West Island enjoyed the smooth waters of Drambuie Bay for a swim and saw many turtle nesting tracks on the beach. These were most likely green turtles, many of which were seen in the nearby waters. Some turtle mating was still occurring. On our way back to Coral Geographer we encountered about 10 Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins with their characteristic swept back dorsal fin. After lunch those who hadn’t been to the atomic weapons test site were taken there while others returned to North West island for a swim.

Day 10: Montebello Islands

9 December 2022

We awoke to our second day at the Montebellos with the sun rising in the east and a full moon setting in the west. After breakfast one group of intrepid expeditioners boarded an Explorer for a cruise across the Montebellos lagoon to the more western islands. Along the we saw a concrete blockhouse at the south east end of Trimouille Island, a relic from the atomic tests. There was a lot of bridled tern activity over South East Island suggesting that breeding may be occurring. We travelled past Alpha Island where the third and largest atomic weapon was detonated in 1956 and entered Faraday Passage running between Campbell Island and the northern part of Hermite Island. This was the area that Montague ran a pearling operation in the early 1900s, and more recently (until the mid-1990s) the Morgan family operated a cultured pearl operation from the sheltered waters. As we entered Faraday Passage we were welcomed by a dugong and a few pairs of mating green turtles. The wall erected by Montague to seal off a small inlet was seen. This was used in his trials 100 years ago to determine which water levels best suited pearl shell growth. Two yachts were seen sheltering in between Campbell and Delta islands.

The others headed to Vodka Beach on nearby Trimouille Island to scale the sand dunes and climb to the navigational beacon on the highest point of the island, followed by a well-deserved swim. Several relics of testing equipment and military hardware from the atomic explosions era were seen on the climb. In the afternoon the groups swapped activities so all had an opportunity to see the splendour of the Montebello Islands.

Day 11: Dampier Archipelago

10 December 2022

We entered the Dampier Archipelago near Goodwyn Island with another glorious sunrise breaking. Our anchorage was between Enderby and West Lewis Islands so well placed to visit some of the historic sites in the archipelago. After breakfast we ventured to the east side of West Lewis Island to visit the old pastoral station. We arrived at low tide and had to walk about 100 m in the shallows to reach shore. We shared out wading with some shovel-nosed rays and small whaler sharks. On arrival on the island Keith provided a background to the origins of the stone ruins before us and pointed out the extensive Aboriginal midden on the fore dune. This had many rock fragments that were used as tools, and remains of the mainly marine fauna prominent in the original Aboriginal inhabitant’s diet. The stone remains were believed to be a pastoral station which operated in the period 1870-1900 possibly to supply sheep and goat meat to the pearlers and whalers who were operating in the archipelago at that time. Many Rothschild’s rock wallabies were seen in and on the rockpiles near the shore. These were introduced to West Lewis Island from Enderby Island in the 1980s when it was proposed the mine the sand plains on Enderby Island for an iron pellet plant in nearby Dampier. Fortunately, this did not eventuate. Birds seen included a white-bellied sea eagle (main predator of the rock wallabies), some white-breasted wood swallows, a mangrove kingfisher and bar-shouldered doves. A brown booby was seen near the ship as we returned for lunch.

After lunch there was an opportunity to have one last swim and beach walk on a beach at Marney Bay on Malus Island, while another Explorer took some guests on a cruise around Malus Island to see the old whaling try pots and recreational shacks in Whalers Bay. We were unable to land to view the try pots but Keith explained they were used by the early whalers to boil down the whale blubber to oil, a valuable commodity in the 19th century. Some white-bellied sea eagle nests were seen on the rocky cliffs as we cruised around the east side of Malus Island. We were also able to see the LNG plant on the Burrup Peninsula (Murujuga). Our return to the ship in the Explorers in a freshening breeze gave us all a second swim for the day!

Our last excursions were over, so it was time to weigh anchor and start the 38-hour trip to Broome. After leaving the Dampier Archipelago at 1730 we passed several large LNG and iron ore carriers waiting to enter the Dampier port to take on their valuable cargoes. During dinner we were able to observe the International Space Station passing overhead, thanks to one of the quests amazing space tracking apps. After dinner, the classic Australian film ‘Red Dog” was shown the bridge deck lounge.

Day 12: At Sea

11 December 2022

After a leisurely start to our day at sea and a later breakfast, Keith presented his final talk on the rock-wallabies of the Pilbara. The two species, the black-flanked rock-wallaby and Rothschild’s rock-wallaby had been seen by quests at Yardie Creek (Cape Range) and West Lewis Island (Dampier Archipelago). Later in the Morning our Expedition Leader Mel provided some information about future trips with Coral Expeditions. After lunch tours of the engine room were made available to quests, and we then joined Howard for his final talk “When World War 2 came to WA” where he showed just how close some of the conflict came to WA shores. The Coral Quiz was held testing our knowledge gained on this expedition, followed by a slide show of the trip’s highlights. The Captain’s farewell drinks provided the opportunity for words of appreciation, exchanges of contact details with new friends, photographs and reminiscences of a wonderful trip.

Day 13: Broome

12 December 2022

We arrived on schedule at the Port of Broome at 0700 and were alongside the jetty at 0745. Time for last minute farewells, and then joining the bus for trips to the airport or accommodation. Thankyou from the expedition team: Mel, Anita, Nigel, Cai, Marie, Howard and Keith for being such wonderful guests. Best wishes for your future travels and Merry Christmas to you all.