Voyage Log: Abrolhos Islands & Coral Coast
Fremantle to Broome | 10 March 2021 – 22 March 2021
Master: Miles Hammond, Expedition Leader: Alistair Kent, Assistant Expedition Leader: Marysia Pawlikowska & Emily Fosbery, Expedition Crew: Cara Cavanagh & Joel Moore, Dive Instructor: Sally Richards, Purser: Manfred Bassin
This trip diary was compiled by Guest Lecturers: Tim Harvey & Howard Gray
Watch the video journal HERE
Day 1: Departing Fremantle
10 Mar 2021
The beginning of this trip was unlike any other trip we had ever been on. This was nothing to do with the itinerary of the trip: the destinations we were looking forward to visiting, the interesting presentations, and the lure of the snorkelling…although those were high on our list. It was the protocols we faced regarding the COVID requirements. Those of us who had arrived from outside WA had already had several hurdles to clear just to get to Fremantle and medical clearance. We just had one final step to take before boarding the ship: the medical check.
So we met at 07:30 at the Quest Fremantle Apartments Hotel to have our paperwork checked and our PCR test results verified. Then we boarded a bus to travel about half a kilometre to the dock to embark at last on the Coral Adventurer (or the CA as we like to call her).
Once on board we were shown our cabins and began to make ourselves comfortable, getting acquainted with the ship that would be our home for the next 12 days. We pulled away from the wharf at 10:00 accompanied by a strong breeze, and headed out to the awaiting Coral Coast. There was a mix of excitement, relief that we were finally on our way and curiosity as we wondered what was in store.
Our initial activity was a safety briefing that was heralded by a demonstration of the ships alarm signal. Manfred, our Purser, then explained what to do in an emergency, including how to don a lifejacket, followed by a roster call. Alistair, our Expedition Leader, gave an introductory briefing for our coming trip, and introduced the expedition crew including the guest lecturers, Howard and Tim.
The rest of the day was spent getting to know each other and the layout of the vessel, interspersed with lunch, an in-water and snorkelling safety talk, plus a dive briefing for those of us intending to go diving on this trip. Following this we selected our masks and fins, which provided some lively entertainment.
The final activity of the afternoon was an introduction to the Houtman Abrolhos Islands by Howard, who explained the complex geology and history of this fascinating area. It provided a context for what we were going to encounter in the coming days.
To round off the day before tucking into a delicious seafood dinner, we gathered for Captain Miles ‘Welcome Aboard’ drinks, accompanied by delicious canapés, and Alistair’s briefing about tomorrow. We then enjoyed a great seafood dinner, and retired to our cabins for a peaceful night’s sleep, but with eager anticipation about tomorrow.
Images captured by photographer Greg Fenn travelling onboard.
Day 2: Pelsaert Group – Houtman Abrolhos Islands
11 Mar 2021
We awoke to a stunning morning. The sea was flat calm, the sky was crystal blue with large clouds and the reflection off the sea surface was a combination of 50 shades of grey, blue and orange.
The first activity of the day became part of the morning routine everyday: Catherine, the doctor on board, took our temperature as part of the COVID protocols.
After breakfast we waited for the recce team to return with news of where we were going for the mornings excursion. This was our first real experience of how parts of the trip would operate. This trip was designed as partly unknown/partly known. In other words it was a real expedition, not just a trip with fixed itineraries. It was the first time Coral Expeditions had done this trip, so there was going to be a need for a certain flexibility of where we went and how we did it.
But about 08:30 we were ready to leave. Today was the first time we were to experience the Xplorer, the vessel that was to be our transport for the many shore visits ahead. Alistair gave the first of what was to be many ‘15 minute calls’ on the PA and we boarded and headed across to the jetty on one of the islands; Post Office Island.
This island is made of coral rubble. It is flat and only about 1-2 metres above sea level. But it is home to a community of crayfisher folk, and it – along with others at this end of Pelsaert Island – is dotted with small shacks, many of which are painted in bright colours. Most of the crayfishers do not live permanently on the islands. They come out at various times of the year to catch crayfish, mainly to coincide with times of good prices, such as Chinese festivals. The biggest market for crayfish for many years has been China, but the recent embargo by the Chinese government has caused some uncertainty.
Not only did we learn a lot about the crayfish industry, we also got a chance to see the collection of live crayfish that was going to be our canapés at this evening’s pre-dinner drinks. Howard gave a quick reveal of the amazing biology of the crayfish, so perfectly adapted to its environment – and this is just the adult!
Following the talk by Jessie, one of the crayfishers who comes from a family of fishers going back 3 generations, we ambled across to Jane Liddon’s Art Studio where we learned about her pearl farm, producing the unique ‘pastel pearls’ for which the Abrolhos is becoming famous. This is a recent enterprise in the islands and we learned about the complexity of producing cultured pearls, the years of investment in time, energy and expertise to produce these treasures from the sea. There was also the chance to secure some of the beautiful jewellery, the pearls, mabe and keshies fashioned into stunning bespoke jewellery, designed by Jane and Jessie’s wife Michela. A unique memory of our visit, and many of us left with slightly lighter wallets.
Following lunch we had a chance to test the snorkel masks and fins we had been given yesterday. We boarded the Xplorer and headed back to look at the corals and fish that inhabit the shoreline on Post Office Island. The colours above water on this ‘glass-off’ day matched those of the sky, the islands shimmering on invisible horizons. But once in the water we found it to be quite murky. This was partly because of the coral spawning that was underway around the islands.
Annual coral spawning is when the corals release lots of eggs and sperm into the water, which is then mixed by the currents. The coral had spawned the night before on these unusually healthy coral reefs. The result was streams of red coloured scum that floated on the water surface in places.
However, although the water was slightly murky, at a very pleasant 24˚C the snorkelers spent time exploring the narrow fringing reef near the jetty. The divers, on scuba, were split into 2 groups: those doing a first dive, and those who were more experienced. The first-time divers were the first into the water. When they finally surfaced and all the snorkelers were back on board the Xplorer we left the more experienced divers on the jetty and headed back to the CA for a hot shower.
Before we knew it, pre-dinner drinks were being served on the Bridge Deck and we were tucking into the canapés that we had seen this morning as live crayfish. Alistair gave a briefing about tomorrow and then we indulged in another delicious dinner. Following dinner, for those with stamina, a documentary entitled Blue Planet II: Coral Reefs was screened.
Today had provided a delightful start to the trip and gave us an appetite for what was to come.
Images captured by photographer Greg Fenn travelling onboard.
Day 3: Easter Group – Houtman Abrolhos Islands
12 Mar 2021
Another beautiful day dawned as we came down for breakfast. The recce team had already left the CA to check out possible sites for today’s activities.
Once they had returned we boarded the Xplorer carrying our snorkel gear and towels, and headed over to Morley Island. On the way Howard gave us a broad background to the wildlife the island was home to: the resident sea lions and sea eagles, with the seasonal breeding colonies of shearwaters, storm petrels, and in the mangroves surrounding the inner lagoon, the incredibly rare lesser noddy, found only in the Houtman Abrolhos Islands and in the Seychelles.
As the Xplorer approached the beach we could see crystal clear jade coloured water and a beautiful fringing reef. The water was very shallow and Brad, the Xplorer driver, had to raise the engines in order to get over the reef and into the narrow lagoon that ran along the beach.
As well as snorkelling on the reef we were going to explore the island. So most of us set off to do the exploring first, with the intention of returning to the beach for the snorkelling. And our exploration was worth it. We walked along the beach and then headed across the island on a very narrow sandy track. The island is one of Australia’s most important seabird breeding sites and visitors are required to stay on the narrow track that crosses the island. Either side of the track were shearwater nests, which are basically long burrows in the sand. So the dune on either side of the track was just a sort of honeycomb of tunnels.
We visited a small lagoon before retracing our steps and then crossing to the other side of the island. On the way we came across a solitary sea lion sleeping in the shade of an overhang. For those of us who made it to the other side we encountered a mother and pup sleeping on the beach and further along a lonely sea lion pup gave out plaintiff wails before coming up the beach to see us. The pups are incredibly curious and the sea-lion population is used to people visiting the island, so although they are still cautious they are not afraid of people.
And this was shown in grand form by the snorkelers swimming with a sea lion juvenile that came almost close enough to put its nose on our masks. It seemed to be having as good a time as we were. It was one of those moments that will stay in the memory.
Following lunch on the CA we headed out once again to go snorkelling and diving in a channel beside a little sandy island. However the sea conditions had changed. The wind had increased and the waves had grown. There were many ‘white caps’ and the sea had become less inviting. But those who felt adventurous boarded the Xplorer and headed across to the reef. This was not going to be a gentle beach snorkel, we were going to launch from the Xplorer. After we had tied up to a buoy, those who still felt adventurous donned their masks and stepped off the Xplorer to swim across to the reef. There was a reasonable current flowing so progress was quite slow but several of us made it and spent some time exploring the reef with its beautiful plate and staghorn corals, with colourful fish flitting amongst the fronds. The divers were also in the water and spending time further down along the reef edge.
Finally we reboarded the Xplorer and returned to the ship. The divers remained on the reef and were brought back by Zodiac.
But the day was not over. At 17:45 we once again boarded the Xplorer to head across to Little Sandy Island for pre-dinner drinks on the beach. Whilst on the island drinking champagne, munching things on sticks and eating incredibly spicey things from small dishes, we had the chance to visit a group of sea lions basking in the fading sunshine. There were several females with pups and 2 large males, totally unfazed by a group of upright humans watching them. And to increase our entertainment we watched a small group of young sea lions frolicking in the shallows.
As the sun set we returned to the CA for another waist stretching dinner and a briefing by Alistair about what lay in store for us tomorrow. Following dinner, several of us who could stay awake snuggled down in the Bridge Deck Lounge for the evenings documentary: Our Planet – High Seas.
Image captured by Expedition Crew member Cara Cavanagh.
Day 4: Day Onboard (Wallabi Group – Houtman Abrolhos Islands)
13 Mar 2021
We awoke to see that the wind had increased and the sea state had become more extreme. During the night there had been a constant loud banging of metal against metal. In the morning we discovered that this had been the anchor swinging as the ship had pitched and rolled. So several of us had not managed to sleep, whilst others had been slowly rocked to sleep by the ships motion.
Before we had breakfast the recce team had boarded the Xplorer and checked-out the sites for this mornings activities. The sea was looking quite rough so when the recce team returned and Alistair announced that it was too dangerous to board the Xplorer and go ashore we were not surprised. So, in true expedition style we changed what we thought we were going to do.
Howard kicked off the day with a double-presentation. The first covered the geology, wildlife and history of the Easter and Wallabi Group of islands. The second, entitled ‘Marooned with a Madman’ enthralled us with one of the most devastating maritime mutinies and massacres ever recorded: the Batavia shipwreck. Although about 40 people drowned, it wasn’t the shipwreck that caused the mayhem or deaths it was the behaviour of a single person: Jeronimus Cornelisz who organised a reign or terror. Howard took us through the gradual massacre of innocent men, women and children by the followers of Cornelisz, and the eventual capture, torture and execution of the mutineers.
Following Howard’s presentations, Tim gave an informal talk that took in a variety of historical and marine topics, including the story of the Lady Juliana, a ship full of women convicts that was officially part of the Second Fleet to Australia, but which set sail late and then accrued a reputation of its own: the floating brothel. It is a story few people know about because it mostly involved women. We learned that many of those women convicts eventually became highly successful businesswomen in Australia, some establishing business dynasties that flourished during the 19th Century.
Lunch was followed by the first visit to the two most important parts of the ship: the Bridge and the Engine Room, both spectacular examples of modern technology and design. It was amazing to see what goes on behind the scenes and reassuring to know we are on such a sophisticated vessel. Afternoon tea miraculously appeared at 15:30 and this was followed by another presentation by Howard, introducing the Zuytdorp Cliffs and Shark Bay, with the intriguing array of indigenous Malgana, Dutch, French and English names, each with a story to tell.
Pre-dinner drinks were held once again on the Bridge Deck Lounge, where Alistair told us about tomorrow’s plans. We are beginning to understand that ‘plans’ do not always mean exactly what happens. But that is one of the great interests of a first-time expedition cruise: we have to dance our way through the situation as it arises.
Dinner was followed by the documentary Australia’s Lost Gold – The Search for Sunken Treasure.
We await tomorrow with anticipation.
Day 5: Shark Bay – Dirk Hartog Island
14 Mar 2021
The sea state was still strong, fuelled by a driving easterly wind. So we kept our fingers crossed that we could do what our Coral Coast Post had mentioned. We weren’t too worried, as we knew that there would always be a good alternative.
So although the conditions were not ideal, after breakfast we boarded the Xplorer for a trip across to the Big Lagoon on the central prong of Shark Bay, Peron Peninsula. As well as the usual equipment the crew had loaded several kayaks for those of us who would like to do some kayaking in the sheltered lagoon.
The trip across to the lagoon was a large stretch of open water so we expected it to be e bit bouncy. We were not disappointed, and it took some endurance and patience to slowly make our way there. But after about 45 minutes we entered a sheltered bay of shallow water and seagrass, one of a string of drowned salt pans that lead 20 kilometres into the peninsula. Keeping our eyes open for dugong, of which some 10,000 are said to live in the Bay, we slowly made our way to a delightful beach with the amazing orange-red background of sand dunes dotted with small tufts of green grass.
After a wet landing we unloaded the kayaks and we were then spoilt for choice: walks along the beach to explore tracks and scenery, swimming and snorkelling off the beach in the clear water or donning a buoyancy aid and paddling away on a kayak. Some of us managed to do all three.
Before we knew it time had flashed past and we were reloading kayaks, gathering our gear and reboarding the Xplorer for our return trip. Once again we kept our eyes out for dugong. And once again we didn’t see any. The journey back was a lot smoother and quicker than the earlier one, thanks to a ‘following’ sea. On the way several of us caught a glimpse of a manta ray, but despite Brad spinning the Xplorer round to find it again it had dived.
Back on board we tucked into a leisurely lunch and relaxed before an afternoon snorkelling and diving off the Xplorer on a shallow reef near Sandy Point. The wind had dropped and the sea state was a lot calmer. It was decided that the site was not suitable for diving so the afternoon was going to be snorkelling, swimming or sitting on the Xplorer taking in the scenery.
Once anchored we quickly donned masks and fins and jumped, slid or fell into the warm water. The visibility was not crystal clear, but despite areas that had been flattened by cyclones, the reef was in good condition. The coral was healthy and diverse and the fish life was bountiful and active. The photographers found plenty to keep their shutters clicking.
After what seemed only a short while we were all asked to leave the water and head back to the CA. We had been in the water about 45 minutes and it seemed we were getting out a bit sooner that we had expected. And we were…and there was a reason. A small Tiger Shark had been spotted and although the chance of being bitten by the shark was virtually zero (it would be a first for Shark Bay) it was felt that it would be better to be on the safe side. But we can now tell our friends back home that we have swum with a Tiger Shark, and gain hero status.
Pre-dinner drinks and Alistair’s briefing for tomorrow was followed by yet another belt-stretching dinner, accompanied by many interesting conversations. The final activity was a screening of the documentary Australia: A Continental Drift.
Image captured by photographer Greg Fenn onboard.
Day 6: Shark Bay – Cape Peron
15 Mar 2021
Conditions today were a lot calmer than the last couple of days. The sky was crystal clear and deep blue, the sea had a jade green hue and the waves were small. With anticipation we boarded the Xplorer at 08:00 and were soon on our way to Cape Peron.
This morning’s activities were a choice between a 3.5 kilometre walk along the cliff top to a lookout, or a leisurely cruise along the coast beneath the cliffs. We landed on a small beach to let the walkers depart before those of us who remained on the Xplorer slowly meandered away.
For the walkers, a steep climb up the red dunes led to a 1.5 kilometre trail that went to the next headland. The abundant animal tracks showed that an invisible menagerie of wildlife lived in these harsh conditions, the sparse vegetation providing habitat for reptiles, small mammals, many land birds and other creatures. There was much to wonder at until we reached the cliff tops and looked down on the beaches lined with seabirds, cormorants in particular, with rays casually swimming in the shallows and the Xplorer not far off.
The scenery was stunning. The jade green of the sea was an amazing contrast to the red of the cliffs and the intense blue of the sky. The shape of the dunes and cliffs and the contrast in colours made this a photographer’s paradise. The sound of clicking cameras, smart phones and tablet computers provided a background noise.
We were also surrounded by thousands of seabirds including large flocks of Pied Cormorants. The number of seabirds was a good indication that this area has a large diverse fish population. There were several small recreational fishing boats out on the water taking advantage of this.
As those of us on the Xplorer slowly made our way along the coast discussing a range of subjects including French scientific expeditions, seagrass, colours, and European wars between Britain and France, a disturbance on the surface of the sea caught our eye. It was a pair of Dugong: a mother and calf. The calf was large and was probably about 2 years old. Melissa the Xplorer driver switched off the engines and we watched in fascination as the Dugong happily went about their routine. Although the Dugong knew we were there they appeared unconcerned, which gave us considerable time to watch them.
Eventually we had to reluctantly return to the beach to pick up the walkers. We returned to where the Dugong had been but they had moved on. After spending about 10 minutes searching we returned to the CA for lunch and preparation for this afternoon. A great morning.
The afternoon saw us land on Dirk Hartog Island, encountered by the Dutch VOC skipper of that name in 1616; the first recorded landing of Europeans on Australia’s west coast. The beach we landed on is known as Dampier’s Landing, for it was here that the Englishman William Dampier spent a few days in August 1699, recording much of the land and its wildlife, and the life in the oceans.
We took a casual wander along the beach doing some beachcombing. The beach provided a smorgasbord of intertidal artefacts including shells, sponges, coral and crabs. We learned about how the mobile predatory molluscs, mostly gastropods (the molluscs with the whirly shell) kill and consume the stationary molluscs. They use a mix of gastric acidic juices and a radula, a sort of conveyor belt of teeth. The acid softens the shell and the radula grinds or bores its way through the shell.
We also took the opportunity to just go for a swim in the beautiful turquoise water. The warm water provided the ideal place to just chill-out and relax for a while, soak up the sun, and imbibe the essence of this remote and peaceful location.
Back on board the CA, drinks on the top deck provided the perfect place to finish the day, gazing over the wide expanse of Shark Bay. Another calorie onslaught of dinner was followed by the documentary Ocean Giants; Deep Thinkers.
Images captured by photographer Greg Fenn onboard.
Day 7: Day At Sea: Shark Bay to North-West cape
16 Mar 2021
Today was a chance to relax. We were not going ashore. Instead we were going to be entertained by Howard and Tim giving presentations. Our day at sea also allowed for a late breakfast at the civilised time of 08:00.
Howard provided the first distraction of the day with his talk ‘Spice at any Price’, relating the remarkable life and times of Frederick de Houtman and the formation of the Dutch East India Company, the VOC.
Portugal was the dominant supplier of spices for Europe during the 16th century. The Netherlands was ruled by Spain, but following the war for independence, and the alliance between Spain and Portugal, the supply of spices to the Netherlands was cut off. This provided an opportunity for the Netherlands to create its own spice trade with Asia. A combination of superb shipbuilding, seamanship and ruthlessness meant the VOC operated for nearly 200 years and was the richest company in the world.
Houtman was involved in the first decades of the VOC, undertaking 4 voyages to the ‘spice islands’, on the last of these encountering what became the Houtman Abrolhos Islands we visited a few days ago. It was a remarkable period in Dutch and ‘Indonesian’ history, and Houtman was in the thick of it. He was also an astronomer, plotting the stars of the Southern Hemisphere, and a linguist, among many other things.
Following morning tea, Tim gave a talk about the pearl trade. Pearls are beautiful but the dark and violent history of the Australian pearl trade includes the early exploitation of aboriginal communities and the reliance on ‘Asian’ divers that flouted the ‘White Australia’ policy. We learned that pearls are created by a parasite: something that a mollusc is trying to spit out. We followed the history of pearling along the W coast of Australia and the lucrative trade established by the early collection of pearl shell, its demand and supply, and the history of rarity and value of ‘natural’ pearls. We also learned about the demise of the Australian pearl industry and its resurrection by a Japanese entrepreneur who championed ‘cultivated’ pearls. And we visited Mary Poppins.
The afternoon gave us another opportunity for Bridge and Engine Room tours before Howard’s last presentation: ‘When World War II Came to Western Australia’. Howard pointed out how unprepared Australia was for a war, possibly because WW2 initially seemed to be a European war. But when Japan entered the war the situation changed dramatically. The enemy was on our doorstep and was incredibly well co-ordinated. Japanese armed forces quickly took control of the Malayan Archipelago and the Dutch East Indies. As German U-Boats and ships patrolled the Indian Ocean and Japanese ships and planes operated along Australia’s NW coast the possibility of Australia being invaded became more realistic. Howard mentioned the bombing of Darwin and Broome, the sinking of HMAS Sydney II and how Australia became the base for the American fleet and troops in the Pacific.
So much of the story of German ship-sinking, Japanese submarine activity, Australian airforce and army training and so on, mixed with the broader events of the war have gone unnoticed, along with the men and women who served and died. So this was real eye-opener.
To get over the drama of WW2, Manfred offered a wine-tasting session in the Bridge Deck lounge, where we tried different wines and learned about colours, tannins and acidic qualities that different wines possess. To help us along the way several canapés appeared that of course we had to try. They passed the test.
Pre-dinner drinks was accompanied by a slideshow of photos taken by the expedition crew, of various locations we have visited so far. And to round off the day the film Red Dog was shown for those of us still awake.
Day 8: Exmouth, Ningaloo Reef & Turquoise Bay
17 Mar 2021
We checked our watches just to make sure we had got it correct. Yes, breakfast was indeed at 06:00. The early start to the day was because we had to fit in a lot of activities. Yesterday was relaxing. Today was going to be the opposite. It was going to be a mix of a bus trip, snorkelling and swimming, visiting an historical lighthouse, and the Ningaloo Discovery Centre, and the chance to spend some casual time in Exmouth. The divers were going to do what is called the ‘Navy Pier’ dive and join the rest of us in the afternoon.
And sadly, Howard was going to leave us.
By 07:15 those of us on the bus trip were heading to the Exmouth marina. The divers were on a different schedule and left the CA at around 09:00. For those of us on the bus, we boarded at the marina and drove through the town and out to the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse.
Exmouth has changed considerably in the last 20 years. Because of its remoteness it had always been a difficult place to get to. A challenging environment with a life that was remote, tough and improvised. Things changed when America and Australia chose the site for its ship and submarine observation and signalling station during WW2 and the Cold War. The influx of American personnel, with the latest household conveniences such as dishwashers was a massive contrast to the average home in Exmouth at the time.
And Exmouth continues to change. What was a remote location has stayed a remote location but the building of the observation/signalling station created infrastructure such as new roads. Houses on the marina canal area being built now are some of the most expensive in Australia. Exmouth is a key tourist destination and during the peak season bookings need to be done at least 6 months in advance.
We arrived at the lighthouse that overlooked the beautiful extensive coast. The remoteness of this area has meant that there is little coastal development, which has prevented it suffering the concrete fate of areas like the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast in Queensland. What we could see from the lighthouse site was just an endless stretch of stunning beaches and azure sea. Bliss.
We reboarded the bus and drove along to Turquoise Beach. The name was indicative of what awaited us. Turquoise Beach is just one of many beaches strung along this stretch of coast and just offshore is Ningaloo Reef, the world’s longest fringing reef system. We soon donned our masks and fins and got in the water for a gentle drift dive along the beach. Many of us then got out of the water and went back to the start point to repeat the snorkel. The water was warm, the fish were plentiful and several us even had the chance to swim alongside green sea turtles.
Lunch was at Yardie Creek under the shade of trees. Manfred and the galley team had prepared a selection of tasty items for us to try. It was a change to having our meals on the CA, and we munched our way through everything surrounded by spectacular scenery. We had the chance to chill-out surrounded by a myriad of colours including umpteen shades of red rocks and soil, green plants, azure water and crystal clear blue sky. Those of us with energy took the stroll along the creek to the lookout point to just admire the scenery and to burn off a few excess calories. The view was delightful, but we knew the calorie burn was just a short interval before we added more calories during dinner back on the ship.
On the journey back to Exmouth several of us fell asleep on the bus. We are beginning to realise that we are more tired than we thought. Once in Exmouth most of us were dropped off at the Ningaloo Discovery Centre, whilst those who wished to return to the CA carried on down to the marina and the waiting Xplorer.
While the sightseers amongst us had been travelling by bus, the divers had landed at the marina to be met by an all-female dive team from Dive Ningaloo. Following an ID check, induction and safety briefing the group arrived at the dive shop to be kitted out. Then it was a drive through the Naval Communication Station where apparently one of the towers is taller than the Empire State Building!
The dive itself was from the pier and involved a 3 metre jump into the water. Soon the divers were down to 14 metres where the marine life was amazing. Many species were seen including white-tip reef sharks, lionfish, barracuda, trevally, snapper, nudibranchs, flatworms, octopus and a wobbegong…the list just went on and on. The hour underwater was over in a flash and a group of happy divers returned to the shop to empty their wallets buying hoodies, T-shirts and stickers. Several of the divers then joined the bus group at the Discovery Centre.
The Centre is another new addition to the attractions of Exmouth. It was opened in 2017 and houses an incredible array of historical and environmental artefacts. These include items from the American occupation of the signalling station, Cyclone Vance that devastated the town in 1999, an aquarium, accounts of wrecks along the coast, WW2 items, the history of the original indigenous people of the area, and several lizards and snakes. Some of us managed to get to the café before it closed and the gift shop, where our credit cards were put to good use.
Once out of the centre we had the chance to wander briefly around Exmouth’s small shopping centre to buy souvenirs, postcards and cups of coffee. Then it was once again on the bus and back to the marina for the return to the CA.
But the day wasn’t over. Instead of pre-dinner drinks at the Bridge Deck Lounge and dinner in the dining room, we went up to the Vista Deck. With the background singing by Melissa we consumed considerable amounts of well-deserved drinks and then tucked into a fantastic BBQ prepared by the galley crew. This not only included a usual BBQ selection, we had the opportunity to try local crayfish again. With a backdrop of Exmouth lights appearing along the shoreline and amazing cloud formations lit from beneath by the rays of the setting sun we wined and dined. Some of us are considering joining WeightWatchers when we get home.
As a finale off the day Cara and Joel presented Games Night in the Bridge Deck Lounge for those of us still awake.
Images captured by our Expedition Team onboard.
Day 9: Muiron Islands
18 Mar 2021
This morning saw us anchored off the Murion Islands. It also saw us stumbling into breakfast at 06:00 again. A big plus about early breakfasts is that we get to see some beautiful sunrises, and this morning was no exception.
At 07:15 we clambered aboard the Xplorer, Brad put his foot down and we were at the snorkel/dive location within minutes. The Xplorer anchored off the island and we were in the water almost immediately. We have the routine of snorkelling and diving from the Xplorer down to a fine art. The water was about 5 metres deep but the visibility was good and the coral was sensational. Ningaloo Reef is not known for its colour but it is a very healthy reef. It seemed that there was not an inch of seabed that was not covered in coral.
Most of the corals were large and flat, which is a good indication of strong currents and stormy water. The corals were interspersed by long narrow deep gullies. The fish life was plentiful and colourful. As well as the usual small and medium sized reef fish there were many large fish including tuna and a small Tiger shark. Several guests saw a juvenile green turtle that seemed to lurk in the immediate vicinity of the rear of the Xplorer. Further evidence of sea turtle activity was 2 sets of tracks on the beach. One set of tracks had been made last night and one set had been made early this morning. The morning set were those of a very large female.
Eventually we all returned to the Xplorer and once the divers were aboard we headed back to the CA for an early lunch.
The afternoon activity was once again a chance to snorkel and dive but at a different site. However when we returned it was time for Tim to give his presentation entitled ‘A Coral Symphony’. We discovered a new relationship between latex gloves and coral reefs as we explored the amazing life history of tiny confused jellyfish, some the size of a pinhead, that create one of the biggest natural structures on the planet. We learned about the formation of coral reefs: the unique conditions needed to create reefs, and the different types of reefs. And we sang about coral spawning.
Then it was time once again for pre-dinner drinks, Alistair’s briefing about tomorrow and dinner. The documentary tonight was Ocean Giants: Part 1.
Images captured by photographer Greg Fenn onboard.
Day 10: At Sea (Montebello Islands)
19 Mar 2021
Breakfast at 08;00. How civilised. Today was going to be different because we were going to visit a site that played a large part in the development of the atomic weapons of the Cold War in the decade following WW2. We were going to visit Trimouille Island. At least that was the plan.
The island was the site of the United Kingdom’s first atomic weapon test in 1952. Even 70 years later, because the radioactivity on the island is still substantial we were only going to be allowed to visit the site for an hour.
However, unfortunately the sea conditions put a spanner in the works. Welcome to the world of ocean travel. The sea was too rough to safely get everyone between the ship and the shore, and the surf on the beach made it impossible to land.
So instead of visiting a site that had heralded dangerous weapons, we settled down for a talk by Tim entitled ‘Cute & Cuddly: Sharks’, about creatures that many humans are wary of.
Sharks have a bad public image: one of danger, death and fear. But we learned that humans are a greater danger to sharks than sharks are to humans. Sharks have been on the planet for over 400 million years and we looked at what makes a shark a ‘shark’. Tim explained that there are over 500 species of sharks and that many, such as the whale shark, we know very little about. We examined some of the ‘myths’ surrounding them and now know that toasters kill more people than sharks…and we even laughed at the idea of the danger of sharks.
After morning tea we joined Tim again in the Bridge Deck Lounge for his talk ‘A Turtle’s Tale’. This was about something that looks like a marine tortoise but is not even related. It was about the amazing sea turtle: a creature with lungs but lives in the ocean; that lays eggs on dry land but has no parental involvement; and that has a built-in navigation system that enables it to travel tens of thousands of kilometres between feeding and nesting sites. We learned about their evolution, the unique life cycle and biology, geography and the current threats that are decimating populations.
The sea conditions had not subsided by afternoon. Alistair and several crew went on a recce to try and find a suitable site to visit, and this created its own story: the Xplorer could not reconnect to the CA. Captain Miles decided to up the anchor and sail to find a more sheltered location. Meanwhile Tim gave another talk. This was entitled ‘Shore to Floor: Planet Ocean’, a light-hearted look at the thing that we have spent most of our time on and that we take for granted; the ocean.
The world beneath the ship is one of mystery but paradoxically it is absolutely vital to life on earth. The talk began with the sound of ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ by The Beatles, a taster for what followed. We know more about the moon than we do about the depths of the ocean, and although 12 people have visited the moon, only 4 have been to the deepest part of the seabed, the Challenger Deep, which is nearly 11 kilometres deep. We also now know how to get from Patagonia to Cape Town by car or bike. And we didn’t even get wet.
As a great break during Tim’s ocean adventure, afternoon tea appeared: tea, coffee and an amazing selection of cakes. It gave us a chance to recover from what had been an almost overwhelming amount of information before Tim concluded his talk with a tongue-in-cheek view of a future Coral Expeditions trip aboard a submersible.
To conclude the day of presentations Joel gave a short talk about citizen science, in which he pointed out that we can help scientists gather data by using mobile phone apps to record sounds and take pictures of creatures and locations. We also learned that conserving whales was even better than planting trees to create carbon sinks.
Meanwhile, back on the Xplorer Alistair and the crew were still engaged in their own drama. What had started as a quick recce had turned into a 6 hour episode. The CA had been continually travelling during the afternoon to find a sheltered location suitable for the Xplorer to get back on the platform at the rear of the ship. Eventually it happened.
Travelling on the amazing ocean can be full of unexpected events and it made us realise just how difficult it must have been mapping this piece of coast with its many shallow reefs and small islands, when all you had were sails and no motors. It is no wonder that sailors were superstitious.
Pre-dinner drinks was a welcome event and we settled down for dinner as the sea became rougher. Many of us went to bed early whilst those with good balance went to the Bridge Deck Lounge for the evening’s documentary: Blue Planet II: One Ocean.
Day 11: Dampier Archipelago
20 Mar 2021
The night had been quite rough and many of us had not had much sleep but we staggered down to breakfast at 06:00. Many of us were feeling groggy after the bumpy ride overnight so the relaxed plan for the day was welcomed.
The archipelago, like most of the coast we have cruised along is difficult to get to and is very weather dependent. In the early morning light the colours of the islands that surrounded us were a mix of pale green vegetation and rusty red rock, with pale sandy beaches. The sea had calmed down and the conditions looked good for our trip across to an inviting beach to do some beachcombing and search for petroglyphs carved by Australia’s first human inhabitants.
Because of the rise in sea level during the last 12,000 years many artefacts and evidence of early settlement by aboriginal people is now many metres underwater. The submerged continental shelf was once dry land with human communities along the ancient coastline. As sea level rose communities had to move further inland, so although many artefacts like petroglyphs are extremely old, evidence of human occupation that is now underwater will remain a mystery.
We boarded the Xplorer at 07:30 and headed for the beach. We were looking forward to once again being able to go ashore. It was a reasonably smooth ride across and a dry landing. We soon split into 2 groups: those who wandered over the dunes at the back of the beach to search for petroglyphs, and those who decided to explore what the tide line had to offer along the beach.
The dark red rock behind the beach was a contrast to the almost black rock along the shoreline. Most of the rock was basalt with a fine coating of ‘rust’ that made the rock behind the beach look red. The rock along the shoreline that had been subject to continuous tides and sea spray had not had conditions that enabled the thin ‘rust’ coating to develop. The rock was perfect for creating small sharp implements but we didn’t find any evidence of tools etc. And despite our search we didn’t finds any petroglyphs.
Eventually it was time to return to the CA but the sea conditions had changed. Although it had been a dry landing it was going to be a wet reboarding. The strong wind meant that Brad had difficulty keeping the Xplorer steady against the beach so reboarding was tricky for some of us. The trip back to the CA was also very bumpy. But we made it. As we waited for the rear platform on the CA to be lowered some of us remembered how Alistair and the crew had been stuck on the Xplorer yesterday for 6 hours…without a coffee machine!
After an early lunch many of us went on the afternoon cruise on the Xplorer while the rest of us decided to stay on the ship to read a good book or take a nana nap…or both. For those on the scenic cruise the afternoon was a delight. We made our way across the bay to a beautiful small cove backed by a mangrove fringe and red rocks, interspersed by lovely beaches and sand dunes. Because of the windswept exposed nature of the area the plant life is mainly spinifex, with a few short fig trees clinging to the bare rock. It is tough up here and only the hardiest plants survive.
We kept our eyes open for any sign of wildlife and we were not disappointed. Several Rothschild rock-wallabies bounded across the rocks and disappeared into crevasses and caves. There was also plenty of bird life including waders, gulls, reef egrets and a Brahminy Kite. We continued along the coastline in ideal conditions. The scenery was stunning and it was a wonderful to have the time to appreciate our surroundings. It was a delightful end to our excursions on this trip and with a pang of regret, we took our final trip on the Xplorer back to the ship. A very tired but happy band.
Back on board the anchor was soon brought up, the CA pointed its bow towards Broome and departed from this unique and stunningly beautiful part of the world. Afternoon tea arrived on time and we then had the opportunity to listen to Greg, the photographer tell us about wildlife photography and how he manages to get the fantastic pictures we could see on the screen.
On exiting the shelter of our anchorage location we were met with a large sea swell and strong winds. The sea state gradually became rougher as we made our way towards Broome, so several of us decided that the best place was bed, skipped pre-dinner drinks and dinner, and retired to our cabins to hunker down. For those with the endurance an iconic Australian film The Castle was the finale of the day.
Images captured by our Expedition Team onboard.
Day 12: At Sea
21 Mar 2021
Once again a day at sea gave us a civilised time for breakfast. After a bumpy night we came down for breakfast at 08:00. And just because it was a day at sea did not mean we were not going to be doing anything. We had a busy day ahead of us.
It kicked off with a presentation by Marilyn Jessop about a remarkable member of her family. Her Aunt Vi survived not only the sinking of The Titanic she also survived the sinking of The Brittanic. Marilyn pointed out that Aunt Vi had possessed tremendous resilience having been diagnosed with TB at an early age, and had been the main breadwinner for her 4 brothers and a sister. It was a great tale of a hard but varied life.
Marilyn’s intriguing talk was followed by Tim’s final presentation: ‘The Real First Fleet: Macassan Seafarers & Australia’s first export industry’. The export of raw materials from Australia to China was well established before the British arrived in the 18th Century. 200 years before Governor Phillips arrived in Sydney Cove in 1788, the Macassans, from what is now Indonesia, were trading with indigenous Australians along the NW and top of Australia. Australia’s first export industry was trepang, and the extensive trade route ran from Australia to China between 1650-1900. And Australia’s first ‘immigrants’ after the original inhabitants, were Muslim.
The afternoon’s presentation took us back to the Montebello Islands, a site we had not been able to visit a couple of days ago because of sea conditions. Marysia and Joel told us about how Trimouille Island had been the site of the United Kingdom’s first atomic weapons tests during the 1950s. And just to wet our appetites Liz followed this with a rundown of some of the amazing destinations that Coral Expeditions plans to include in future cruises.
To keep us nourished, afternoon tea appeared on cue and then Cara conducted the famous CA Quiz. This was a light-hearted test of our knowledge of the information we had learned on the trip. Some of us managed to get our brains into gear and the winning team was declared.
We could feel ourselves winding down. This trip has been so full of activities that we have had little ‘down-time’ and it was just beginning to dawn on us that the trip was nearly over. The amazing coastline that we have travelled along since Fremantle is not easy to visit. It is very weather and sea conditions dependent, so we were fortunate to have spent 12 days in this lovely part of the world and the discomfort of the rough sea passages have been well worth it.
For our last night aboard we headed to the Bridge Deck Lounge for Captain Miles Farewell Drinks and canapés. This was accompanied by a slideshow of some of the photos the expedition crew have taken during the cruise. Alistair outlined departure procedures for tomorrow, and we then did battle with our final delicious dinner. Tomorrow we dock in Broome and depart the CA for the last time. Goodbyes will be said, last minute packing will be finished, and all too soon we will step ashore to go our separate ways. But this stretch of the West Australian coast and islands has shown us their very best and we will have great memories, fantastic photos and new friends. And it was a lot of fun!
Day 13: Broome
21 Mar 2021
After an early breakfast, Coral Adventurer came alongside and tied up at Broome. We said our farewells and disembarked at 8 am. Many guests will keep in contact with the new friends we have made along the way on this significant voyage and special moment in time. On behalf of all of the crew and the team at Coral Expeditions, we thank you for joining us and we hope to see you again in the not too distant future.
Image captured by Elizabeth Webb