Ashmore Reef is a large Atoll 23nm east from the GBR and not far from its end point coming from Australia. Being so isolated it has a certain adventurous feel about it.
In 2011 we cruised east from Masig Island in the Torres Strait, entering the Coral Sea via the rather shallow less than impressive Fly Entrance. In 2018 we travelled up the inside of the GBR and went thru the Yule Entrance. It’s was calmer & deeper (30-100m) and was also safe to return thru.
What happened to civilisation
This is a very isolated corner of Australia. In 2011 we had 24 days here and saw no signs of human life. There were no boats, planes, flashing lights or even a beep out of the radio. The ultimate getaway! Lucky I got on well with my Frenchy partner. We spent our time exploring, scuba diving and snorkelling.
The world passed us by. Life was pretty basic; a hat and shirt protection from the sun, fresh fish on the table, refreshing water from our water maker, and all was sweet.
The second time around we were surprised when another vessel arrived in the lagoon. MV Phoenix owned by Peter and Michelle Sayre from Bianca Charters. They were here to check out Ashmore Reef and a couple of shipwrecks as part of their upcoming book about cruising the Coral Sea.
Wreck dive at Ashmore Reef.
Peter gave me the exact location of a wreck lying in the NE Cnr. It was only about 30m past the top of the wall in just 3m depth. With the winds increasing to 15-20 knots I reasoned the swell would soon make it entirely impossible to get near, so next day we moved to the top of the reef in readiness for a low tide wreck dive the following day.
When we finally arrived at shipwreck Corner a cauldron of foam and bubbles greeted us. Access to the location by dinghy was not an option. If I wanted to lay eyes on the two huge anchors and a cannon dating back almost 200 years it was going to require lots of patience waiting for the right condition. Or– Syl could just nose the boat up to the edge of the wall & I could leap in. I would just have to swim against a roaring current flowing over the reef, then snorkel around in the breaking waves in the hope of finding it. Forget the camera, no chance.
It did look hazardous,
But, I reasoned if those waves were at Torquay Surf Beach and I had fins and a mask I wouldn’t have thought much of it. Plus I knew history was laying just in front of me. The temptation was too great, I made the jump, and after much huffing and puffing there they were. I wished I had the camera. But thx to Peter I have the below picture which he had taken a few days earlier when conditions were quieter.
The wreck is most likely that of the Comet. A 314-tonne Canadian Brig that was wrecked on a voyage from Sydney to Jakarta in 1829. It is believed there are about 35 wrecks in the Ashmore reef area.
Pic of .. Michelle Sayre with an anchor, Photo by Peter Sayre.
Underwater at Ashmore Reef .
There was good diving on the outside walls and several deep bommies inside the lagoon which climb quickly from 50m. The visibility is always excellent , and there is a marvelous variety of marine life including fascinating sea snakes.
The Coral was in excellent condition in 2011. Since then there has been minor deterioration at the Southern end. It looked like bleaching has destroyed some of the big clumps of branching corals. All the same snorkelling around the inside of the reefs was our favourite pass time on both occasions.
Funny-moon Flat Ashmore Reef.
In 2018 our prefered anchorage was Funny-moon Flat. A big sandy area 4-6m deep & well protected behind a large lobe several hundred meters wide. There was no Pacific surf at the low half of the tidal range and only smallish waves wash over at high tide. It was a great place to relax, read a book, pig out on Syl’s famous cakes, and enjoy a little snorkelling. There was a beautiful bommie near the inner edge of the reef only 80m from our boat. A Queensland grouper lived in the bommies crevis, he usually spat the dummy if we hung about too long and swam off to visit the neighbours. Lots of little fish here also, plus a community of striped-sweetlips.
When the weather got rough on the outside of the reef, the population swelled with schools of jacks, pale-sweetlip, trevally, darts, fusiliers, red bass, surgeonfish and other sweet lip varieties. On several occasions, a big Maori Wrass and a couple of Chinese footballers hung about as well as the odd reef shark.
It was quite exhilarating watching such a vast range and quantity of fish life. All in just 4m of clear water over a beautiful white sandy bottom. Hey, I forgot we also got to say hi to a sea snake as well. Perfect. I saw as much life here in 4m than we usually do during a full-on scuba dive in deep waters, and I didn’t have to move the boat or fill the scuba tanks.
Anchoring in Ashmore Reef
There are three thick reef lobes on the east side of the reef which provide excellent sheltered anchorages over shallow sand behind thick walls of coral. These are SE trade wind anchorages. October is a great time to be here; predictable SE trades, seldom strong, and always a few very calm patches
The air temp in October never strayed from 30-32c, water 27-28c and there was usually a welcome ocean breeze. Late spring is a great time of the year in the North East edge of FNQ.
When the northerlies kick in if we are not already down south, then we start moving.
Adventure anchoring at Boot Reef.
It was on one of those flat days that we skipped over to nearby boot reef which has unbelievable walls on its NW side. Our depth sounder couldn’t find the bottom only 30m out from the wall, and it registers down to 600m when we are stationary! We dived one off with the other holding the boat out from the wall in reverse. I dived to 50m to where the wall became a flat slate and started to head under the reef. Now that’s scary!
My anchoring boo-boo at Ashmore Reef….it’s embarrassing.
I had anchored in this same place seven years previously. A small sand patch just inside the reef before a drop of to 30m, then a steady fall to the lagoon floor 70m below. We had some great snorkelling here previosly with sea snakes, and I love the image of Syl hovered over a big Tawney shark with dense branching coral as a backdrop.
I dropped the anchor on the sand in 11m. Our Mustang was tethered with 48m of 10mm chain. The thought of her drifting off never entered my tiny brain, so I never bothered setting our anchor or depth alarms. Next morning I surfaced to strong winds and metre + waves. The coral flat at this location never offered much protection. All the same, I was surprised that even at high tide I couldn’t eyeball waves washing over it … hmm …perhaps I better turn the instruments on. Yep, we were in fact, travelling at 1.3 knots in 77m of water and were now 2nm from where we anchored. Never mind, at that speed, it would be 6 more hours before we bounced into the reef on the other side of the Atoll! Time for breakfast and a talking to by Syl. “I told you we were not far enough onto that sand patch” “Sorry sweety, perhaps you were talking in French, I promise to be a good captain in future” 🙂
Yep–the anchor is stuck this time! Olive sea snake.
Catching a fish for dinner at Ashmore Reef.
On arriving at the Atoll on our first visit, my first mate requested Tuna for sustenance. I threw a couple of lures over the stern and in 5 minutes presented her with a metre long Yellow Fin. She was very impressed, and I was a proud boy. That was all the fishing we needed to do for the three weeks we were there. The second time around, dinner was not quite so easy, but we never went hungry. A recreational fishing vessel from Thursday Island visits here several times a year, apart from that its seldom fished.
Where to after Ashmore Reef?
It was time to work our way south. We’ve had some excellent adventures on the top end reefs, the Detached Reefs, Wishbone peninsular & Wreck bay on the way to refuelling at Lochard River. I will pen some further information on these in the future.
Cheers , Rob and Syl.
To see more pics from cruising the edge go to our Flikr web site by clicking here.
To read our story about cruising to the very end of thr GBR click here.