In 2011 a dream came true–I reached the very top end of the Great Barrier Reef. Here is my account which first appeared in “Club Marine Magazine”.
As a young man, I had visited the ‘start’ of the Great Barrier Reef at its southern tip at Lady Elliot Island. My curiosity was awakened, and a longing to explore the little-known area at the other end of the reef grew into a sweet obsession.
At last, life and conditions came together; I had retired and shifted into a 14m Lightwave power cat named Flash Dancer, which proven to be the ideal vessel for exploring the reef. Over six years it had been progressively equipped it with a full kit of scuba gear and underwater photographic equipment. When I teamed up with Sylvie Jambu, a commercial sailor and diver from France, all the pieces fell into place for a magnificent adventure.
We left Townsville in July, and first indulged our diving passion when we reached the Ribbon Reefs, a remote string of reefs starting to the north of Cairns. It was a thrill to show an overseas visitor our Minke whales and big Potato Cod before heading to the magnificent anchorage at Lizard Island.
North of Lizard Island, the winter trade winds notched up a gear. Weeks of howling winds, unfamiliar territory, inaccurate charts, no civilization and a crew that swore in French…it should have been very testing,but somehow my new first mate and I were getting on famously. The isolation of the Cape, combined with the shared adventure of discovering new places, seemed to suit our personalities.
The highlights while cruising up the cape were hiking around Shelburne Bay, anchored at beautiful Forbes Island, meeting up with other boaties at Margaret Bay, and a couple of days diving the Southern and Great Detached Reefs.
Anchored at Forbes island.
After much zig-zagging we arrived at Thursday Islands located in the Torres Strait islands 21nm north of Cape York Peninsular. With our adventurous enthusiasm still intact, so we headed 130nm northeast through Torres Strait to explore the very “end” of the Great Barrier Reef.
Bramble Cay, situated just 30nm from Papua New Guinea’s huge Fly River Delta, was our destination. We had very little idea what we would find there!
It was now September, a time when good weather windows start to open. True to form, after months of 20-30 knots south-easterly trade winds the weather witch relented and the winds eased to a well mannered 15 knots. Torres Strait has a nasty reputation amongst cruisers: shallow water, tricky currents, strong winds, and reefs scattered everywhere. But the charts were accurate and all were friendly. We pushed Flash Dancer along at nine knots arriving at Kodall Island in time to find a well-protected anchorage behind the reef’s edge.
We reached our destination,Bramble Cay, the following afternoon and were doubly pleased when greeted by Egan, a hospitable fishing boat captain who exclaimed we were their first visitor in six years! Egan was an enthusiastic young chap, suggesting where we best anchor and explaining the many vagaries of the local fishing industry. But what really impressed us was watching him and his crew catch up to 50 Spanish Mackerel in just two hours by fishing the traditional way, with three hand lines out the back of a Dory. There was one other fishing boat here, and for five months of the year, these two boats hang precariously from the NW end of the cay hoping to catch their quota and get out before the late-spring Westerly monsoons blow them away.
The sand cay was sparsely vegetated and populated by thousands of marine birds and visiting green turtles. It was wonderful to watch the beginning of their breeding season unfold. At anchor, we were intrigued by the unpredictable currents and the fresh water flowing past our vessel at times… and the odd huge tree!
We dived three times around the reef. It was different: the visibility was poor and we often found ourselves swimming through patches of fuzzy green as cool fresh water seeped from below.
We had our own shark show for extra entertainment — twice daily when the fishermen filleted their catch and threw the frames into the sea, up to 15 big black whaler sharks would churn the waters in an amazing display of crash, bash, and wallop. I tied my RIB to the back of a fishing boat to photograph the action and watched as they bumped and thumped into it, part filling it with the spray from their frenzied feeding. Right on cue, they disappeared after fish cleaning was completed. When we dived under the boat to check out a giant grouper an hour after feed time the sharks were nowhere to be seen, thankfully.
The weather window was still holding so, after five enjoyable days at Bramble Cay, we decided to explore the next two reefs.
Further east is the very small reef of Anchor Cay. There is nothing noteworthy there, but it was still a fine place to anchor and dive in the good conditions. We had a mid-day picnic on a tiny patch of sand still showing at high tide.Still further on was East Cay. Our chart showed a sizeable sand cay — however, when we arrived at the large reef there was no Cay to be found, just an absolutely huge navigation tower complete with Helipad.
I longed to write “Flash Dancer was here” on the tower as I was sure this place had never been visited by anyone other than lots of Terns and the occasional maintenance team.
- P.S. Severe coral bleaching is just occurring in our far northern reefs and this could affect coral in the places I have mentioned in this blog post.
We anchored in a passage that ran thru the reef and had a couple of dives in reasonably clear water, spotting lots of underwater macro life. Climbing the giant tower was also interesting.
After 3 days, our HF weather guide warned us of strong winds returning so we retreated to the comfort and security of Kodall Island.Masig (Yorke island) is located next to our safe anchorage at Kodall Island and has a population of 300 easy-going Torres Strait Islanders. We called in at the Council office and received permission to move freely around the Island. It’s a very neat and pretty place; we ended up doing a photo-shoot of the island and buying an oil painting depicting the past head-hunting era from a local artist for a reasonable price.
We enjoyed chatting with the locals, and browsing the two mixed business shops…we love these tiny out-of-the-way places and their friendly locals .
Now do we head back to Thursday Island or venture 70nm (112km) east through the Barrier to Ashmore Reef. I always wanted to go there…