The Herald Cays is a 200nm cruise eastward into the Coral Sea from Townsville and Cairns and a nature paradise. Travelling at eight knots from Townsville, we reached them with nightly stopovers at Myrmidon and Flinders Reefs. No need for night travel.
South West Herald Cay.
The cay is low, flat, and sparsely vegetated. Hundreds of curious juvenile red-footed booby birds hovered over our boat as we snaked our way through the bommies. We had been here before, and we felt quite euphoric as the birds flew out to greet us. Perhaps they remembered us, or at least our boat. We eventually dropped anchor only 160m from a perfect beach. A very comfortable anchorage even in stiff trade winds.
We often chatted with our booby pals. They loved meeting up on our bow rail, sometimes up to 60 at a time. Fortunately, they preferred the nightlife on the Cay, minimising the demands on our all-important ‘poop deck cleaning kit.’
Turtles swam slowly around the water’s edge, popping their heads up in search of nesting locations for the night, and occasionally lovers could be seen cavorting in the shallows.
On the Cay, many nesting birds: lesser and great frigatebirds perched on the fringing shrubs next to red-footed boobies, brown boobies were sitting on their nests in the grassy interior, masked boobies tended eggs and chicks on the beach, and a variety of different terns and noddies went about their business. Around the sandy edges, land hermit crabs were meeting to discuss housing arrangements, rock crabs scampered around the western rocky shore, and ghost crabs were working hard digging burrows all over the beach.
North East Herald Cay
The anchorage is good, but not as peaceful as the south-west cay. The Northern Islet is quite substantial, and activity is everywhere – it has very thick vegetation which provides shelter for a huge quantity and variety of marine birds. I swear I saw a bush turkey disappear into the scrub while, on another occasion, I was stunned when a beautiful white tropical bird flew at me, pausing to face me down – eyeball to eyeball.
Around the edges, a sandy skirt accommodates wall-to-wall nesting turtles, while the rocky sections move with the antics of a million and one sprightly crabs and slithering Grey Eels.
Herald Cay’s diving.
We found a few good bommies along the shoulders of the deep water. Numerous Grey Whaler sharks and swaying garden eels that feed on drifting plankton were highlights.
Having 30 to 45m underwater visibility gave us a great perspective when viewing marine life. Unfortunately for snorkelers, there are no gorgeous coral gardens here: powerful storms rip around these parts most summers and after Cyclone Yasi, coral coverage is low.
However, what the shallows lacked during the day, they more than made up for after dusk. We had several fantastic night and dawn dives around our northeast Herald anchorage – coral crabs, shrimps of all sorts, worms of all sizes, big sea slugs, little nudibranchs, plus lovely tube anemones. Sometimes there were so many tiny fish around our lights it was like struggling through a plague of locusts.
Herald Cay pirates in the sky.
Watching hundreds of lesser and greater Frigatebirds ride the updrafts, soaring to incredible heights was marvellous. But they do have a nasty disposition, and we often sat on the deck watching them use their superior abilities to dive-bomb and harass their fellow feathered relatives. Sometimes it was an aerial duel; other times, an unrelenting ferocious attack by a group, typically on a booby, occasionally a tern, or even on one of their own. The war game usually ended when the pirate scooped up the regurgitated food of its prey or abandoned the attack because the aggrieved had made it to the safety of the islet.
At ground level, it’s very crowded with nesting birds, so nature has rationally called a truce – although it’s weird seeing boobies and frigates perched next to each other with total indifference. The frigate’s aerial agility does come at a cost – they can quickly become waterlogged. Sylvie noticed one juvenile, which had never passed its ‘learners,’ drifting out to sea, frantically trying to flap its way out of the watery quicksand, slowly enveloping it. Four other frigates were overhead, and one kept trying to pull it up, but to no avail. When they gave up, we jumped in our rubber duck and were chuffed with our rescue operation. Once dried out it was moving around and looked on the road to recovery. We left it on the islet for the night but were less chuffed in the morning to find it dead … another funeral! Nature can be tough.
SW Cay November 2022
It was a pleasant stop-over on our way back to Cairns from Lihou Reef. We stayed for a week just 150m from a fine Sandy beach in what effectively is an idyllic shallow bay.
Turtles were still crawling up the beach. This time around we noticed many rays gliding along the shoreline late arvo. A whaler shark was a welcome neighbour, but the Giant Trevally that visited our stern was a pain. Whilst GT’s are naturally aggressive hunters, they are not considered dangerous to humans. However, for some reason, this GT thought my diminutive first mate jumping off the boat was akin to me throwing food at it! Amazing how quickly she could scramble back onto the boat whenever Mr Ugly turned up.
The coral patches here are still more like rocks. However, right in front of the beach, we found an excellent snorkelling patch with many interesting reef fish and fascinating anemone species. It made our swim to shore a delight.
Red Footed Booby doesn’t start nesting until 6-8 years old, so they have quite a juvenile time frame to be inquisitive before family responsibilities fill their days. They still take delight in meeting on our boat. We counted a record 57 squabbling for available space on our bow rail! One decided rocking on the tip of our VHS aerial was a lot of fun. Eventually, it broke! After 16 years, I was due for another one anyhow 🙂
My biggest thrill came when strolling the back beach. Red-footed boobies were flying all around me. I paused and held up my hand, and to my delight, one gently touched down. A wild bird sitting comfortably on my hand felt very special. It would fly off occasionally, but when I heard it fluttering overhead, I extended my hand, and he would gently alight for more touring.
We really enjoyed our 2022 stopover.
Marion Reef click here
Magdelaine cays click here
Lihou Reef click here
Willis Islets click here
Bougainville Atoll click here
Ashmore Reef click here
Lihou Reef click here
Osprey reef click here
Coringa Islets click here
Diamond islets click here