The Herald Cays are a 200nm cruise eastward into the Coral Sea from both Townsville and Cairns and are a nature paradise. Traveling 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 night life 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 Cays 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 north-east 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.
It was marvellous watching hundreds of lesser and greater Frigatebirds ride the updrafts, soaring to incredible heights. 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, at times 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 frigates 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.