Coral Sea oasis

Robin Jeffries and Sylvie Jambu | VOLUME 30, ISSUE 4

Far from the more accessible attractions of the north Queensland coastline, the Coral Sea harbours a smorgasbord of coral cays and islets.

With our 14m Lightwave powercat, Flash Dancer fully provisioned, we headed almost directly due east from Cairns to one of our favourite cruising destinations, the Coral Sea and its many islets and cays, which lies beyond the outer limits of the Great Barrier Reef. Our preference was for daylight-only cruising, given the many reefs, bommies and cays in the area. We would cover almost 250km to get to our ultimate destination, the sand cays of Flinders Reef, where we could look forward to anchoring on smooth, sandy bottoms in comfort, safely secured even in 30-knot trade winds. The water here is so clear that we could still make out our anchor 30m below.

Our first port of call was Main Sand Cay, where an automated weather station stands guard over a busy patch of sand, with a contingent of marine birds, including our favorite dainty black-naped terns. In the evenings, hundreds more flew in from the surrounding ocean and rested on the freshly washed sand spit.

Tracks criss-crossing the sand punctuated with big craters are evidence that a number of green turtles nest here. One day, a big old girl crawled up onto the spit to die. After three days, the carcass had swelled with gases and floated off, becoming food for the tiger sharks that migrate to these areas for just that purpose each spring. Nature’s food chain in action …

FRONT ROW SEAT

As it turned out the deceased turtle’s remains found their way to the back of the boat and we waited excitedly for our expected night visitors to arrive. Wearily, at around 4.30am we gave up our watch – six tawny sharks were enthusiastic, but not making much impression on penetrating the hard shell.

But awakening after sunrise, it was clear we had missed the main event. What remained of Mrs Turtle was now lying on the bottom: a completely hollowed-out shell. The tawnies were still there – also in attendance was a big tiger shark that seemed to be eyeing me off from the deep. Several smaller three-metre examples lurked close by.

Their body language suggested they were now well fed, so I felt confident that they were of no threat to my ageing bones. I rushed to prepare my scuba equipment and underwater camera, excited at the thought of a close-up photo opportunity with one of the world’s great predatory fish.

As I sat on the back step to gather my composure and suit-up, one swam by my dangling fins. But when I dropped into the water the tigers nonchalantly dispersed into the blue. What an anticlimax!

Initially I felt cheated, but I hung around and, sure enough, after five minutes, one tiger returned, although it refused to come close enough for a good shot. Nevertheless, it was an awesome sight as it slowly cruised over the sand, its thickly striped body emanating a sense of controlled power. I thought how amazing it would have been to see them tear through the turtle’s shell in their early morning feeding frenzy.

Late that afternoon, several tigers dropped by and I jumped in with them each time. Eventually, one did tentatively swim over to me. But, in my excitement, I managed to crop its head out of the shot – one of the frustrations that occur from time to time with underwater photography.

KIWI KAYAK

Later, the doldrums settled in and the sea turned to glass. With the sea flat, we soon began to notice floating bric-a-brac and it was fascinating to observe civilisation’s junk drift by. We recovered a big buoy, complete with rope and fishing line – a deadly trap for turtles – and even a drifting kayak all the way from New Zealand. It had become a nomadic home for what seemed like countless fish so we left it to continue its Pacific journey.

The Flinders coral was bleached in 2002 and has since been smashed with several cyclones, however the calm conditions made for outstanding visibility.

A dive along one of the reef walls was sensational. Our boat was only 20m from a bommie that rose to the surface, and our depth sounder showed 152m! Small scattered corals clung to the first 40m of the drop-off, then a ledge of large gorgonian fans signalled the start of a sheer wall that plunged into the abyss.

Another memorable dive was within the lagoon. A strong current rushed toward the western opening, pushing nutrients through a group of bommies that rise 45m from the lagoon floor. It was a spectacular multi-coloured gully, covered with feather stars, fans, whips and sea squirts of every conceivable shape.

TUNA TOP-UP

After 12 days, it was time to stock up with fresh fish before we moved to the protected habitat of the Herald Cays. Trolling lures close to where the birds were active along the northern drop-offs produced one and a half fine yellowfin tuna (the sharks took their fishing ‘fee’) and a small dogtooth.

Then the master chef ordered “just one more fish” and the rod immediately bucked obediently to her request.

As the reel screamed out a high-pitched call to arms, the line just kept peeling off. For the first 10 minutes I was having a thrilling battle with a monster from the deep, but after 20 minutes my back was broken and a huge yellowfin and I came to a stalemate. It was swimming in circles just three-metres under the boat and I was incapable of getting it any closer.

I put the rod back into its holder and tightened the drag to maximum expecting it would soon be as exhausted as I was. Big mistake – the hooks straightened and it was gone.

As we cruised past the various kays and islets it seemed as though we had an exclusive guest pass to a remote wilderness. Hundreds of curious juvenile red-footed booby birds hovered over our boat as we snaked our way through the bommies to eventually drop anchor only 160m from a perfect beach at South West Herald Cay.

We often chatted with our booby pals. They loved meeting up on our bowrail, 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 occasionally in search of nesting locations for the night, and occasionally lovers could be seen cavorting in the shallows.

HIVE OF ACTIVITY

On the cay were many nesting birds: lesser and great frigatebirds perched on the fringing shrubs next to red-footed boobies, brown boobies sat 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.

We found a few good bommies along the shoulders of the deep water. Numerous grey whaler sharks and swaying fields of 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.

The north-east Herald islet anchorage is good, but not as peaceful as in the south-west. The southern islet is quite substantial, and activity is everywhere – thick vegetation 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.

PIRATES IN THE SKY

It was marvelous watching hundreds of lesser and greater frigatebirds ride the updrafts, soaring to amazing 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, sometimes 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 frigate funeral!

CAY CLEAN-UP

When we first started visiting these tiny specks in the ocean, Sylvie would wander the shores picking up junk and dragging old nets about, continually mumbling about plastics, saving turtles and whales, and how lazy some people are.

Thinking she might be talking about me, I offered to help; then it became serious. Upon reaching something hard enough to set her feet on, she summoned me and off we went, armed with bags, knifes to cut through ropes and a big bin for buoys.

We carefully bagged up the plastic bottles, rubber shoes, general bric-a-brac and then piled it in a heap with the heavy stuff on top. We later advised the Coral Sea government authority where they could pick it up from on their next trip out. Towards the end of our cruise, Sylvie even stored filled rubbish bags in our sealed front compartments and around the deck to take back to the mainland.

We always aim to leave a place better than we found it and I’d encourage anyone else considering visiting the Coral Sea cays to do likewise. You can find more information at: environment.gov.au/topics/marine-reserves/coral-sea.


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