On our spring cruise from Cairns to Cape York, we took in a slight detour to several nearby Coral Sea atolls, beginning at Bougainville Reef.
My partner – French/Aussie commercial sailor and diver, Sylvie Jambu – and I waited for a good-weather window before heading 215km northeast of Cairns to the tiny speck on our chart that marked Bougainville Reef, a 4km-long, oval atoll formed thousands of years ago by coral growth around the top of an ancient volcano.
A sandy lagoon is all that remains of the volcano’s peak. Its magical colours and stillness beckoned us to come in – but while the charts clearly showed a navigable entrance, we were not seduced by the lagoon’s beauty. Our survey in the dinghy showed the charts were incorrect and, unless we had a jet boat or drew under a metre, it was an accident waiting to happen, even at spring high tide on a calm day.
The atoll bears the name of its first visitor, Frenchman Louis-Antoine de Bougainville. During his exploration voyage of the Pacific in 1766, de Bougainville was confronted with a line of waves breaking over the reef. This near miss, and with his crew weakened by scurvy, prompted him to turn north to New Guinea, otherwise he may have discovered Australia four years before James Cook.
Bougainville Reef was a fair-weather stopover, with 15 to 20-knot breezes. The reef’s outer edges have steep walls that fall a kilometre or more to the seabed. While it’s said to be an impossible place to anchor, we found a convenient small sloping shelf at the partially protected northwest corner in a depth of 25 to 35m. We stayed there for three nights, each day venturing out in our dingy to dive and explore.
The diving along the sheer walls was spectacular and we also enjoyed exploring the maze of gutters and caves behind it. Two wrecks lie atop the reef, which we reached in our dingy at high tide. The 4810-ton Atlas is the most interesting and best-preserved wreck, with its remnants reaching well out of the water.
As we were diving without surface support, we stayed alert to the unpredictable, strong currents that occur in such places. Our diving was very conservative, though, with ‘what if’ strategies in place. On our first wall dive, the reef became exposed two hours before low tide, causing the current to pick up speed quickly from the opposite direction! We usually found diving at high tide the safest bet.
With 25-knot winds coming our way, it was time for our next leg: a 100nm, moonlit cruise north to the big atoll of Osprey Reef.
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Dive charters have put Osprey Reef in the spotlight, especially the North Horn dive site with its popular shark-feeding spectacles. We were more interested in the large lagoon, though, and planned to make it our home base. We weren’t disappointed – the lagoon’s main entrance is wide, and a beautiful shallow inner rim of white sand along the south end and up the east side provided a multitude of glorious anchoring opportunities.
Just before we reached the sparkling emerald bluewater, indicating a shallow, sandy bottom, we negotiated the typical smattering of coral heads and little bommies. The surrounds turned out to be fantastic for snorkelling and were chock-full of marine life and healthy hard corals.
We anchored at the south-eastern corner behind a half-kilometre of reef, where the boat sat comfortably even in the brisk trade winds. We soon settled into a languid ‘life in paradise’ routine: snorkelling the crystalline waters of the lagoon, and venturing out to scuba dive the partially sheltered western walls mid-week when there wasn’t much chance of crossing paths with other boats.
Scuba diving the steep outer wall in clear waters was quite dramatic and worth the effort. Our favourite location was about 2km south of the main entrance, where a 100m-wide coral garden sits atop the wall and funnels its way into the lagoon, making a secondary mini entrance. It is accurately shown on the charts and was navigable, albeit with care.
We were greeted by an immense swirling vortex of bigeye trevally and it was a thrill to hover at the centre of a grey wall of eyes slowly spinning around us. Bright-red lunar-tailed bigeye fish and a profusion of coral led down to whitetip sharks resting on the white sand. At 17m, the sand spilt over the wall’s edge. It was a great place to start our wall dives, with abundant whip coral and gorgonian fans at 25m and plenty of life all the way down to 45m, plus the excitement of whaler sharks and large pelagics patrolling the wall.
Back in the lagoon, we made some friends … lots of them. Each night, the population of common terns calling our boat home grew and soon topped 80 birds. We kept their mess under control by sloshing truck wash around the decks at sunset, and blasting the decks with high-pressure saltwater in the morning. When our pet noddy, which had been living in the cockpit, flew off without so much as a thank you, it was time to head back to the Great Barrier Reef. But first we needed to give the boat’s green beard a shave – it’s amazing how quick algae grows on hulls in the warm, clean waters.
Aided by the easterly sea, we motored peacefully overnight, travelling 210km westward to the Great Barrier Reef’s North Broken Passage.
The Coral Sea’s northern atolls of Osprey, Bougainville, Ashmore and Holmes are wonderful places, but all lack the beautiful sand cays which are prevalent on the central Coral Sea reef systems and sprinkled throughout the far northern Great Barrier Reef.
Our plan was to explore as many outer reef cays as we could and, if possible, dive their passages on our way to the east of Lockhart River, 150km further north.
We visited eight cays. Some weren’t marked on the charts, others were marked, but no longer there, or were just large coral rocks sitting on a reef. The large cays of Tydeman, Davie, Sandbanks Seven and Eight are well developed, with large populations of nesting birds and turtles over spring and summer. The smaller cays on Rodda, Ham, and reef 13-237 wash over at high tide, which encourages the resting crested terns and noddies to return to work.
A tiny cay on Derry Reef, just 40m long at high tide, is trying to grow up, and we watched in awe as three turtles struggled up its short, steep face to nest.
We usually anchored in the west end of passages in 20 to 30m depth, where we swung around peacefully with the tidal currents while the breeze remained a soothing 10 to 15 knots. It got bumpy when the wind picked up to a boisterous 20 knots, but we were nearing our goal so we persevered until we reached Reef 13-237, due-east of Lockhart River.
Rodda and 13-237 were the most suitable cays to anchor our dingy for a dive. The currents rushing through these passages required us to dive at the change of tide. Grey whaler sharks, barracuda, big wrasse and sweetlips visited out of curiosity, and occasionally a pygmy devilray cruised overhead. Most exciting for us, though, were the diverse healthy corals and the many sea slugs and little critters.
Sandbank Eight was our favourite. It’s a large, vegetated cay with a big marine bird population and huge numbers of nesting turtles – we spotted around 100 green turtles each night, but we had been there before and witnessed over 500 churning and heaving sand in all directions.
HISTORIC LOCKHART RIVER
We enjoy visiting Lockhart River, a coastal Aboriginal community on the eastern coast of Cape York Peninsula. Lockhart River is also the name of a river located 14km south of the community. The area barely rates a mention among cruising guides, though, and I don’t know why … it’s the only place up on Cape York to provision and fuel up and has phone and internet reception. The shire also offers totally protected anchorages, a friendly community, interesting local history, a unique National Park at its doorstep, and an art centre featuring many distinguished Aboriginal artists.
We found a good anchorage behind Lloyd Island then shifted down to the western arm of the river to be close to the fuel barge, just inside the central river entrance. We usually provision on a calm day, parking 400m off the front beach boat ramp and taking our dingy to the beach, then hitching a ride to the Aboriginal community township 3km inland. This time it was too rough, plus we wanted to balance our ocean life by getting a land-based perspective of the cape, so we hired a vehicle from Lockhart Car Hire instead. The business owner, Paul, met our dingy a kilometre up Claudie River at a little boat ramp. This was a much easier place to come ashore when the winds were blowing.
We started our tour at the airport, where we learned about the local WW2 history surrounding the big airstrips, which played a key role in the battle of the Coral Sea, and about Operation Blowdown. In 1963, the government decided this was a good place to study what devastation a nuclear bomb would cause in the tropics. This was simulated by loading 50 tons of TNT up a tower and flattening a huge area of pristine rain forest, not to mention ‘killing’ hundreds of plastic dummies!
A drive through nearby Iron Range National Park followed. With its many beautiful patches of rainforest, it’s well-known among naturalists for its many endemic species of birds and reptiles. Our tour finished back at the boat ramp after picking up a dingy-load of provisions from the most geographically welcome supermarket we have ever encountered.
END OF THE SEASON
It was now nearing December, making it too late for cruising around Torres Strait or Ashmore Reef, but a couple of weeks diving Wishbone and Great Detached Reefs fitted the bill nicely.
Then, it was time to return south. While some friendly easterlies were still blowing, we took the opportunity to explore a few of the many small islands and cays along the inner passage between Forbes Island and the Flinders Island group, and enjoyed strolling along the reefs’ golden sandbanks, with some stretching for kilometres at low tide. We saw only one other vessel in the distance during this time … it was rather eerie.
The wet season arrived when torrential monsoon rains hit as we reached Lizard Island’s magical Blue Lagoon. We enjoyed our Christmas pudding all the same.