Australia's Kimberley

2013 Australia's Kimberley: A Voyage to the Outback Field Report

Rich Pagen|November 15, 2013|Field Report

Sunday, September 15, 2013 - Broome, Australia / Embark Caledonian Sky: We converged on the far-away outpost of Broome from distant reaches of the planet for the same reason—to embark on an expedition to experience the culture, wildlife, and landscapes of Australia’s Kimberley region. Following breakfast at the hotel, our birdwatching group headed out for an introduction to the birds of the region. The shorelines around Broome are of international importance for the millions of shorebirds that use it seasonally for migration.

The rest of us went to the Willie Creek Pearl Farm to learn the history of pearling in this area, including the current techniques used to farm pearls for the world market. Our guides walked us through the techniques they use to ‘seed’ oysters for pearls, and even took us out in a boat to see where they hang the oysters out in the currents for several years, while the pearls are developing.

After lunch, we explored Broome further, including a stop in the town's Japanese cemetery, which is the resting place of over 900 Japanese divers who lost their lives working in the pearling industry. Each year, Broome celebrates its history of pearling in a cultural festival called Shinju Matsuri , or Festival of the Pearl. Later, we arrived at the dock and were warmly greeted aboard the Caledonian Sky by the ship’s crew. We settled in onboard, before gathering for a safety briefing. Expedition Leader Mike Moore introduced us to the staff, Cruise Director Lisa Wurzrainer gave us an overview of the ship, and Zodiac driver Mike Murphy briefed us on all Zodiac operations.

As we pulled away from the dock, we were treated to a send-off by the Indonesian Navy band, which happened to be in town participating in the Festival of the Pearl. Following a relaxing dinner, some of us gathered for a cocktail, while others headed off to bed for a good night’s sleep.

Monday, September 16 - Lacepede Islands: We ate breakfast while our staff scouted the area we hoped to tour this morning, a low-lying cluster of small islands called the Lacepedes. As we boarded our Zodiacs to explore this weathered coralline atoll, we were ushered in by flocks of brown boobies; an estimated 18,000 pairs nest in this island group, accounting for 1% of the entire world population!

The outer beaches were covered with tracks left by nesting female green turtles, who crawl up the beach to lay their leathery eggs in pits they dig in the sand. As we explored the islands, green turtles were all around us, scraping algae off rocky substrates, and popping up for a breath of air right next to the Zodiac. We pulled into a protected lagoon, where mud crabs grazed on the exposed rock, and ruddy turnstones searched for small invertebrates such as worms and crustaceans. We landed on a white sand beach, where we encountered a nearly full grown brown booby chick, as well as roosting brown noddies and bridled terns perched on top of the vegetation.

Back on the ship, we switched back and forth between eating lunch and running to the railing to view various types of wildlife, including humpback whales, Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, and even an occasional sea snake. We rounded out the afternoon with an incredible sighting of a mother and calf humpback whale, the calf so small that it was likely only a few weeks old!

The first lecture of the afternoon, The Kimberley: Naturally, was presented by Kevin Coate, speaking about everything from echidnas to saltwater crocodiles. Geologist Bruce Loeffler followed with, The Stories Rocks Tell: The Power of Simple Observations, during which he gave us the background to better understand the rock formations we would encounter on this trip.

As the sun dropped yet lower in the sky, we gathered for Captain Frank Allica’s welcome aboard cocktail party, where we mingled over champagne and were introduced to some of the ship’s officers. This was followed by a festive dinner and a nightcap in the bar.

Tuesday, September 17 - Nares Point, Talbot Bay: The sky was brightening over Nares Point when we pulled back the curtains to greet the day. We boarded Zodiacs to explore the Buccaneer Archipelago, named after the English buccaneer William Dampier. We headed into a channel called The Gutter, with Koolan Island and its iron mine visible on the left side. We ducked into narrow side channels, where striated herons hunted in the mangroves, and cockatoos called from their perches in trees up on the ridgeline. The folded layered rock cliffs glowed a brilliant orange in the sunshine. Out in open water, some of us came across a small group of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, as well as a very friendly group of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, which came right up and swam alongside the Zodiac.

Back on the Caledonian Sky, Shirley Campbell gave her talk, If Only the Rocks Could Speak: Aboriginal Rock Art. Shirley took us through the significance of these rock art sites, and helped us to interpret and understand what the artwork is depicting.

Following lunch, we arrived at Talbot Bay, which is home to the incredible Horizontal Falls. These falls are actually a fast-moving tidal flow through two narrow, closely aligned gorges of the McLarty Range. We explored the area by Zodiac first, sighting white-bellied sea eagles and catching glimpses of white-quilled rock pigeons, before boarding jet boats for an exhilarating trip through the falls themselves. Back onboard, we joined Pam LeNoury at the stern platform to visit with several large tawny nurse sharks that were circling behind the ship.

Wednesday, September 18 - Raft Point, Montgomery Reef: This morning, we arrived by Zodiac into a small cove on Raft Point, where we were greeted by Aboriginal Australians, the traditional owners of this land. After a brief introduction, we received ochre paint on our cheeks and began climbing a dusty trail up to a rocky overhang that is decorated with aboriginal rock art. One of the locals interpreted the images, and told stories that gave meaning to the beautiful art work. It was a magical experience, and we were very grateful to get to learn about the significance of this rock art from the traditional owners of the land themselves.

Following a relaxing lunch onboard, we had the chance to peruse some local artwork for sale from our Aboriginal hosts. We boarded Zodiacs to tour Montgomery Reef; this massive reef covers an area of 154 square miles, and is a remnant from a time when sea level was higher. Now, the entire reef comes out of the water at low tide, and the amount of living coral on the reef is much less that it was thousands of years ago.

We sat just off the submerged reef as the tide began to drop, and the rocky reef appeared to rise impressively out of the sea. Huge amounts of water poured off the reef, getting funneled into frothy gullies and waterfalls. As soon as there was dry reef to stand on, wading birds arrived to feed on the riches of the exposed rock. Reef egrets searched for exposed prey and flocks of terns hovered above the deeper water right next to the reef, in search of fish stunned by the massive outflow of water.

As we returned to the ship, we encountered a group of three humpback whales, which came to the surface for several respirations before arching and diving out of sight.

Thursday, September 19 - Prince Regent River / Camp Creek: During the early morning hours, we navigated into St. George Basin, a large estuarine bay at the mouth of the Prince Regent River. Once at anchor in the bay, we opted for one of three Zodiac tours of the area.

The first group to depart was to travel the furthest up river, heading approximately 18 miles up to visit a lovely waterfall called the King Cascade. Along the way, we stopped to explore side channels, where archerfish and needlefish lurked in the protected shallows. Finally, we rounded a corner and the cascades came into view, a wide waterfall dropping down onto a series of shelves before landing ultimately in the river below. A crocodile sat motionless near the falls, and a number of us crouched in the bow of the Zodiac while our driver put the nose under the downpour of water. It was the perfect way to cool off on a hot sunny day!

Others of us motored upstream past circling wedge-tailed eagles and flocks of terns fishing to arrive at Camp Creek. There, we were able to hike up to a pool in the creek, well above the reach of saltwater crocodiles, to take a dip in the cool water.

Finally, some of us opted to explore more intensively the area around the river mouth, with its multiple channels and mangrove-lined tributaries. We saw a gorgeous sacred kingfisher, flying from perch to perch along the waterways, and small groups of white cockatoos called little corellas, feeding in the trees. A number of us also saw a group of small beakless dolphins called Australian snubfin dolphins, closely related to the Irawaddy dolphin found in rivers in southern Asia.

We all arrived back on the Caledonian Sky to join Rich Pagen for his presentation on The Tropical Marine Ecological Fringe: A Transect from the Coast to the Blue Water. Later, we gathered on deck for a Full Moon Party, where we watched the sunset and the moonrise while a young humpback whale breached a half-mile out from the ship’s railing.

Friday, September 20 - Hunter River / Mitchell Falls: After breakfast we boarded Zodiacs to explore the Hunter River itself, including its extensive mudflats, rocky bluffs, and low-lying mangrove forest. We stopped at the water’s edge, where hundreds of fiddler crabs were busy sifting through the sediment for organic material. The large white claw of the males stood out against the gray silt, and they were busy waving their claws around in an attempt to attract a mate. The stars of the mudflats were most certainly the mudskippers, a type of goby that is most active when the tide is out and the water gone. At high tide they hide safely in their burrows, but once the mudflats are exposed, they become active and actually walk around and feed. Watching them roam around and get in short-lived scuffles with neighbors was most entertaining.

As the tide rose, it flooded the forest and we were able to meander among the trees themselves. Saltwater crocodiles, called ‘salties’ in Australia, floated quietly in the calm waters, some even allowing close approach. These formidable predators are the largest living reptiles, the males of which can reach over 20 feet in length and weigh over 4,000 pounds! They also have the strongest bite of any living animal, which helps them grip their prey and prevent it from escaping.

We also had the chance to Zodiac ashore to a white sand beach, where we were met by a helicopter that took us on a flightseeing tour up the Hunter River. The scenery was spectacular, and it was great to see a different perspective of the Kimberley.

We landed in the next watershed over, home to an impressive waterfall called Mitchell Falls. Despite this being the dry season, the river is spring-fed and there was plenty of water pouring down the cascades. Some of us walked to an overlook, while others went for a swim in the upper pool before reboarding the helicopter for the ride back down to the beach.

Saturday, September 21 - Vansittart Bay / Jar Island: We landed by Zodiac this morning below sand dunes on a remote beach in Vansittart Bay. From there, we embarked on one of several hikes inland, most of which stopped at the wreck of an American DC3 aircraft that crash landed here in 1942. The plane was in remarkably good shape, and the sight of it was a powerful reminder that this northern part of Australia was involved in World War II.

We wandered trails left by wild cattle, whose tracks and scat were quite obvious in the area. Red-winged parrots called while circling overhead, the green and red of their plumage illuminated brilliantly by the sun. We also passed termite mounds, which dotted the open areas between the trees, and watched an osprey hunting fish over the shallows.

Some of us took advantage of the low tide to explore the exposed rocky shoreline for animal life. We fanned out among the rocky tidepools, discovering everything from black sea cucumbers hiding along the rock edges, to tiny ghost shrimp that approached submerged fingers to attempt to “clean” them. Several species of crab fled when rocks were overturned, including a decorator crab that had put algae on its back to improve its excellent camouflage even further.

We returned to the ship for lunch, as we cruised to Jar Island, an important site for Bradshaw Aboriginal art. We hiked back from the beach a short distance to visit three different rock art galleries, each of which was located in a quiet, sheltered spot in the exposed and weathered sandstone. Kevin and Shirley gave us some fascinating background information on what we were seeing, including the fact that most of the art is more than 17,000 years old! Carbon dating of wasp nests on the rock face provides most of our understanding of the age of these paintings, and we saw everything from boomerangs to echidnas depicted in the artwork.

Back on the ship, we cleaned up before cocktails, recap, and a briefing of the next day’s activities. Many of us went to bed early after dinner to rest up for our early arrival tomorrow.

Sunday, September 22 - King George River: This morning we arrived at the mouth of the King George River; following breakfast, we boarded Zodiacs for one of several options touring this spectacular part of the Kimberley. Some of us motored quickly up the gorge where we disembarked near the base of King George Falls, a 300-foot drop into the canyon below, which was nearly waterless during this late stage of the dry season. From there, we embarked on a steep scrambling hike up to the canyon rim, where the view back down into the river was spectacular.

Others explored the river system by Zodiac, some remaining in the vicinity of the river mouth, while still others opted to make the trip all the way up to the falls. Huge wedge-tailed eagles soared along the cliff face and Brahminy kites perched in the mangroves. A small colony of flying foxes noisily chattered in the trees in one small bay.

At the falls themselves, we admired the shaded box canyon we found ourselves in, with erosion evidence on the rock revealing the extent of what the flow would be like during the rainy season. This time of year, it was a quiet and peaceful place. Some of us put our heads under the trickle that, despite its small size, was very cool and refreshing.

We returned to the ship for lunch, and joined Bob Goodale for his presentation, Kimberley Wild, during which he gave excellent information on the flora and fauna of the region. Later in the afternoon, many of us came ashore at a beautiful beach in Tranquil Bay, near the mouth of the King George River, where we scanned the sandstone cliffs for white-quilled rock pigeons and explored the margin of a lagoon behind the beach. Upside down jellies pulsated in the shallows, and hermit crabs fed on the algal growth along the shoreline.

A special Filipino dinner was served back on the ship, which included some festive singing by many of the ship’s crew. Captain Frank Allica then turned off the ship’s outside lights, and some of us went up on the top deck to do some stargazing and watch the moonrise.

Monday & Tuesday, September 23 & 24 - Wyndham / At Sea: Upon arrival in Wyndham, the oldest and northernmost town in the Kimberley region, many of us wandered into town for a look around. There was a local museum, as well as a small gallery featuring woodblock prints of local flora and fauna. Some of us found the bar at the town hotel, where we were greeted by a beautiful cockatoo at the front door, and the birdwatchers spotted white-breasted woodswallows and brown honeyeaters.

Back onboard for a barbeque lunch, including lively singing and dancing on deck, we soon joined Brent Stephenson for his talk, Birding 101: An Introduction to Tweetie Birds and the Weird People Who Watch Them.

After dinner, and dessert in the main lounge, we enjoyed a rendition of How Well Do You Know Your Expedition Team? Disbelief and laughter reigned supreme throughout what turned out to be quite a lively evening.

The next morning, we awoke to calm sea conditions in all directions. Some of us took advantage of this day at sea to sleep in a little longer, while others joined Shirley for some beginners’ yoga.

The first lecture of the day was Rich’s Warm-Blooded in a Tropical Sea: Marine Mammal Natural History in the Indo-Pacific. He introduced us to the sea-grass-eating dugong, as well as to such cetaceans as beaked whales. We then met Bruce for his presentation, The Kimberley—Ancient Land: Plate Tectonics and the Growth of Continents, where he explained the processes involved in plate tectonics. After a leisurely lunch, we joined the naturalists outside to scan the area for wildlife, and Bruce hosted a rock question-and-answer session. Shirley’s talk, Understanding Aboriginal Australians, took us through the culture and history of Australia’s first people.

For our final recap, our expedition staff shared their highlights from the amazing trip we’ve shared together, before we joined Captain Frank Allica at the farewell cocktail party. Dinner was followed by a slideshow of our trip, compiled by Brent. The photos were amazing, and our experiences on this trip seemed both years ago and yesterday at the same time.

Wednesday, September 25 - Dili, Timor-Leste / Disembark: This morning, we awoke alongside the pier in Dili, the largest city, chief port, and commercial center of Timor-Leste. After breakfast, we disembarked the Caledonian Sky, the ship that had been our home for the past ten days. We have reached the end of our exploration of the Australia’s Kimberley region. The final days of this trip have been dominated by reflection on all we have seen and experienced, and the celebration of friends, both old and new, with whom we have shared this journey.

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