coral formations

2019 Underwater Wonders of Western Australia Field Report

Shirley Campbell|June 25, 2019|Field Report

Wednesday, May 15, 2019
Broome, Australia

Located in the far northwest of Australia, our independent journeys to this remote part of the island-continent finally ended in Broome. Staying at the beautiful Cable Beach Resort overlooking the Indian Ocean, we met our fellow travelers, renewed old acquaintances, and made new friends while sipping sunset cocktails. Tom Hiney and Sacha Guggenheimer welcomed us as we sat down for dinner overlooking the famous Cable Beach and a ring-tail possum entertained us from a nearby tree. Dinner over, most of us retired early for some much-needed sleep in a horizontal position!

Thursday, May 16
Broome / Embark Coral Discoverer

How nice to have a leisurely morning, allowing plenty of time to relax over breakfast, take a morning stroll along the beach, or simply absorb the quiet ambience of the resort’s many settings. After lunch, with bags packed and collected, we left the resort for an afternoon tour of Broome. Almost four miles from Broome, our first stop was Gantheaume Point, named by Nicolas Baudin in 1801. Here, the Broome sandstone contrasts brilliantly with the aqua-blue Indian Ocean. Closer to the water, 130 million-year-old theropod dinosaur footprints can be seen at low tide. A remnant from the Cretaceous period.

The township of Broome is well known for its pearling history, and, driving a little further, we visited the Japanese cemetery and walked amongst the headstones, a somber reminder of the many Japanese pearl divers who died in this foreign land. We were dropped off at Streeter’s Jetty and walked up the street visiting several retail outlets selling beautiful pearls. Our tour finished at Matso’s, a local brewery and restaurant renowned for its beers incorporating the inspired flavors of ginger, mango, and chili.

Guests fresh off the Kimberley voyage spent some time in downtown Broome, participating in a little bit of retail therapy before lunch at the Mangrove Hotel. From there we travelled some 27 miles to the north over unpaved roads to Willie Creek Pearl Farm where we heard some of the history of this industry and observed how cultured pearls are produced. The pearling industry was hit hard by the economic downturn, or Global Financial Crisis as it is called in Australia. It continues to struggle to regain its previous $100 million plus annual turnover.

Our tours finished dockside where we boarded the Coral Discoverer. Between attending the safety drill and briefing, meeting our expedition staff and dinner, we unpacked and settled into our home for the next eleven days.

Friday, May 17
Clerke Reef / Rowley Shoals Marine Park / Sand Cay

We woke this morning at the Rowley Shoals, named by Phillip Parker King in 1818 after Captain Rowley who was the first European to record the sighting of the reef in 1800. We had a morning of snorkeling and diving near Clerke Reef, one of the three atoll-like coral reefs making up the Rowley Shoals. We saw lots of banner fish happy to graze amongst green corals. The water was wonderfully clear, with big parrotfish a testament to these reefs being unfished! Giant clams and burrowing clams were also abundant, the tiny photosynthetic algae, zooxanthellae, providing the rich and varied colors of these bivalves.

After lunch we had the best drift snorkel and dive ever! The current flowing out of the lagoon was super-fast, carrying us through narrow channels and into the Indian Ocean. We sped past white-tip reef sharks, giant clams, and a huge shoal of blue-green chromis. As the divers surfaced, a pod of spinner dolphins came right at them, so quick that many failed to duck back under to experience the encounter.

Back on board, we showered and dressed for Captain Gary Walsh’s welcome cocktails and dinner. On the back deck sipping cocktails we witnessed our first beautiful sunset in these warm and still waters.

Saturday, May 18
Port Headland

Unfortunately, due to a medical mishap, our day at Rowley Shoals was replaced with a trip to Port Hedland, the highest tonnage port in Australia. Arriving early in the morning, we saw a huge number of tankers anchored in the deep, natural harbor waiting to receive their iron ore cargo. Iron ore is mined from four deposits in the ranges to the east of the township. In 2016 alone, 39.6 million tons was shipped from here!

After breakfast, Rich Pagan presented his lecture entitled, Productivity on the Coral Reef: How Interspecies Relationships Have Built an Empire. Shirley Campbell presented her lecture, The Land is Our History: Indigenous Relations to Country.

Just after lunch, our injured companion returned to much jubilation at the stern of the ship. We then watched a feature film, Charlie’s Country while the ship set sail for North Turtle Islet.

Only about 50 hectares (0.17 square miles) in size, this small sandy cay offers nesting sea birds the opportunity to settle in breeding pairs and raise their young. Australian pelicans were resting on the sandy shore together with pied cormorants. At low tide, the exposed reef provided white-face herons easy pickings. Silver gulls chased reef egrets, an act of kleptoparasites according to our naturalists! We saw lots of green turtles popping up for a breath, only to duck back down upon seeing the Xplorer nearby, while jumping batfish ‘flew’ out of the water.

After recap we watched the sun setting on one side while the moon simultaneously rose on the other; quite a spectacular sight and not one often observed. However, this was not the only phenomena of the evening. As we sipped cocktails, a green flash marked the descent of the sun before the darkening skies gave a pearly luminescence to the rising moon.

Sunday, May 19
Dolphin Island, Dampier Archipelago

Today we found ourselves just to the north of Legendre Island in the Dampier Archipelago; the Xplorer deployed at first light to do soundings, trying to find a passage through to Dolphin Island. The waters were too shallow, however, and we had to explore another route through the infamous Flying Foam Passage where, in 1868, reprisals against the Yaburara by colonists left 50-100 innocent people dead.

While the ship was looking for good anchorage, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. Expedition operations were finally in place and we departed the Coral Discoverer to visit a small beach on Dolphin Island.

Some scrambled up the huge iron-red boulders looking for petroglyphs with Shirley, while others used their binoculars to scan the scene. We found a significant number of petroglyphs, all very similar in design. Shirley suggested the site had a specific ritual purpose because of the consistent designs carved into the rocks. On the other side of the beach, up another huge set of boulders, others began to find petroglyphs depicting animals; snakes, turtles, goanna or other lizards, emus, and dancing people! We were all very excited about our morning discoveries, but it was time to head back to the ship for lunch.

In the afternoon we attempted to land on another beach. On our way, we were entertained by a huge, feeding manta ray on the surface. The water was so shallow we had to disembark the Xplorer and take Zodiacs in as far as they would go before disembarking these and walking through ankle-deep water to the beach. Again, we scrambled through boulders in search of petroglyphs. We found one depicting a wallaby with a spear through it, as well as turtle images on surrounding rocks. The sun now low, we walked back along the tidal flats. The water line was now so far out that we traversed the rippled sand where jellyfish together with lots of small crabs and tiny sea stars had been left to await the rising tide.

After our evening briefing we enjoyed cocktails while watching the new moon rise, a gigantic red disc emerging from the horizon.

Monday, May 20
Trimouille & Northwest Islands, Montebello Islands Marine Park

A beautiful sunrise revealed Trimouille and Northwest Islands in the Montebello Island National Park, just 81 miles (130 kilometers) off the Pilbara coast. More than 260 islands and islets in the Marine Park endured British nuclear testing in the 1950s. The area continues to be radioactive, with signs warning visitors that only short visits are safe visits! We were looking for the endangered rufous hare-wallaby, a small macropod once widely distributed across western Australia. The mala, as it is known in the Anangu language, is an important ancestral being to Aboriginal groups. During the Dreamtime the mala ancestor handed down Mala Law, telling people how to care for Country and each other. Today, mala survive only on one island free of introduced predators, Trimouille. There are also four small semi-wild populations behind conservation fences on the mainland. We were fortunate to see several of these little marsupials as we walked over limestone rock through hummock grassland, encouraged that with significant effort, these Dreamtime creatures will survive.

Walking over the headland, we entered another little bay where we heard and saw various species of honeyeaters and a white-breasted woodswallow in a small stand of mangroves. Making our way back to the landing site, we had to avoid the quickly rising tide. The waters in the bay breached the sand bar at the far corner of the beach as the tide rose and water flowed quickly along the back of the sand bar and into a patch of mangroves. A large number of various ray species waited for an opportunity to rush in. We watched in awe as they individually, or in groups, took advantage of the fast rising tidal ‘highway.’ A pair of oystercatchers flew over the Xplorer as we boarded, a special goodbye to this radioactive wonderland.

After lunch we had opportunities to dive over coral bommies and snorkel in the bay with the rays.

Tuesday, May 21
Ningaloo Reef, Exmouth

The coast and reef off Exmouth are named from the Wajarri language Ningaloo, meaning “promontory” or “high land jutting into the sea.” The Yamatji people have lived on their Country for over 30,000 years and have Native Title claims registered with the Native Titles Tribunal. Exmouth, however, is a significantly newer establishment on the North West Cape of Western Australia. It was built in 1967 to support a United States Naval Communication Station. The tall communication towers dotted along the coastline provided points of attraction for our numerous guides. Today the area relies mostly on tourism, being the gateway to Ningaloo Reef.

As the Xplorer was lowered into the water, the sun rose, beautiful and full of promise for a successful day. We were taken to the main harbor where we boarded buses and headed south along the coast to another harbor where small vessels designed for whale shark encounters awaited. Once on board we were divided into two groups and told that on their signal, “Group 1! Go, Go, Go, Group 2 get ready! This was the signal to slide quietly into the water, line up, put our heads under and enjoy the sharks as they swam past. It all sounded quite daunting until we had our first encounter; then it was just routine fun! Throughout the morning we had spectacular encounters with five whale sharks! The first one we were told was unique. This whale shark circled us with its mouth wide open! It was hard to get out of its way! The next two were fast, uninterested in the tiny humans trying to swim with them. We had to swim fast to keep up, soon seeing only their tails disappear in the distance. The fourth one had a much slower pace and we were able to swim alongside for some time. The fifth stayed for a while, seemed to want to dive but then came back up and continued to swim with us. The whole experience was magical! In comparison, our sighting of the humpback whale almost paled into insignificance.

After lunch on our little vessels we returned to the Xplorer for some snorkeling and diving. Divers glided through a large school of glass fish and saw lots of flatworms and nudibranchs. A large bull ray provided an appropriate finish to the dive. Snorkelers followed finger reefs covered in an array of coral, both soft and hard. We saw lots of reef sharks, rays, parrotfish, and unicornfish.

Returning to the ship waterlogged and cold, we jumped into showers to warm up before drinks on the Sun Deck and a BBQ dinner.

Wednesday, May 22
Turquoise Bay, Exmouth

The reef and surrounding waters off Exmouth became part of the Ningaloo Marine Park in 1987. The largest and most accessible fringing reef in Australia, the park has many sandy beaches with points of access to the reef. This morning we were off to explore Turquoise Bay. A break in the reef enables currents to flow moderately with rising and falling tides. This makes the bay an ideal spot for drift snorkeling! Walking south along the sandy beach, we entered the water and into the north-flowing current. We had to keep looking up from the water for our exit point so as not to be swept further than intended! The exhilarating ride, however, gave us ample time to see turtles, rays, unicornfish, groupers, parrotfish, and blue damselfish. Little dart fish swam in the sandy shallows as we left the water to walk south along the beach for another ‘ride’.

Having our fill of snorkeling we drove to Yardie Creek Gorge. While a picnic lunch was being organized, we followed a little trail above the brilliant blue water, contrasting magnificently with the red limestone cliff face. After examining a termite mound, fighting off persistent flies, we walked further along spotting western bowerbirds! Some of us clambered over rough limestone and were rewarded with great views of the little black-footed rock wallabies. Returning to the picnic site, we enjoyed a delicious lunch with crested doves on the lookout for scraps.

Heading back towards Exmouth, we stopped briefly at the Parks and Wildlife information center, full of souvenirs and displays of the fauna and flora of the area. Outside, a flock of galahs entertained us. Continuing our journey, we stopped at the lighthouse on Vlaming Head. Completed in 1912, the lighthouse is difficult to reach by sea in this isolated part of the West Australian coast; the nearest port 200 miles away! The view from the top of Vlaming Head, however, is spectacular, affording views of both sides of the peninsula. Arriving at Exmouth, we had the opportunity to explore this little town, many of us heading to Froth, a local brewery for a refreshing beer before returning to the ship.

Divers didn’t imbibe or return to the ship. Instead, they headed to the Naval pier for a night dive. With vision restricted to the light in front of each torch, the encounters with sea life were more intimate and the stories told back onboard for breakfast larger than life.

Thursday, May 23
Muiron Islands

The Muiron Islands are part of the 2011 World Heritage listing for the Ningaloo region. Located just nine nautical miles from Exmouth, both North and South Muiron Islands make up over 70,000 acres of the Muiron Islands Marine Management Area. Pronounced ‘Myoo-ron’, the islands are separated by a deep-water channel. Both islands run in a north-easterly direction. The scouting team were out at sunrise looking for snorkel and dive spots. While divers made two dives in the morning, others scoured the beach looking for green and loggerhead turtles’ nesting tracks and body pits. Empty eggshells were a sure sign that the hatchlings had made their way out of the turtle nests, heading for the water. Birders attempted to walk to a bird colony, but spinifex defeated their attempts. Nevertheless, we saw lots of osprey catching fish, together with black-shouldered kites and roseate terns. As we left the beach, we had the Xplorer take us closer to the sea bird colony where many nesting birds deafened us with their calls to each other. The eau d’ guano was so powerful we didn’t stay long!

Snorkelers found a magnificent covering of soft and hard corals. Exploring the submerged valleys and gorges of the reef. It was evident that the Muiron Islands were as pristine as they get in the 21st century.

Back onboard for a quick lunch, we shared our experiences before heading back out to dive or snorkel this afternoon. The dive was near to where we dove this morning with excellent sightings of nudibranchs and flatworms. Those snorkeling had to be aware of the strong surge close to breaking waves, but the effort was well worth it, again encountering a healthy reef ecosystem.

Friday, May 24
Malus & Rosemary Islands, Dampier Archipelago

Now on our return route towards Broome, we are back in the Dampier Archipelago, this time in the far southwest islands. Aboriginal people used these islands as their home when the sea levels were considerably lower, experiencing rising and falling sea levels more than once as the world went through different glacial phases. Malus Island is arguably more memorable for being the most northern and remote colonial era, shore-based whaling station in Western Australia. It was American whalers who had been visiting the islands in the early 19th century; log books suggesting that the islands were suitable for several months of whaling. In 1870 three tons of oil were sent to Perth! However, within the decade, this resource had greatly declined along the West Australia coastline. Reminders of these activities are at Whalers Bay, where the remains of a station are located, though whaling has been banned in Australia since 1978.

After scouting Marney Bay on Malus Island, we embarked the Xplorer and made our way to see what we could find. It was not the place for petroglyphs; sandstone not a preferred medium to work with by Yaburara rock carvers. Nevertheless, we found squid pens along the spongy sand and a Sturt’s desert pea in full flower! A huge flock of little corellas flew over the beach and we saw many osprey and black-shouldered kites.

Divers were able to go under twice this morning and snorkelers were taken from the beach by Zodiac and dropped off onto the reef not far away. There were lots of healthy table and mushroom corals, a perfect home to nudibranchs and a variety of reef fish.

After lunch, we explored Norbil Bay on Rosemary Island, the larger of these two outer islands. Again, we hoped to find petroglyphs but, as with Marney Bay, the dominant substructure is sandstone. However, we did find a standing stone, indicating that the site had some significance to Aboriginal people. Indeed, archaeologists have found a 9,000-year-old ‘village’ with the oldest house structures in Australia. We found a huge osprey’s nest perched on a cliff ledge where we had lovely views over the aqua-blue waters. Meeting back at the landing site we found a ‘beach bar’ had been set up. While some snorkeled with stingray and needlefish, others stood in the shallows, glass of wine in hand or a stubbie of Matso’s ginger beer! Here we cheered our last landing in these beautiful, remote waters off the western edge of Australia.

Saturday, May 25
Bedout Island

With the number of sunrises we had already witnessed, you would think we would tire of them. This one took our breath away; our last sunrise before coming alongside at Broome. The morning light revealed frigatebirds following the ship. The rising sun suddenly ‘popped’ out of the horizon, spreading orange and red fingers of color across the sky.

After breakfast, we went on our last ride in the Xplorer, heading to a small sand cay, Bedout Island. Lying 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of Port Hedland, it was formed from an ancient fringing coral reef. It is now heavily vegetated with spinifex and provides a good nesting location for seabirds seeking a place to raise chicks with lots of good food nearby. As we approached the island, schools of silver fish ‘flew’ out of the water, the sun reflecting off their silver sides in the low light.

Slowly making our way around the island, we saw birds flying to and fro instead of hovering over the waters around us. Clearly, we were in a ‘transition’ space between their feeding areas and the chicks on nests. This is the largest brown booby colony in Western Australia, with over 1,000 nesting pairs utilizing the sand cay. We also saw masked boobies, brown noddies, great crested terns, and roseate terns.

While the Xplorer quietly navigated the shallows, we had a lesson in long, complex words: obligate siblicide (an older chick kills the younger), endosymbiotic dinoflagellates (relating to zooxanthellae and their coloring events), epipelagic penetrators (epipelagic refers to the upper 200m of the water column, just above the ‘Twilight Zone, or the mesopelagic zone 200m to 1,000m below sea level. Penetrators are any instrument used to explore these zones), and finally, matrilateral avunculocal residence (the preferred residence rule for someone, usually male, who must reside with his mother’s brother). We learned a lot of immediately useful terms on our last outing! As we floated in the waters of Western Australia for the last time, looking at the little island, the motors were turned off and we spent some time in silence just taking in the moment. Brad appropriately declared the day a, “Hooray for Boobies Morning.”

Time to set our course northeast we returned to the ship and had a day at sea filled with lectures. Shirley started us off with her presentation, We Fought Back: Aboriginal Resistance and Activism. After lunch Sacha’s lecture, From Whale Songs to Fish FRTs, provided an awareness of the soundscape below the surface of the water. Our lecture series finished with Tom’s presentation, “ow We Could Save the World’s Coral Reefs.

Packed and all dressed up, we joined Captain Gary Walsh for cocktails and dinner.

To cap off a fabulous expedition together, Rich presented his slide show of images recalling all that we had experienced together over these wonderful eleven days.

Sunday, May 26
Boome / Disembark

The business of the morning for the captain and crew was to bring the Coral Discoverer alongside while we had our last breakfast, saying our goodbyes to the staff who had looked after us so well. Finally time to disembark, we left the ship, boarding our bus, and headed to town for an hour to explore Broome in the relative cool of early morning. After picking up last minute treasures or enjoying a coffee, we left for the airport, checked in and when our time came, flew either to Perth or to Melbourne. Finally, it was time to say our goodbyes and go our different ways, some homeward bound and others to explore more of Australia.

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