Thursday, July 12, 2018
Today, everyone met at the Cairns Shangri-La Hotel for our Great Barrier Reef trip. Once everyone was settled into their rooms we made our way to the Salt House Restaurant and Bar for dinner. A fantastic menu was set out for us and we all enjoyed our meals, wine, and conversation. After dinner it was time to head back to the Shangri-La for a good night’s sleep before our morning tours.
Friday, July 13
Cairns / Cape Tribulation / Kuranda / Trinity Wharf / Embark Coral Expeditions II
After breakfast, our groups prepared for their day tours of Cairns and the surrounding areas. Our early morning intrepid group boarded their private bus to head north to Cape Tribulation. After crossing the mighty Daintree River via the cable ferry, our group headed for a boardwalk that took them through beautiful rainforest, mangrove ecosystems, and the beach. It is easy to see why they say Cape Tribulation is where the rainforest meets the reef. The lush tropical rainforest which is one of the oldest in the world winds its way down the mountains and stops right at the beach where there are small coastal reef systems.
After touring through the beautiful ecosystems around Cape Trib our group had lunch at Lync Haven surrounded by wildlife including eclectus parrots, swamp wallabies, and carpet pythons. After a great lunch it was time to head back across the Daintree to Cooya Beach. Here the Walker brothers, traditional owners of the land took us for a walk along the beach at low tide to explain how they and their ancestors traditionally used the land and its bounty for food and medicine. We were able to walk through the mangroves to see how intricate the root systems of the Rhyzophora or red mangroves are, while on the hunt for mud crabs. Our guides then welcomed us into their home to explain more about their culture and show us some traditional artifacts. After saying our goodbyes it was time to head back to Cairns to board our ship.
While the Cape Trib adventurers were away, the rest of the group boarded the Kuranda train in Cairns and made their way through the suburbs of Cairns and up into the Kuranda Range. A private car for the group provided a comfortable vantage point and the views from the windows were amazing looking down to the coast out to the Coral Sea and at waterfalls coming down the side of the mountain from the Upper Barron River. Arriving in Kuranda the group went to the koala sanctuary and had the opportunity to hug a koala and meet some other local Aussie favourites including various wallabies, wombats, and sugar gliders. A delicious lunch was provided at the Tree Frog Cafe with some time afterward to relax. The trip back to Cairns was going to be very different as the group left the train behind and boarded the cable car system that follows the Kuranda Range down, giving amazing views out to the coast and over the top of the beautiful dense rainforest canopy.
Once at the bottom everyone boarded the bus and headed to Trinity Wharf to board the Coral Expeditions II, our home for the next ten nights! Once aboard, we were welcomed by the crew and then we made our way out of Trinity Inlet towards Trinity Bay. Great views of Cairns were enjoyed on the sundeck with a glass of champagne before we headed inside for a briefing and introduction to the vessel. After finishing with our briefings we enjoyed a delicious seafood buffet for dinner on our calm anchorage off Double Island near Palm Cove.
Saturday, July 14
Escape Reef and Ribbon Reef 3
We awoke after a night of steaming to our first sightings of the approaching Great Barrier Reef. After breakfast and collecting our snorkel gear, the crew moored us safely into position at Escape Reef. Nearby is Rachel Carson Reef, named after the famous American naturalist. The wind was a little strong, so most of us opted for a glass bottom boat (glassy) trip to start the day while the divers prepared for their check out dive. The water was very clear, and we had amazing views of the beautiful coral life including many species of Porites and Acropora. We also saw many burrowing clams amongst the Porites and feather stars clinging to the sides of the coral.
After our glassy trip it was time for a snorkel and the reef really came to life as the sun shone down and showed us all of its stunning color. Fish life included steephead parrotfish, longnose butterflyfish, and scissortail sergeants swam freely over the top and at the sides of the reef. Blue linckia sea stars and sea cucumbers could also be found readily over the top of the reef in the shallows. Our divers all made it back safe and sound and were also treated to the beautiful sights of the reef and its inhabitants. Despite the wind the sun was shining, the water was clear and the marine life was abundant.
After a great morning we dropped our moorings and during lunch, headed north to the first of our Ribbon Reefs, Ribbon Reef 3. Escape Reef is the most common type of reef found on the GBR being a shallow reef built up on the continental platform. The Ribbon Reefs are the farthest reefs from the mainland and are out near the continental slope. Swimming a few hundred feet off these reefs can have you in water over 1,600 feet deep, whereas the reefs around Escape Reef are all found in area that has an average maximum depth of 130 - 200 feet. The glassy was again a popular choice for those not diving.
As the tide had dropped, the conditions were calmer but the reef was closer to the surface so we had to navigate the glassy carefully along the edge of the reef and over the deeper areas. Here we saw massive stands of beautiful branching staghorn coral, an enormous growth of Pavona, and our leviathans the Porites boulder corals. Huge giant clams were showing off their beautiful mantles as the zooxanthellae in their tissue photosynthesised, producing food for their hosts. Our divers swam from the back of the ship and circumnavigated a large coral bommie and were treated to schools of fusiliers swimming along the edges of the reef as well as surgeonfish, parrotfish, and many species of damselfish amongst the stunning corals.
The snorkelers then had a chance to make their way around the same bommie from the surface. Again we had great views of giant clams, pink anemonefish, blueline fusiliers, and large numbers of parrotfish and surgeonfish to name but a few. Once everyone had finished with in-water activities we dried off and the ship made its way to Ribbon Reef 5 for our overnight anchorage. Over a sumptuous dinner we toasted to a great first day on our expedition of the Great Barrier Reef.
Sunday, July 15
Ribbon Reef 10 / Eagle Rock
Today was a special day, as it was our first chance to see if we could find the dwarf minke whales that travel from Antarctic waters during winter to stay for a few months around the northern Ribbon Reefs of the GBR. This is the only place in the world where people can swim with these amazing mammals, the second smallest baleen whale in the world behind the pygmy right whale. They congregate here during winter to calve and enjoy the warmer waters during the winter months. Luckily for us we had a volunteer research scientist with us, Andi Laidlaw from James Cook University in Townsville. Under her guidance we would hopefully observe and be able to interact with these beautiful and inquisitive mammals.
Andi was up at first light to scan the horizon for signs of the minkes and as we made our way past Ribbon Reef 9 and into Ribbon Reef 10 she spotted several whales surfacing and breaching. Andi explained that this is a behavior not often seen for minke whales. Our destination was Eagle Rock, a small pinnacle bommie surrounded by deeper water. Once we anchored the vessel everyone was up on deck to search for whales in the surrounding waters. It wasn’t long until we spotted two individuals who started to make their way toward us. Once they swam around us for 20 minutes or so, Andi decided to put our “minke line” in the water. At the end of the line goes a selected volunteer to let us know if the minkes are coming up to look at them, this person is often referred to as the “bait” and our bait was Rich Pagen.
Once the “bait” showed us that the whales were now comfortable and hanging around, others were allowed into the water to make their way along the line to position themselves for viewing. Upon the decision to start our in-water interaction we divided everyone into groups so we only had a few people in the water at a time to give us a better chance of observing and the whales less people to concentrate on. Those who went into the water were treated to incredible close up views of up to five individuals at a time! The in-water portion of the day wasn’t the only fun, as spending time on the sundeck allowed for great above water views of the minkes. It was exciting to spot the whales and let everyone in the water know “They’re Coming!” As the day drew to an end we were the ones who left the whales as we needed to head to our next destination. They stayed with us the entire time we were there and Andi explained later that from first sighting of the mInke whales until the last person left the water was a staggering nine hour interaction! Another amazing fact to come out of the day was that from Andi’s photos and those donated by us she determined there were at least 15 different individuals with us during our stay. What a great day!
Monday, July 16
Lizard Island / Eagle Islet
Before sunrise, a handful of intrepid hikers had a quick breakfast before making our way to shore on picturesque Lizard Island. We were embarking on a long hike to the highest point on the island known as Cook’s Look. Named after James Cook after he made his way to the peak in 1770 to find a way through the great reef system he had previously struck with his ship, the Endeavour and had repaired in the previous weeks on the mainland. The hike, though hard at times, revealed amazing views of Watson’s Bay below where ship was anchored. As we made our way ever closer to the top, the views revealed the three islands attached to Lizard—South, Palfrey, and Bird. Surrounding all of these islands were amazing fringing reefs which stood out in the beautiful turquoise waters that encased them. We saw an Australian kestrel, many rainbow bee-eaters along with flowering kapok trees and termite mounds. At the peak we could see out to the reef system that Cook observed years earlier, while low lying clouds blew past us as the sun came out to light up the entire Island.
Below, the rest of our group finished breakfast on the ship and headed to Turtle Beach for a nice morning of beach combing and snorkeling. After our hike, we joined the group at the beach and made our way through the crystal-clear water to see forests of coral with a large variety of fish swimming over and through them. We even spotted a reef octopus hiding in a crevice in the reef changing its color to suit its surroundings. The divers explored a dive site known as the Cobia Hole, where they encountered large schools of fish, many nice corals, and a few nudibranchs.
After lunch, we all went ashore on Watson’s Bay Beach, just around the corner from Turtle Beach. Some decided to snorkel over a garden of giant clams. A juvenile green turtle was also spotted swimming in the shallows. Rich and Eddie Game led a walk along the mangrove boardwalk towards Chinaman’s Ridge and out through the forest. A colony of black flying foxes was seen along with many mangrove species including fiddler crabs and mudskippers. Rainbow bee-eaters were flying all over the island with the sunlight accentuating their vibrant colors.
Once back on board, we made our way to Eagle Islet, a beautiful sand cay about six miles away. As a group we went ashore with the hotel crew providing a beach bar for us. There were many nesting terns in the vegetation behind the beach, along with an osprey nest in a small tree. As the sun set over the mainland we raised a glass to another fine day before returning to the ship for dinner.
Tuesday, July 17
Stanley Island / Davies Cay
After steaming overnight, we arrived at the opening between Flinders and Stanley Island in Princess Charlotte Bay. Stanley Island was our destination for the morning—its craggy peaks silhouetted at first light it provided us with a very rugged beauty. We enjoyed breakfast as the captain anchored the vessel and we waited for the tide to rise a little to make our landing easier. Most of the group headed ashore in the glassy where we had to transfer to a Zodiac to get closer before a short walk through shallow water. Our objective was to see the wonderful Aboriginal rock art in caves on the other side of the island, and luckily for us, we had an indigenous crew member with us for our walk. Majiik Morris spoke to the land for us to let the ancestral spirits know we were here and that we meant no disruption to their home.
After Majiik’s words we made our way across a flat trail to the other side of the island where we beachcombed along the way to the art site. Many shells of various species were found along with cuttle bone and mangrove propagules. The walk up to the art site was mainly on a boardwalk created by the national park to protect the art. The Yindayan art shelter has many drawings of animals such as turtles, dugongs, and crocodiles. It also has ‘contact’ art in the form of many types of ships ranging from Indonesian prau to Dutch and English sailing vessels. Perhaps the most unique art here is the cross shaped figures that have been given the name “moth motifs.” Yindayin is a very remote island and we were very lucky to be able to travel here to see art that not many people have the opportunity to see.
The island’s geology is spectacular and everywhere we looked we could see caves and pinnacles with trees doing their best to hang on to the side of the rocks. We spent a little more time searching the beach and taking in the beautiful environment before heading back to the landing site. The tide had risen considerably and the glassy could come right to shore to give us a dry boarding. While we had been away, the small group that stayed behind went for a cruise through the bay and mangroves where dugongs and turtles were spotted.
During lunch, we decided to brave the wind and head out to Davies Cay, a small unvegetated sand cay to the north of Stanley Island. Upon arrival we split into a snorkeling group and a birding group. Those snorkeling started off near the beach, and as we made our way out to the edge of the reef, the coral life became more and more spectacular with colorful colonies of varying Acropora, Pocillopora, and Porites housing a myriad of fish life amongst them. This was some of the healthiest coral we had seen, and when we arrived at the edge where it dropped into the deep the canyons, the sides of the reef were incredible.
Those deciding to stay dry took a ride in the glassy to get closer to the sand cay and view the bird life. The island had colonies of various nesting terns including crested and bridled along with brown boobies. Once we had all had our fill we returned to the ship to shower and get ready for dinner.
Wednesday, July 18
This morning we awoke anchored off Howick Island. The divers headed out to Mid Reef and decided to snorkel instead, as the visibility wasn’t very good. They had a great time with many turtles and huge schools of fish roaming around the edges of the reef. The rest of us went ashore on Howick Island to explore the beach and mangroves. Varied honeyeaters and rainbow bee-eaters flew from tree to tree along with as we made our way along the mangrove forest edge. A small trail allowed us access to the other side of the island where we were able to walk is shallow, clear water through the mangroves. Mangrove jack and blacktip reef sharks swam among the roots, while crabs and brittle stars were found amongst the rocks. It was a beautiful morning and a great walk to start the day.
Back at the ship, we decided that due to poor water visibility on the near reefs, we would head offshore. The charts revealed a sand cay attached to an outlying reef system that looked very attractive. So, it was decided our afternoon was to be spent at Sandbank No. 1 Reef! A new destination for everyone on board. As we steamed out to Sandbank No. 1 reef we had a nice relaxing lunch and Rich provided us with a lecture about sex in the marine world.
Upon arrival, the snorkelers and beach walkers went ashore while the divers got dressed in for an afternoon under the water. Snorkeling provided us with more great views of the fringing coral reef, large schools of reef fish, reef sharks, and moray eels. The divers returned after a successful foray onto the outer edge of the reef to join us on the beach. As the afternoon sun started to dip, the hotel crew opened up the beach bar for all to enjoy a relaxing drink on the picturesque sand cay, which even had a few brown boobies nesting on sand scrapes. With the sun starting to set we returned to the ship for our well-earned showers before drinks and dinner.
Thursday, July 19
Ribbon Reef 9
Today saw our group returning to the Ribbon Reef system, this time it was Ribbon Reef 9. A spectacular reef system within the lagoon area provided us with a long wall to navigate over and along. The divers got into the water nice and early and right from entry we knew it would be a good dive with a huge school of hundreds of bumphead parrotfish congregating near the reef top. After spending time with these heavy weights of the parrotfish world (up to 5 feet in length) we set off to explore the rest of the reef. Through the abundance of staghorn coral forests and the massive Faviid and Poritid corals we saw teams of beautiful fish going about their morning. Another highlight being a large broad club cuttlefish hovering over a honeycomb coral, changing its color and skin texture to try and blend in to its environment. Another huge school of bumphead parrotfish was seen hovering over the reef top while in the sandy bottom hundreds of garden eels swayed back and forth collecting plankton from the water.
After breakfast, it was time for everyone to join in and the glassy proved to be very popular. We were greeted by a very colorful reef top with a huge variety of coral species. The bumphead parrotfish were still around, and we saw them dashing beneath the glass panels. Forests of brilliant blue staghorn coral grew up from the sandy bottom and thousands of damsels, anthias, and chromis stayed nearby for protection in case of predators. The snorkelers geared up and headed in to encounter the bumphead parrotfish, a kaleidoscope of color from the coral and the fish, and some of the lucky ones got to meet the cuttlefish we had seen on the dive.
It was such a beautiful day, we decided to spend the afternoon here as well and the divers, snorkelers, and glassy fans all went out to see the reef in all its glory. We had a break in the wind, so we were going to head out to Osprey Reef, a submerged atoll over 100 miles from the mainland! This was to be the farthest we would travel offshore during on our journey and the only atoll we would visit. A real ‘lifer’ for anyone wanting to see the GBR, way out in the depths of the Coral Sea.
Friday, July 20
After a night of real “rock ‘n roll” out into the Coral Sea, we made it out to Osprey Reef. Even though the ship’s movement may have hindered some sleep, we were ecstatic about making it to a reef system so few get to see. The plan for the morning was to get the divers in at a site called North Horn. Once in the water, we made our way along the wall at North Horn watching it disappear beneath us. A swim of 600 feet away from the reef wall would see us in almost 6,000 feet of water! The spectacular wall had whitetip reef sharks on their final hunt before retiring for the day, while hammerhead sharks cruised in the deep blue just beyond us. Schools of purple and scalefin anthias sat around coral heads feeding on any nutrients or plankton floating by, while large predators like potato grouper watched for an easy meal. Down from the wall, a plateau of reef protruded out at about 80 feet in depth and a school of 10 or more gray reef sharks moved through the current with ease. A perfect dive to start the day.
Once the divers were back on board, we had breakfast and made our way south along the western side of the atoll to the mouth of the lagoon entrance. It was here that we all went for a glass bottom boat ride to assess the area before heading back out to snorkel. During the glassy cruise the highlight was a leopard shark resting on the bottom. As we entered the water we came across two whitetip reef sharks sleeping on the sandy bottom after a night of hunting the edge of the reef. Swimming out from the shallows in the lagoon, we reached the edge that dropped into deep blue below us with beautiful coral heads covered in a myriad of colorful reef fish. Some were lucky enough to see a large manta ray cruising along the edge of the reef in the blue water. After a successful morning diving, glass bottom boating, and snorkeling, we had lunch and made our way down to the southwestern tip of Osprey Reef. Eddie Game gave us a lecture about the Great Barrier Reef, its management, and how it is coping with climate change.
Rapid Horn is the name given to the southwestern tip of Osprey Reef and the captain maneuvered the ship for us as there are no moorings here, and the depth is so great it doesn’t allow for anchoring. The divers headed along a spectacular wall alive with corals, sponges, ascidians, and many other filter feeders. There were canyons and swim-throughs aplenty and the spectacular drop off from the wall with crystal clear water made for an epic dive. A silvertip shark came in, giving us a thrill, and we even came across a sleeping hawksbill turtle hanging on to the side of the reef.
The snorkelers had a great time exploring the amazing drop off seeing huge schools of fish, colorful corals, sharks, and an eagle ray. It was incredible to think that we were swimming in the Coral Sea some 100 miles from mainland Australia around an ancient atoll that has depths of over 11,000 feet surrounding it, a very special day indeed!
We had some ground to cover over night, so once we were all satiated from our in-water experiences the captain set a course to take us back to Ribbon Reef 10.
Saturday, July 11
Ribbon Reef 10 / Eagle Rock
The steam back from Osprey Reef was very calm overnight and we made great time towards Ribbon Reef 10. The first stop of the day was a pre-breakfast dive at “Cod Hole” which is named after the potato grouper that inhabit the area. In Australia we’ve nicknamed them cod hence the name, and the hole refers to the lagoon on the side of the reef here. The divers plunged down and were surrounded by red snapper, but no sign of the giant groupers here. Finally, a large grouper showed itself and swam busily through the group. This giant was at least five feet long and weighed over 100 pounds. Another slightly smaller individual came over but was briskly chased away by the large, dominant fish. It was a great dive watching the huge grouper maneuver between us, and we even had a quick look around the reef finding a sleeping whitetip reef shark and some very pretty nudibranchs.
Once back on board, we made our way into breakfast and the captain decided to try for another chance to see the wonderful dwarf minke whales. We made our way to Lighthouse Bommie to see if the minkes would be there. Positioned at the south of Ribbon Reef 10, Lighthouse Bommie is another pinnacle bommie known to have curious minke whales in attendance. About 20 minutes after anchoring, we saw the first of our minkes and the number quickly grew. The “bait;” Eddie this time, took the line from the stern of the ship and we waited for him to indicate the whales were present. Once Andi was satisfied they were hanging around we sent our first snorkelers in sunny and calm conditions. Our first group had great sightings of the whales and those on the top deck could observe the encounter as well.
Once our second group entered the water the whales slowly disappeared, was it something we said? After not spotting them for over 20 minutes, Andi advised us that that encounter had closed. A quick pow wow and it was decided to move back to Eagle Rock our location from our first day of minke viewing. Upon arrival, it took about 20 minutes to see our first whale. It was very small, which made us wonder if it was a calf. It was! The mother and calf appeared again beside the boat and it was such a beautiful sight. Andi told us it was very young, perhaps a month old and needed to breathe at least every minute or so. We were also informed of the rule that no one is allowed in the water while a calf is present. That was okay, as we were getting amazing views of the mother and calf that were quickly joined by a few juveniles playing around the boat.
Eventually the mother and calf left the area, however the other whales stayed so the “bait;” Jodie this time, headed out and let us know they were indeed feeling playful. It was on again and our groups headed out for perhaps the best viewing session of the trip. The sun was out, the water calm, and the whales very inquisitive. The top deck was an amazing place to be as well, we could all see the whales heading towards our snorkelers and again the cheers let the snorkelers know they were on their way. If only they kept their heads in the water and stopped looking up at us! Another fantastic encounter with these beautiful marine mammals and again it was us who had to leave the party as the sun started to sink in the sky. What a special treat to swim with these little-understood mammals in the only place in the world where something like this is possible.
Sunday, July 22
Ribbon Reef 3 / Undine Reef
How could it be that the days had moved so quickly? This was to be our last day on the Great Barrier Reef, but we were going to make the most of it! Overnight we anchored off a world-famous dive site known as Steve’s Bommie at Ribbon Reef 3. The divers met before first light for a sunrise dive. We dropped in in separate groups and descended to about 80 feet to see the plaque on the reef that dedicated the bommie to Steve, a captain that had spent his years on the reef and named this as his favorite location. At the bottom it was still a little dark; however with our torches we found numerous nudibranchs on the walls of the bommie. As we circled the bommie slowly rising as we swam, we came across schools of blue-lined snapper and goatfish. Bigeye trevally schooled in the surface waters above just like in a Blue Planet special. Lionfish swayed over the shallows of the reef with unicornfish and surgeonfish schools a little further out. There were anemones everywhere, hosting their anemonefish commensals, also now known as Nemos! A beautiful dive to begin the day, and the sun was shining brightly above as we surfaced.
During breakfast, the captain and crew took up our moorings on Ribbon Reef 3 and once we were all settled, the glassy took the group out for some coral and fish viewing. We explored a few different bommies and encountered many brightly colored giant clams, forests of stunning coral showing their colors in the sunlight, and schools and schools of fish including bluelined fusiliers. Once our enthusiasm was bursting at the seams, the divers headed out to explore new territory as the snorkelers headed out to circumnavigate the large bommie at the stern of the ship. With the sun out in full and the water calm, the conditions were perfect to slowly move around the reef and take in all there was to offer. Pink anemonefish, longnose butterflyfish, fusiliers, parrotfish, giant clams, blue sea stars, sea cucumbers, to name just a fraction of the abundant life here.
Ribbon Reef 3 had really presented itself in full this morning, and with smiles on our faces, we made our way south over lunch. In the late afternoon, we arrived at Undine Reef which has a small un-vegetated sand cay on one end—this was our target. With a cooler full of drinks, we headed ashore to feel the sand between our toes on the GBR one last time. A game of Bocci began with a few of us vying for the title; some were a little more competitive than others! Others cruised the small cay finding many beautiful shells and even the internal skeletons of a small species of squid. It was often remarked during the trip how many shells were on the beaches, which is a direct result of the protection of this World Heritage area. Take nothing with you and only leave only footprints is the motto here.
With a relaxing beverage in hand, we were treated to Majiik Morris our indigenous crew mate showing us some of his traditional songs and dances from the Torres Straits as the sun began to set over the Great Dividing Range on the mainland. After this we raised a toast to our staff, crew, guests, and beautiful environment we had immersed ourselves in. The sun set, and we made our way back to the ship for a top deck BBQ cooked expertly by our captain, David Boon. Rich played his slideshow of the trip during desserts so we could all look back fondly on our time together in this most special of places on our wonderful planet.
Monday, July 13
Cairns / Disembark
Over breakfast this morning, the captain moored the ship gently alongside Trinity Wharf to return us safely back to where we had departed some 11 days ago. After our tearful goodbyes we all made our way to Tjapukai, an indigenous cultural center. Our private guide, Gulurru, showed us all the right fruits and nuts to eat from the forest and the ones to avoid. He then took us into a theater for an audio visual performance with two of his peers telling us the story of creation in the Cairns area. It was stunning to see, and gave us a great idea of the ‘dreaming’ where life began. After this, he took us out to test our spear and boomerang throwing capabilities, lucky for us, there are supermarkets these days. After a little gift shop purchasing, it was off to lunch at Palm Cove.
Vivo’s Restaurant was our lunch location. A fabulous lunch was had by all, and after a quick stroll on the beach, we made our way back to the Shangri-La Hotel to check in and relax for the afternoon. Our farewell dinner at the Waterbag and Grill was a great celebration of our time together, but also a celebration of how much meat could fit on a plate! Stomachs full of sumptuous food and hearts full of great memories we said our final goodbyes and made our way back to our rooms for a well-earned sleep.