For our previous Episode (Episode 61) we had a fun month exploring Hervey Bay and The Great Sandy Straights.
It was great weather with unseasonal light winds making for excellent conditions for whale watching, fishing and general exploring.
We stayed a bit longer than anticipated because of the lack of wind to sail north to the reef – but we weren’t complaining…..
We had many fantastic experiences
with the Humpback Whales in Hervey Bay
with the Humpback Whales in Hervey Bay
The Whiting Fishing was fantastic
Many an afternoon was spent taking sunset and star photos
around the old Mckenzie’s Jetty on Fraser Island.
around the old Mckenzie’s Jetty on Fraser Island.
The story of our month in Hervey Bay – light to no wind and super glassy conditions!!!
Our Location for this Episode
With the winds finally forecasted to be stronger and consistent enough to sail north to the reef, we started to prepare to leave The Great Sandy Straights and Hervey Bay.
We sailed 20nm north to Big Woody Island before putting the tinny in and going into the Marina precinct to do a final “Top Up” of food (particularly fresh food as we’d already done a major shop just 3 weeks prior) as well as a quick top up of diesel and petrol.
Paul waited with the tinny at the public wharf while Lisa went shopping.
She returned some hours later in a cab that was overflowing with supplies which all had to be packed into the tinny.
This was her version of a “Quick Top Up” !!!
By the time we returned, packed all the food and fuel away and were ready to go, it was 9pm and we were stuffed so we went to bed instead of leaving straight away.
At 2:30am we woke to the sound of 15-20 knots of SW wind that arrived right as forecasted.
It wasn’t hanging around long and was forecasted to reduce by lunchtime, so we got up and set sail from Big Woody Island and started to sail north.
The wind was soooo cold with it blowing off the land so we hunkered down in the cockpit with about 4 layers of clothing, beanies, fleece socks, our wet weather jackets to stop the wind coming through and a blanket over the top of us.
And we were still cold!!!!!
It was a slow sail and we arrived at Lady Musgrave Island almost 24 hours later at 2am. Despite the super bright full moon, we anchored outside the lagoon using the island as protection.
It was hard to sleep with the noisy whales swimming around Lorelei and swimming between us and the reef edge which was not far away.
An aerial view of Lady Musgrave Reef, Lagoon and Island (at the top centre)
We waited until 9:30am to go through the pass and into the lagoon as it was spring tides and we wanted the speed of the water rushing through the pass to slow down considerably.
Despite the cold weather the day before, it was sooo much warmer and as soon as we were anchored, Lisa was over the side in a bikini and a dive mask to have a swim and to check the anchor had set properly.
We slept most of the afternoon and our friends Grant and Glynnis from the power cat Sea Wolf 2 turned up in the afternoon so we had drinks on their boat and enjoyed the sunset with the flat calm conditions.
At about 8pm the full moon rose and it was super bright.
The morning sunrise was interesting with all the cloud and the day started with continued glassy conditions.
It was overcast all day but still warm and not much wind.
We made the most of the great weather by going around to the outside of the reef to Manta Bommie and the Coral Gardens for a snorkel, a spearfish and to see if we could get in for a swim with the whales.
There were lots of Manta Rays and we showed Grant and Glynnis where the good snorkelling was but we didn’t do much spearing and we didn’t see any whales up close.
That arvo we went to the island to watch the sunset as we figured the cloudy conditions would make for great sunset photos.
There was a lot of driftwood high and dry on the beach.
It was low tide and the water trapped inside the reef was mirror smooth and made for great reflection photos.
In the end Paul settled on a combined driftwood (with long shadows) and mirror reflection shot just as the sun was setting.
Fully refreshed and raring to go, we had a little more time to concentrate on spearfishing so we started a little earlier to take advantage of the tides.
However we found the spearing hard as the water was cold and we had thicker wetsuits (meaning more weight on the weight belts) and the fish all seemed to be down a little deeper and below 20m/66ft depth.
It was hard going but we caught a few trout.
We saw lots of Manta Rays and even had a large Northern Whaler shark came in to check us out.
Aside from the resident 3.5m/12ft Tiger Shark that lives in the area, its by far the biggest shark we’ve ever seen at Lady Musgave.
Towards the end of the session, a large all black Oceanic (or Morph) Manta Ray turned up with a series of large Remoras and a Cobia Kingfish swimming along underneath it.
Paul saw the Cobia and managed to dive down to about 15m/50ft below the Manta Ray.
It took a while for Paul to get a clear shot at the Cobia as he defiately didn’t want to risk hitting the Manta Ray or the Remoras.
Finally the shot was a clear one when the Manta litted its wing tips up high and Paul managed to get a good holding shot into the Cobia.
It took a few minutes to get it up to the surface but all in all it was a good fight and Paul’s personal best Cobia Kingfish.
Needless to say there was a lot of prime fish fillets so we kept enough for just 2 meals and distributed the rest amongst 6 or 7 other very grateful cruising yachts in the lagoon.
After a lot of clean up, we went onto the Island again for the afternoon and sunset.
The central wooded section is nice for a walk in the late afternoon when it’s a little dark and we call it the Enchanted Forest with all the trees growing out in twisted directions.
There was also time for a walk around the outside of the island along the coarse coral beaches. There was even a Coral Tree!! Actually it was a dead tree that everyone seems to hang pieces of coral on the branches.
The sunset was nice but with the lack of cloud, the photos weren’t stunning like the day before.
However there were a lot of birds with 2 cheeky little Buff Banded Rails running around the beach and a lot of sea birds flying around between Lady Musgrave and the nearby Fairfax Islands.
With the arrival of light northerly winds, we woke to a calm anchorage as the Fairfax Islands protect Lady Musgrave from the swell and wind chop.
There were a lot of whales in the channel between the two Islands so we packed up the tinny for a day of snorkelling and hopefully getting to see some whales up close.
We started with a drift snorkel along the southern and protected side of Fairfax Island.
The area is a protected zone and whilst you can snorkel and dive, you cannot fish, spear or go ashore on the islands.
The lagoon in between the Islands is great to explore by boat.
The protected zoning is obviously working as we saw loads of fish life whilst snorkelling and even fish like Coral Trout and Red-Throat Emperor coming right up close to us.
There were lots of Turtles, some sharks and even a huge Spanish Mackerel.
As we were warming up in the tinny after the first snorkel, we spotted Whales just off the tip of the reef edge.
There were about 6 Humpback Whales so we thought we’d go out for a look.
We stopped half way out as we realised they were coming in towards us.
We were a little unprepared for an interaction so soon and Lisa was frantically trying to get mask and fins on as they came right up to us.
She jumped in only to have 4 large adult whales come straight up to her and were looking at her within touching distance.
To say she was excited was an understatement.
If only she had the camera. But it was our first attempt and we decided to leave it in the boat until we got our act together.
We tried a few more times and whilst we got to see them in the water, they were a little too far away for a close up shot with the 10mm super wide angle lens we had on the UW camera.
Paul rigged and camera ready (minus the big and bulky strobes that we use when scuba diving) to hop over the side at any time
But we did get to see them and it was very, very cool !!!!
On the way home we decided to detour towards Manta Corner at Lady Musgrave Island as the current was running and we assumed it would be perfect for some Manta action.
We did a few drifts down the reef edge and saw a stack of Mantas and got some photos.
It was interesting to see another Manta with the usual hoard of Remoras (suckerfish) underneath but in amongst them was a Cobia just like the one Paul speared (but a lot smaller – both Cobia and host Manta).
We’ve marked the Cobia with Red arrows in the photo below.
To the untrained eye, they look very similar to the Remora.
You can see why the spearfishing shot had to be very accurate.
Paul was in the water alone while Lisa was driving the tinny when along the reef came 4 whales that were travelling in the shallows.
They came past Paul and he was able to see their entire lengths in the clear water but once again just a little too far away for a great photo.
But he did get a few for proof…..
Towards the end a large school of Bludger Trevally came up onto the reef top.
We had seen the same school 2 months prior when we were scuba diving and they were off the side of the reef at 22m/66ft.
It was exciting to see them up around 10m/33ft and at a fun free diving depth.
Each time we dived down they would curiously swim towards us.
Then they would close to within touching distance and swim around and around us in a tight circle until we ran out of breath and had to surface.
It was very cool and a lot of fun, particularly considering they were quite large and each about 75cm/2.5ft long.
We headed home buzzing but totally stuffed as we’d been free diving up and down all day and in and out of the tinny dozens of times.
We got home to find out we were even a little sunburnt – Yay!!
Bring on the warmer weather……
At sunset we headed over to Sea Wolf to say goodbye to our friends Grant and Glynnis as they were leaving the next morning and heading in a different direction to us.
We have this habit of bumping into them a lot and in the last 12 months we have cruised in 3 states with them. It won’t be the last time we see them.
Their high fly bridge made for a great platform to view the sunset over the lagoon.
It was quite windy and cold that night and we thought it was the start of some windy days but we woke the next morning to a virtual glass out – and it stayed that way until 2pm!
With the beaut conditions we went for a long paddle on the SUP’s.
We went towards the reef edge where the coral was prolific and shallow.
It was a rising tide so we managed to paddle over the very shallow coral reef past loads of turtles and out to the outer reef edge.
There were some small but super fun and long waves that we could catch on the boards. Unfortunately the camera battery died before we could get any of the surf shots.
Over the next few days the wind increased from the north enabling Paul to break out the kite gear and experiment with some new self-launching gear from Lorelei’s rear swim platform.
It worked a treat and the first day in the lighter winds he played around on his directional surfboard.
On the second day the wind pick up to 20 knots and it was onto the twin tip board for hours of fun in the lagoon and around the coral in the shallows at low tide.
The weather then was due to change drastically with a strong wing warning forecast for 2 days.
Most of the boats left and we contemplated whether to leave to run and hide up a creek on the mainland or tough it out for the 2 days before yet another week of forecasted light winds.
We elected to stay as the current wind direction was westerly which meant we would have had to motor into the wind to get back to the mainland.
However it was a little daunting when every single boat left the lagoon on the Friday leaving us all alone to ride it out for the weekend.
The wind was due to hit that evening so we slept in, had a big breakfast before deciding to move and re-anchor after the last boat left.
The idea was to get a little closer to the island and reef edge for slightly better protection and to put out more anchor chain.
We consulted satellite images and overlayed them onto our charts so we had a better idea where would be best amongst the coral bommies scattered throughout the lagoon.
As we went to move the wind got lighter and lighter and we motored around for about 20 minutes until we felt we had the best location.
We paid out a whopping 75m/250ft of chain in just 8m/27ft of water depth.
Lisa then jumped in for a swim and to go and inspect the chain and anchor on the bottom to make sure it was all set properly.
It went from calm to a complete glass out in just 1 hour and by lunchtime it was mirror smooth.
So with such beautiful conditions we had a great Friday arvo late BBQ lunch.
The fish around the boat were the only things creating ripples.
They loved the BBQ food scraps and hung around for days after that.
In the afternoon we packed all the toys away and tidied up ready for the evening’s onslaught.
It was only going to blow for 2-3 days and we were probably as well prepared as we were for cyclone Debbie.
But better to be over prepared on the reef than under prepared.
True to the forecast, the wind hit at 11:30pm that night.
We woke up to the wind generator roaring so we sat up in the cockpit for 30 minutes to make sure everything was ok and we weren’t dragging on anchor
(as if we would with that much chain out – but still…).
Incredibly we looked back down the lagoon to see a yacht’s lights motoring in towards us.
It had somehow navigated into the lagoon thru the pass at night in pitch black conditions (the moon didn’t come up until 1:30am) on a low tide with the tide still falling.
We also saw at daybreak there were children on board and they were in a standard 40ft production yacht from NSW (so they were not locals) and it didn’t have a radar to spot the waves around the reef at night.
ABSOLUTELY CRAZY !!!!!!!!!!
We’ve seen some crazy things bordering on dangerous before from inexperienced coastal cruisers but this was a whole new level of madness.
In all the 15+ years we’ve been coming here, we’ve never seen anyone negotiate the entry at night, let alone in those conditions.
To make matters worse they re-anchored closer to the island the next morning in 30 knots of wind, putting out very little chain, didn’t use a snubber (a rope to the chain to take the load off the anchor winch) and then immediately proceeded to put their inflatable in and go to the island before making sure the boat was sitting OK on anchor.
We were glad they weren’t near us for the bigger blow that was happening that night….
To our absolute astonishment they returned from the island, lifted anchor and headed out of the reef and set sail at 3pm on Saturday arvo.
With nowhere close to safely arrive before dark, they would undoubtedly have to do an overnight passage – somewhere….
They motored past all the Prawn Trawlers (who were on anchor and hunkered down for the night and when they are not going out then you know it’s rough…)
before putting up full main and headsail without any reefing and sailed off in 2-3m waves and 35 knots of increasing wind.
Once again – CRAZY!!!!
That night it was super ugly with winds consistently around 33 knots and gusts to 40 knots. But what was the worse was the swell which was forecast at 2.5m-4m (8-13ft).
It was fine at low tide but pretty bumpy onboard for a couple of hours either side of the high tide.
The next day (Sunday) the wind started to abate and so did the swell but it was still way too rough to leave Lorelei.
So instead we made lots of yummy food including some Sushi Rolls from locally caught Coral Trout and Squid.
Finally on Monday the wind backed off to around 15 knots but now it was very overcast and raining.
We were very thankful for the rain as there was so much salt spray on the boat from the storm.
The next day the weather was back to normal with a sunny day and only a little wind and swell.
And it showed as the lagoon started filling up quickly with cruising boats.
One boat that we were very excited to see was Rumbler – a fantastic power boat that friends Graham and Karen had swapped to from a yacht whilst we were overseas.
It had been years since we saw them last and it was so good to catch up over drinks that night.
Like us, Graham is a very keen spearfisherman so the next day the 4 of us piled into our tinny and went and speared around the outer edge of the reef.
It was a lot of fun and we probably laughed, talked, swam through Batfish schools, listened to whales and dodged sharks more than actually shooting fish, but a few Coral Trout did make it into the boat.
That afternoon the wind dropped out and Graham & Karen continued on their southward journey to beat the next strong southerly blow which was due to hit in 48 hours time.
With the great conditions, Paul put the SUP in and paddled to shore with his cameras to go for a walk around the island as it was spring low tide and the lowest tide for the month.
The reef was so exposed for a long way out around the island and he was able to walk out onto the hard coral to get some photos.
Back on the island the Pisonia Trees were filled with Noddy Terns which we had not seen ashore during the last few walks.
There were thousands of them and it was really loud in the forested areas.
Paul also walked a trail he hadn’t taken before and found some great looking Pandanus roots and Pisonia Trees which he turned into B&W photos.
We waited for the start of the next southerly blow to go past us before it started to abate and we were finally able to set sail for the Swains Reefs.
But not before enjoying one last cracking sunset from Lady Musgrave Lagoon.
We’d spent nearly 2 weeks at Lady Musgrave which certainly was a bit longer then we had hoped for – but so be it….
THE SWAINS REEFS
The Swains Reefs is a very large area of the Great Barrier Reef but is one of the most remote reef systems and is the furthest from land.
It’s nearly 100nm long and about 85nm in width with 100’s of isolated coral reefs interspaced with large areas of deep water all around.
There are no islands and only a handful of sand cays but most of those are protected as sea bird nesting areas and access is not permitted to the larger ones.
Due to the remoteness and large distance from the mainland there are no tourist day trips and there are no dive live-aboards working within the area.
The only boats that frequent the area are large week-long fishing charter boats (that occasionally do a spearing charter), commercial live trout fishing boats and the occasional private powerboat or yacht.
Paul was lucky enough to do an exploratory week long dive live aboard in The Swains Reefs back in the late 1980’s when a friend had to cancel at the last minute and offered the trip to Paul which he gladly accepted. He was only 20 and it was his first GBR experience. However it was a long time ago and he could barely remember some of the reefs that they dived at.
For us the Swains was one of the last areas of the Great Barrier Reef that we hadn’t visited on Lorelei or Purranha so it was high on our list of things to do.
But after 5 months of trying to get there this year with mostly terrible weather, we were wondering if it was ever going to happen.
Like cruising The Kimberley on Australia’s north-west coast, it is one of those areas where there is not a lot of information available on the web particularly about diving and other private boats experiences in the area.
Lisa spent hours and hours doing research and with the help of a few old Tom Byron & Neville Coleman diving books, reading a few other cruising boats blogs and a bunch of fishing GPS marks we got from our yachty friends Les and Kathy, she was able to work out a rough plan and a route for visiting the area.
The satellite images of the reefs that we were able to overlay onto our electronic charts was the best thing she did and enabled us to work out anchorages, routes as well as possible diving and spearing locations.
We wouldn’t have been able to do what we did without those overlays and Lisa’s extensive research….
The 2 old books from the 1980’s that we referenced for some of the diving
The overnight sail to the Swains was ok but a bit sloppy with a beam swell and a very short wave period meaning we were constantly rolling from side to side.
With good luck more than good management we arrived at the southern end of the Swains at 7am and low tide which enabled us to see the reefs edges when transiting into the reef system and to also have a look at the 2 southern sand cays on Hixson Reef.
We motored in past the light on the reef which we had sailed towards most of the night. We were going to stop at the cays for a look but they were a lot smaller than we expected and there wasn’t the thousands of sea birds that we were hoping for.
So we continued on for another 6 miles and slowly negotiated our way into our first anchorage at the southern end of Sweetlip Reef.
It was like a minefield of coral bommies with many coming up to less than 5m/16ft and even a few nearly touching the surface.
Paul stood on the bow calling directions to Lisa and had to keep asking the depth as the water was so clear and it was hard to judge the actual depth of the reef under Lorelei’s keel.
Thankfully there was little to no wind and we anchored safely in the glass out conditions.
Despite being a little tired, we were very keen to take advantage of the awesome conditions and within an hour of arriving, had the tinny in and the spearfishing gear loaded up.
We went out to a deep edge of the reef and had a look at a few locations which was made easy with the glassy surface conditions before deciding on a steep wall on the outer edge of the reef.
Whilst the water was clear, it was a lot colder than expected and we knew we wouldn’t last long with the thin wetsuits we had on.
It didn’t matter – the reef was full of fish and it was only 20 minutes before we had 2 Coral Trout and a Crayfish in the esky.
With dinner sorted we returned, ate and slept for the arvo before waking for the sunset – our first at The Swains Reefs.
The next morning we were up early and decided to spear another outer wall area and at the same time look for possible scuba sites.
But this time we wore thicker wetsuits!
We put a ban on shooting Coral Trout and Spanish Mackerel as it’s the most common fish to spear and eat at Lady Musgrave Island and we wanted a change.
With a reef named Sweetlip Reef we could only assume that there were Sweetlip Emperor (or more commonly known as Red-Throat Emperor) so we decided to target them.
Lisa was on fire and had nailed the first Red-Throat in less than 30 minutes with a perfect instant kill shot at around 15m/50ft depth.
Once to the surface, she realised it was a lot bigger than it looked at depth and she was chuffed to have shot her personal best Red Throat of 65cm.
We did find some terrain that we thought would be ok for our first scuba dive.
It wasn’t brilliant, but it was the best we had seen at Sweetlip Reef.
Additionally there was an old mooring line attached to one of the more colourful bommies so we assumed it was a disused dive mooring.
For the afternoon we rigged up both underwater cameras (one macro and one wide-angle) and put the scuba gear together for our first Swains Reef dive.
The cameras and scuba gear took a while to set up (as it does when it’s the first time in ages) and we didn’t get in the water until 4pm.
It didn’t matter – the low sun actually made for some good shots with the Gorgonian Fans in the foreground.
Lisa found a few small macro subjects too but it had been about 10 months since she’d used a macro lens set-up and was a little rusty – or that’s what we thought the teething problems were….
It was nice to play around in the shallows at the end of the dive in amongst the small but plentiful soft corals.
Sadly though there were hundreds of Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS).
For a while now the COTS have been working their way from the tip of Australia and down the entire length of the Great Barrier Reef and leaving a trail of mass destruction as they devour huge amounts of live coral.
We were hoping to have dived The Swains Reef system before they had made it that far south but obviously not.
With the Bunker Group being the extreme southern end of the reef, many scientists are hoping that they will get to the end of the reef and with nowhere else to go, simply die off.
A Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS). Note the white section of the
coral which is dead after the COTS had eaten it.
coral which is dead after the COTS had eaten it.
The next day we decided to move further up along the outer reef area and headed towards Hook Reef.
We had only been sailing for about 10 minutes when we saw a large Fisheries vessel unloading their RIB which came over to us at high speed.
They boarded us whilst we were sailing along and had a look for any fish we had on board and checked all our safety gear.
Warren the fisheries officer was a great guy and also a spearo so he was a bit envious to see Lisa’s large Red-Throat fillets in the fridge.
He was also very helpful in answering our questions on the area and in particular the best heavy weather anchorages.
Another 30 minutes on we sailed through a deep channel that had a rubble bottom with a huge amount of fish on the bottom.
The sounder was displaying wavy lines behind the fish which we had never seen before and could only assume it was a very large area of bait fish and there were larger fish in amongst them.
A pity it wasn’t shallower so we could dive it….
We arrived at the small Hook Reef to find it a bit swelly and rough around the outer edge but we decided to brave it and motor into the only small entrance within the reefs centre.
The bottom was a dense maze of coral bommies but none of them came too close to the surface and we were able to motor over them safely with a few meters under the keel.
We were a little worried about finding a clear patch of sand to anchor in when we spied an open and sandy but what looked like a very shallow area right up close to the reef’s pavement.
It was only a few meters deep but was a perfect anchorage in the E-SE winds.
It’s just as well because looking aft was a minefield of scattered bommies.
We were so excited.
We had a safe anchorage at a reef that had good reports as a scuba diving destination from one of the old books we had read.
So in the afternoon we snorkelled about 6 different locations along the NW protected face which is where the dive locations were.
Sadly our hearts sank as we discovered the reef was all dead.
The dive bommies and great gutters were all there and you could see all the old exoskeletons of the coral outlining what once would have been an awesome location, but it was brown, dead and full of algae.
We estimated that of the whole area, only 2% of the reef was alive and those small chunks that were healthy had loads of the destructive Crown of Thorns Starfish eating and destroying what was left.
The fish life was therefore also greatly reduced and there was only about one-tenth of what would have been there had the reef been healthy.
We were getting concerned as Sweetlip Reef wasn’t that good, Hook Reef was terrible so was it going to be like this for the whole of the Swains Reefs system?
We knew cyclone Hamish all but destroyed the coral in the area, but that was 10 years ago and surely it would have started to re-generate to a better level than what we were seeing.
So we changed plans and decided to head away from the more exposed outer edge of the reef and move further in towards the more protected centre section.
The next day we departed Hook Reef – so sad – so beautiful from above, so terrible down below…….
We motored over to Sanctuary Reef which was only 5 miles away but was further into the reef system.
It was a bigger reef and Paul sat up in the crow’s nest as we motored up close to the reef’s edge.
The idea of running along the reef edge was for Paul to look for dive sites from the crow’s nest while Lisa watched for deeper structure on the depth sounder.
We found a great gutter that looked like a nice dive.
A little further along Lisa spied a series of isolated reefs on the sounder that were in 32m/106ft on sand and covered in schools of fish.
It had to be a good dive so she marked the location.
Entering the channel was fine with good depth and a lot of width and room to manoeuvre.
We found a fantastic spot right up close to a line of reef that would offer secondary protection to the outer reef edge.
Within an hour we had the dive gear loaded into the tinny and went out to dive Lisa’s bommies she had located on the way in.
We were very excited to see some decent coral and a healthy reef.
It wasn’t perfect and there were still some dead bits and lots of COTS but overall it was really good - and very pretty in the shallows with lots of colour and varied terrain.
We got side-tracked getting down to the bommies at 32m/106ft as there was lots to see on the way down.
On the deeper bommies we found loads of schooling fish amongst the barrel sponges and gorgonian fans but we couldn’t stay there that long as we were already at zero on our NDL limits.
On the way back up Lisa was excited to find an Orang-utan Crab in a bubble anemone but then she was doing back-flips when she found a Coleman Shrimp.
L: Coleman Shrimp R: Orang-utan Crab
Coleman shrimp are only found in Fire Urchins (which hurt like hell if you touch them) and they were on the top of the list of Macro subjects for us to see.
Of our 3 years we spent doing macro dives in Asia we ticked nearly everything off the macro list we wanted to see – except the Coleman Shrimp.
So the last place we expected to find one was on the Great Barrier Reef.
Ironically, it’s one of the old Neville Coleman dive books from the 1980’s that we used as a reference to dive in the Swains.
It was Neville (who passed away in Brisbane in 2011 - the same week we left to go cruising) who discovered the shrimp hence the name the Coleman Shrimp.
On the way up we played in the shallows for a long time doing deco and finally getting a look at some colourful coral.
Yippeee!!! – we had found some decent areas to dive.
We decided to dive the deep bommies again the next day but this time not get side tracked and go straight down to 32m/106ft.
The schooling fish were still there but were a little wary and bunched tight.
We did find some nice Gorgonian Fans in the depths.
Lisa spent a lot of time looking for more Fire Urchins and whilst she did find one, sadly there were no Coleman Shrimp in it.
We did find some more colourful areas in the shallows and some big plate corals.
Lisa found some nice nudibranchs but still her camera was not working properly.
We tried one more dive at Sanctuary Reef at an area that had a large cutting in the reef. We had read an American cruising boat’s blog who said they had dived there only 2 years prior and it was great.
Maybe our expectations are a little higher and we thought it was average but we still saw some cool stuff including a huge Giant Queensland Grouper that was at least 2m/6ft long.
Lisa’s camera problem was with her Nikon macro lens and an issue that Paul hadn’t picked up on.
We swapped over to Paul’s macro lens as a test and it worked a treat and Lisa’s underwater photos improved straight away.
Which is just as well as she found 2 Orang-Utan Crabs next to each other that were both out on display which is a rarity.
That night we had an unusual sunset with the sky having cloud corrugations.
With some northerly (and possibly NW-West winds) forecast, we decided to move to another reef that offered better protection from the north.
Fortunately Horseshoe Reef was the next reef anyway and only 6nm away.
But we decided to spend a few hours in Lorelei doing a bit of reconnaissance for both anchorages and dive spots at the bottom end of Sanctuary Reef before we left.
Horseshoe Reef is a large reef that is almost 6 miles long but it has a lot of possible dive sites and is completely open to the west making it a popular anchorage as it’s easy to enter.
In the Tom Byron dive book, we read a diary from an exploratory dive charter that Tom and a small group did in the 1980’s.
It talked about Horseshoe Reef and there was also a map of where they had dived.
One spot that stood out was a gutter on the SE side that they called Shark Alley and with a name like that, we just had to dive it – and it didn’t disappoint!!
We anchored the tinny in the gutter and drifted down through the most amazing coral gardens with huge plate corals everywhere that were in perfect condition.
It was only around 6m/20ft deep but there were loads of big Trevally overhead.
We dropped down onto the wall to find quite a bit of current but still manageable.
But what we did also find was Grey Reef Sharks – and lots of them!!!
Paul was photographing the Gorgonian Fans along the walls and the sharks were swimming into the frame and photo-bombing!!
We were able to drift a little way along the wall but had to stop and come back in the shallows as we knew we’d have to swim into the current the whole way back.
It didn’t matter as the shallows had lots of pretty coral gardens to spend time in.
Lisa was on fire now with her camera issues behind her and got some great macro photos.
Even when we got back to the tinny, the coral directly under it looked great.
Overall it was a ballistic dive and certainly the best of the trip so far.
It’s just as well we had the rough map of where to dive because there is no way we would have ever thought to dive on the exposed SE face of the reef as it faces the trade winds and predominant swell.
It had certainly changed our way of thinking about dive locations in the Swains compared to what’s considered normal in the pattern of dive locations further north on the GBR with most of the diving being on the NW faces of the reefs.
When we returned to Lorelei Lisa spied a small yellow Flutemouth fish that was nestled up alongside our yellow bridle rope that we use for securing the tinny.
We normally remove it during the day but lazily left it hanging in the water and the fish was using it as camouflage. At full size they are around 1m/3ft long and live at depth down in the coral.
We’ve never seen one so small and so close to the surface.
That afternoon the wind dropped back a little and with the rising tide, we were able to paddle our kayaks over to a Taiwanese Shipwreck that was high and dry on the reef pavement.
On the way we went over lots of coral bommies in the shallows.
The old dive book shows a fully intact wreck but now there is little left after 30 years of the harsh elements.
What remains is the ship’s engine and some scattered parts.
The Taiwanese Shipwreck as photographed in the 1980’s
While Paul was searching for other bits of wreckage, Lisa got bored and decided she would go and play in the small surf along the reef edge by catching the waves on her kayak. There was no margin for error or falling off as it was only inches deep over the sharp coral and the added hazard of lots of exposed coral rocks.
We wanted to dive Shark Alley again.
But this time we wanted to take advantage of the current so we decided to do a drift dive.
Now drift diving is fun on a charter boat or with extra people to help but for just 2 people with 2 big cameras it can be a bit difficult.
Fortunately we have done a lot of drift diving using our kayaks and after doing a current check, we anchored the kayaks well up along the reef wall and probably a bit further than we would actually dive.
Towing our kayaks out to the dive site in the tinny
Then we took the tinny back to the start area in the cutting and anchored it safely.
Now we had vessels at each end.
If the current turned mid dive we could simply return to the tinny if required.
The dive was exciting and long.
We took a few more photos in the beautiful shallows of the cutting before descending down onto the wall.
There were way more sharks this time and we even had a really big whaler shark of around 3m/10ft come in for a quick look but sadly it didn’t hang around too long.
This time we had a lot more time at depth to look at the fans and smaller macro critters
We ran out of air long before we reached the kayaks but it gave us a lot of time to play on the surface up on top of the reef.
Paul tried to capture some reflection shots with the glassy water surface, some under/over photos, the tiny bait fish just below the surface and even the small waves rolling in over the reef top.
But our delay to play meant the current stopped and then turned meaning our final 100m/330ft swim to the kayaks was into the current.
But we made it – eventually….and exhausted!!!
We loaded the kayaks up with all the gear and put the cameras on the front before paddling back to the tinny.
By the time we got home it had been 4 hours of adventure and after we washed and cleaned up, we ended up flaking into bed at 4pm and watching movies rather than editing photos and filling scuba tanks.
One week had now passed in the Swains and it had been go, go, go with 6 dives, 3 spearfishes, countless snorkels and even 2 kayak adventures.
So we called a lay-day to get back on top of things and Lisa did a lot of cooking and baking while Paul caught up on the photo editing and filling tanks.
It was just as well as it blew 20 knots overnight the night before and was probably too bumpy in the morning to do anything anyway….
But in the arvo the wind dropped out and we were able to go for a SUP around the shallow coral within the lagoon.
The next morning it was really flat and we did an even bigger SUP.
First we had a paddle through the coral in the sandy shallows.
Then with the run out tide we did a drift through the gutter we dived and out onto the drop off at Shark Alley. It was awesome to have it so flat and clear to be able to SUP on the reef edge.
We couldn’t believe it was getting calmer as we returned to Lorelei from our paddle.
With over 36 hours break from scuba diving and the calm weather, it was the perfect time to do some spearfishing.
We had passed over a large area of scattered reef and bommies at the bottom end of Horseshoe Reef when we arrived in Lorelei and wanted to check it out.
We figured it may be a good place to spear and also at the same see if it was a possible scuba location.
We were able to anchor the tinny up on top of a bommie and swim only a short distance out to a drop-off.
What we saw on the edge was amazing!!
The blue parrot fish were spawning on the ledge at 10m/33ft and there were 3 types of bait fish in huge numbers from the surface down to the ledge.
On the drop off from 10m/33ft to 20m/66ft were loads of reef fish and some of them were massive. Loads of oversized Coral Trout and a Footballer Trout that would have been a world record. Large Cod, Maori Wrasse, Barramundi Cod, Sweetlips, Long Nose Emperors and heaps more.
Whilst above them hunting through the baitfish were mackerel, 3 types of Trevally, Milkfish and Queenfish – all of which were very large fish.
And with all that action came the sharks – and lots of very feisty ones.
All in all it was spearing sensory overload at its best and probably the best fish action we’ve seen since Rendova in The Solomon Islands in 2013.
But we didn’t need a huge fish for dinner and we simply didn’t have room in the freezer (yet) for fish fillets so for the most part we just swam around ogling at the awesome spectacle before us.
Towards the end Lisa spied a large Red Throat Emperor and called Paul over for a look.
It was perfect for dinner and he landed his first Swains Red Throat.
It didn’t matter how many times he measured it, it always fell 2cm short of Lisa’s one from the week before……
Despite being awesome for spearing, there wasn’t much coral and it was only one face that was relatively small so we decided it wouldn’t be that good as a scuba dive location.
We had an awesome sunset and just 10 minutes later a great moon rise with the full moon and super glassy conditions.
It was a surreal night with ultra-glassy conditions and the super bright night.
We could see the coral on the bottom at 10pm!!
The history on Lorelei’s weather station revealed an overnight maximum wind speed of 0.0 knots...
We left Horseshoe Reef the next morning and took a detour to Gannet Reef.
On the reef is the large Gannet Cay – a popular area for nesting sea birds.
But what we were looking for was an isolated pinnacle that rose from 32m/106ft up to 7m/23ft. We had read reports in both old books that it was amazing diving in the 1980’s.
The issue was we didn’t have an exact location (all we knew was it was on the south side) and since then, Gannet Cay has been declared a protection zone and Marine Parks have put a big no-go box around the area.
So we didn’t know whether the pinnacle was within the no-go borders or not.
With the glassy conditions we did a few laps up and down along the edge of the border and a little further out but after nearly an hour of searching we sadly gave up.
All we found were large 2m/6ft long sea snakes on the surface.
It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack, despite being so glassy.
If the pinnacle came closer to the surface, then we might have had a better chance but unless you were pretty close to it, you’d have a hard time of seeing it down at 7m/23ft from a distance.
So we headed another hour onto Surprise Reef as the wind increased a little.
This reef’s lagoon was very open, deep and virtually no shallow bommies at the entrance.
It was a very easy-to-anchor location.
We arrived just on the spring low tide of only 0.2m/1ft and the lowest of the month.
So we put the paddleboards in and went for a SUP around the lagoons inner reef edge as the reef was exposed creating glassy conditions inside the lagoon.
For the afternoon we renamed it “SUP-rise Reef”.
The reason we went to Surprise Reef was for the reports of large Olive Sea Snakes that frequent the area and we wanted to get some U/W photos of them.
We went snorkelling first and snorkelled in a stack of different locations around the reef. We found one or two average diving locations and a few other areas for possible spearfishing but overall it wasn’t that good and we didn’t see a single sea snake for all our time in the water.
In fact we didn’t even see any when we entered and exited the reef system in Lorelei (as they breathe air and come to the surface like turtles do…), so after 2 two days we packed up and moved over to Pike Reef.
So the surprise was on us……. No snakes…….
Pike reef is one of the most protected anchorages as its towards the middle of the Swains Reef system, is surround closely by other reefs which break up the swell and it has a large area of reef pavement around the protected lagoon.
It was also the one recommended to us by the Fisheries Team.
The wind was due to increase to 20 knots the day we went there so we thought it was a good opportunity to explore the lagoon area for a good anchorage (and get a GPS anchorage co-ordinate and a track in and out) in case we quickly needed to return if really bad weather hit.
Additionally it was only one day past the spring tides and with still very high tides, we wanted to see just how much protection there really was.
With the unsettled weather and heavy cloud cover, the sunsets were great.
The anchorage was also the perfect place to leave Lorelei so we could explore the nearby Poulson Cay using the tinny.
However it took 48 hours for the wind to drop enough so that we were able to venture out in the tinny again.
Before we went to the cay, we went for a snorkel to check out a few spots for diving and whilst there were some nice areas for shallow snorkelling, there weren’t any really good deeper spots for diving that we could find.
Poulson Cay is virtually covered in water during a spring high tide so we had to wait until late one afternoon when the tide was low enough for the cay to become exposed and the birds to return after their day out flying and catching fish.
At first the birds were very flighty (pardon the pun…) and didn’t like us approaching the cay too close.
But after a while the birds returned to the cay and settled down close to the water’s edge.
We counted 7 species of birds with Black Noddys, Seagulls, Masked & Brown Boobys and 3 types of Terns.
This Fairy Tern returned to the cay with a fish in its beak
The biggest and best bird on the cay.....
When the wind had died down to sub 10 knots, we moved over to Central Reef which was another reef with the possibilities of scuba diving.
We sailed towards the reef from the bottom end and sounded along the reef edge to find a lot of nice structure along the drop off so we quickly changed plans and decided to anchor in the key hole at the southern end of Central Reef.
It was a little deep at 15m/50ft and was filled with a lot of small reef patches on the bottom but we finally managed to find a spot that was not so bad – but not perfect.
We dropped the tinny in to do some exploratory snorkelling to find some dive areas.
We started at the keyhole entrance and down to the southern point but were disappointed to find the coral all broken up and dead.
It was nice and pretty on the surface and down to 5m/15ft but nothing below that.
So we tried every few hundred meters and found ourselves doing a complete circumnavigation of the reef.
The only place we found that was any good was a small strip at the extreme northern tip of the reef.
By then it was too late to dive and the tides were wrong so we went back to Lorelei, moved anchorages to the northern lagoon (which was closer to the dive sites) and prepped all the scuba gear for a dive on the 8:30am slack tide.
We had another cracking sunset that night.
We descended down the wall at 8am and once at the sand bottom at 24m/80ft we could look across a narrow sand gutter to a series of large and elongated bommies that ran parallel to the reef edge and were full of life.
Paul had his head in his camera taking photos when he heard Lisa giving a few loud taps on her tank for attention.
It wasn’t her normal “I’ve found something cool” tapping so Paul looked up to see her pushed up against the reef and a very, very large Bull Shark tightly circling her.
We quickly paired up and were a little concerned as it’s by far the biggest Bull Shark we’ve ever seen (and after living in Moreton Bay for years – we’ve seen some thumpers…). But what really made it stand out was its girth and we estimated its body was around 1.5m/5ft wide & deep and that’s without fins!
Fortunately its circles around us got larger not smaller and eventually it turned and swam down the gutter and away from us.
Paul was a little bummed it didn’t come in closer for a photo but Lisa was very thankful it didn’t. She was a little rattled by it for the rest of the day.
But we continued the dive around the deeper bommies until our NDL’s said we had to go back up the wall.
There were loads of pretty coral in the shallows and lots of small fish around the reef.
All in all it was an excellent dive.
A very small 5mm long Crinoid Shrimp camouflaged and hiding with the Crinoid.
At lunchtime we downloaded the weather and once again were faced with another strong SE blow arriving in 36 hours’ time.
So we decided to do another dive in the afternoon on the 3pm high tide.
This time we tried another area just 100m from the morning’s dive.
The coral on the bommies down deep was not quite as good but there was much more fish life.
Getting photo-bombed by a Red Throat Emperor and a juvenile Red Emperor in the same shot is pretty cool and with both species being camera shy, it’s not something that happens every day…
The afternoon setting sun made for some great photo ops.
Surprisingly there wasn’t a very good selection of macro critters for Lisa to photograph despite the healthy and varied coral.
So see took fish and Crayfish photos instead….
For the last 30 minutes, we stayed around 5m/15ft and watched an awesome spectacle of dozens of different types of schooling fish coming up the wall.
There were loads of Mackerel, Trevally, Parrot Fish and all the usual reef fish as well as a few other special things like schools of Milk Fish and even a school of about 10 large Spangled Emperor that we could see below us.
Nothing was close enough to photograph in the low afternoon light but it was just super fun to hang out around the tinny and watch the spectacle.
It was one of the fishiest dives we’ve had in years.
We were all ready to go again the next morning but sadly the trough of low pressure had passed over us and we had strong northerly winds sucking into the southerly that was due to hit that night.
The northerly winds were pushing right onto the tip of the reef where the dive site was making it impossible to anchor the tinny safely on the reef edge with the onshore winds and rough conditions.
We were not happy! Oh well at least we got 2 good dives in.
We sat out 1 night after the southerly hit but it was a little bumpy and exposed at Central Reef so we sailed further north-west in towards the centre of the Swains Reef system.
There was an area that was dense with large reefs all close together and we figured it would offer better protection.
So we set sail for Isobel Bennett Reef.
That’s it for this Episode of our sailing adventures.
We stayed a total of 9 weeks on the Great Barrier Reef (2 weeks at Lady Musgrave and 7 weeks in The Swains Reefs) so the second half of our Swains Reef adventure will follow in our next blog episode – Episode 63 The Swains reefs.
There’s lots more diving with some fantastic underwater experiences so stay tuned.
Paul and Lisa Hogger
Lost somewhere in The Swains Reef system…….
Sailing the swains reef
Cruising the swains reef
Scuba diving the swains reef
Diving the swains reef
Swains reef anchorages
Swains reef dive sites
Swains reef dive locations
Swains reef scuba diving
Swains reef diving
Diving the southern great barrier reef