Friday, 10 November 2017

Episode 63 The Swains Reefs Part 2


This Episode follows on from the Last Episode (Episode 62) where we had spent 5 weeks on the Great Barrier Reef with 2 weeks at Lady Musgrave Lagoon followed by 3 weeks on the Swains Reefs.
We only posted Episode 62 around 2-3 weeks ago so if you haven't read it first, then it would be good so the scene is set for this Episode.

We’d already done some great scuba diving and spearfishing in the Swains Reefs and visited 7 reefs.

Paul with a Red Throat Emperor speared at Horseshoe Reef

Lisa have a SUP in glassy conditions on The Swains Reefs

Lisa arriving to the moored kayaks after a drift dive at Shark Alley




At the end of the last Episode we were at Central Reef and had decided to leave there after a few days of great diving as stronger winds were forecasted for 3 days’ time and the next reef hopefully had better coverage and protection.

So we set sail for Isobel Bennett Reef.

Despite being 16nm away as the crow flies, we actually sailed 25nm as we weaved, tacked and gybed through the maze of reefs on the way.
It was a crazy day of sailing with a bit of everything.
It started very overcast and finished in sunshine, there were periods of light wind offset by strong windy squalls and we sailed on nearly every point of the compass.
 Then there were the numerous current lines, tidal influences and even whirlpools which had Lorelei’s speed from barely 1 knot to over 8 knots.
Despite the charts indicating we were in constant deep water, we went over many shallow reefs systems and the bottom was constantly changing with depths from 60m/200ft up to less than 5m/15ft.
Needless to say Paul spent a lot of time either in the crow’s nest or standing on the bow rail.

But from the crow’s nest he did get some fun photos of Lorelei sailing with the 10mm fish eye lens.


Overall it was a fun day and it was great to sail from door to door only running the motor to get in and out of the lagoons and anchoring.

Lisa sailing Lorelei right up to Isobel Bennett Reef’s lagoon entrance


The following morning we waited for the tide to drop low enough to offer some protection before we dropped the tinny in to do some exploratory snorkelling around the area.
The water level was still just high enough for us to motor over the pavement at the southern end before exploring the outside walls and drop-offs.

There is a small passage between Isobel Reef and the reef to the east (21-505 Reef) and it looked like deep but protected water so we tried there.

The water was screaming through the pass at around 5 knots so we drifted along the walls holding onto the tinny lines.

What we saw was the most incredible coral fields we’ve probably ever seen on the barrier reef in such shallow depths.
There were fields of Staghorn Coral and other colourful corals from about 10m/33ft right up to the surface.
It was all in pristine condition and not a single Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS) in sight. WOW!!!



Additionally there were lots of fish but different things to what we’d seen in the last three weeks. 
Different types of baitfish and loads of Tusk Fish and Spangled Emperors everywhere on the sand patches.
We saw Blue Line and Big Eye Trevally instead of the Bludger, Golden’s and GT’s that we’d seen at the other reefs.
But surprisingly not many Coral Trout and hardly any Red Throat Emperor.

We couldn’t believe we’d only travelled around 20nm north but it was so different underwater.

We also tried along the top edges of both reefs close to the pass and they still had excellent coral and fish life.


The issue for diving was the high tide and it being very bumpy both in the tinny and on Lorelei.
It would’ve been difficult to rig scuba packs and get them into the tinny at high tide.
Additionally, Paul wanted to photograph the shallow corals and figured at low tide they would be closer to the surface and with the rest of the reef exposed, it would offer protection to the west wall of the reef.
We’d also hoped that the viz might be a little better and more importantly, the current back off a bit!!!
 If the tide was low enough, the wind dropped off and the sun came out, then Paul surmised the reflections of the coral in the shallows would make excellent photos.
But could we get all the elements needed to align to create the perfect photo conditions?

It was still 15-20 knots for 2 days, the skies were overcast, we were heading back towards spring tides (meaning stronger currents) and the low tide was slowly advancing every day to later in the afternoon.

On the way home we spied the first boat we had seen in 10 days.
It was a fishing charter boat that was travelling along the edge of the reef and anchored about a mile up from us overnight.


We had to wait a full 48 hours on board with the tinny up on the davits and hunkered down as it blew 15-25 knots and was very overcast and threatening to rain. It wasn’t nice…..

The one thing about this reef was the bird life. With 4 large sand cays (and a few smaller ones) within a few miles and in all directions, there were birds constantly flying around Lorelei.
At night we could lie in bed and hear them roosting on Lorelei.
The issue was we would come out on deck in the morning the find bird poo in lots of different places.
The worst place was the solar panels as we had to then climb up onto them to clean them so it wouldn’t interrupt the power input.


The little birds weren’t so bad but it was the big Booby Birds that made the most noise – and the most poo!!! So we shooed them of whenever we found them on board.



Under the water, many large GT’s would eat up our food scraps as soon as they hit the surface.


After 48 hours the wind back off but it was still overcast and bumpy.
 So we braved it anyway and had a go at diving in the shallows to get some photos.
It wasn’t perfect but we got a few photos using the underside of the surface for reflections.





We left the next morning with little to no wind but it was still really overcast.
 However by 10am there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and it was beautiful.
We motored over to Recreation Reef which was in a green zone and it was to be our first anchorage & diving in a green zone so we were really excited.
A green zone is a protected zone and a bit like an underwater national park.
Private vessels are allowed to enter & anchor and activities like snorkelling and diving are permitted.
However fishing, spearfishing, shell collecting and commercial fisherman are strictly prohibited.


The thing that looked awesome to us on the satellite image of Recreation Reef was the long but narrow and deep channel that divided the northern and southern reef.  With a protected trench like that and currents running through it, it had to be awesome diving.

We envisaged we’d spend 4-5 days there diving and exploring the exposed sand cay that was indicated on the GBR Marine Parks Zoning Map.
The lagoon at the southern reef looked huge, clear and had and easy entry.

On the way in Paul sat in the crows nest looking out and taking photos.



We arrived right at low tide and so as soon as the anchor was down it was into the tinny to look for diving spots.

The channel was first on the list of spots and we checked the entrance - and it was terrible!!  Not really dead but just brown staghorn coral to 5m/16ft and broken and barren coral rubble from there down.

Every few hundred meters we’d stop and check but it was all the same along the entire length of the channel.
We then tried along all 4 walls at either end of the channel and most of the west side but it was mostly the same.

And to rub salt into the wound – there was no sand cay.

Soooo disappointing.

So packed up again that afternoon to prepare for an early departure the following day.

The frustrating thing was we felt we’d wasted a day of pristine weather for no gain.
The only consolation was calm anchorage at sunset so we had drinks and a cheese platter and were rewarded with a rare green flash at the end of the sunset.

So instead of 5 days at Recreation Reef, we spent less than 20 hours….


With 3 days of sub 10 knots of wind forecasted, we now had choices of where to go.
So we decided to give the outer edge another try for some dive locations.
(We tried the outer edge in Episode 62 but it was exposed and all dead)

We headed to Baz Reef as it was the closest and it was also a green zone.
The reef had a square top protecting the NW corner which had the potential for good diving.


We arrived at 11am at high tide and thank goodness we did because there was no clear entry into the lagoon and we had to drift slowly and carefully over the reef edge which was only a few meters under Lorelei’s keel.
At low tide we probably would have hit the reef!!

The anchorage was super shallow and clean sand with very little bommies.


Once again it was straight in with the tinny on arrival and out to the northern outer edge for a snorkel explore.

Lisa rolled over the side and dropped onto about 10 sharks!!
Not sure who got the biggest fright….

We could see down the wall to dozens of Grey Reef Sharks patrolling the edge.
Awesome!! We named it Shark Point.

As we swam a little further on a large Bull Shark swam right up to us.
It wasn’t as big at the one we’d seen the week before but it was still twice as big as the Grey Reefies and had an entourage of Pilot Fish and Remoras around its body.
The viz was good but as the tide fell the viz decreased dramatically as the spring tide water exited the shallow and sandy lagoon dragging the silt out over the northern edge with it.
So we knew diving would be out until high tide the following morning.

So instead we did another snorkel along the western edge and over the reef we had to transit across to get in.
It was a labyrinth of bommies, gutters, caves and walls that were filled with coral and fish.

The highlight was a school of Red Throat Emperor that numbered in the hundreds.
Rather than being in a tight bunch, they were swimming all through the gutters and around the bommies.
Every direction we turned we could see scores of them.
Additionally there were hundreds of Coral Trout (literally) and loads of other sea life.
Gotta love Green Zones !!!!

At dead low tide we could see a long rock breakwall that was exposed on the outer reef edge and giving very flat conditions within the lagoon.
So we took advantage of the smooth water and went for a SUP/Kayak.
We took the kayak so Paul could take his UW camera for some fun photos around the shallow reefs.





The setting sun looked identical to the previous day and at half way set it went a whitish/yellow colour and we knew it would green flash again.
This time we caught it on camera (minus the quick flash). If only the sun was a little closer…..



It blew a bit stronger than forecast overnight and the next morning it was bumpy, but we braved it and loaded in the scuba gear.

We tried the outer edge and Shark Point but it was a washing machine of current, onshore wind against tide and some very rough surface conditions.
So sadly we aborted and we and dived the catacombs instead.

It turn out to be a load of fun and with a max depth of only 15m/50ft it turned into a long 90 minute dive.
There were loads of caves, swim throughs and trenches to explore.



The floor of the outer edge was a carpet of small but colourful soft and hard corals that seemed to go on forever.



We did get a shot of a Red Throat Emperor and some other fish photos in the grottos.




We looked at Shark Point again in the arvo and it was still current affected and we even checked it again early the next morning and it had both current and onshore winds that made the viz terrible.
It was the day of spring tides so we had no option but to give it a miss (again...L) and try again another time with neap tides.

So we moved again but this time we went south to Turner Reef which is another outer edge reef but with a little more protection at both the anchorage and the potential dive sites from the northerly winds.


We were pretty confident we’d find a good dive spot so rather than do a snorkel explore first, we just loaded up the dive gear after lunch and went in search for a fun place to dive.

Well our cockiness bit us on the butt because we checked miles of reef edge and it was all no good.
What was most disappointing was that it had great viz and probably the best structure we’d seen at the Swains with numerous large pinnacles, walls filled with caves and gutters.
The coral was all there but it was completely dead and covered in 1000’s of Crown of Thorns Starfish. It appears it had only been destroyed recently as all the exoskeletons of the reef were all present.
And due to the lack of live coral, there were no fish.

So once again it was no diving and another wasted day of nice weather and outboard fuel.

We sat down that night and did some more research and it appeared each time we went deeper into the centre of the reef system, the better it got.
So the next morning we left the outer edge reefs and sailed almost 20nm NW into the reef system to Star Reef.


It had taken 4 hours and we arrived mid-afternoon and probably not enough time to search for dive sites by snorkelling.

So we stopped for a look at a small keyhole lagoon at the southern end as by now the wind was due north and it would offer more protection than the larger top lagoon.

Additionally Lisa spied what looked like a small cay just south of the lagoon entrance.
So we entered and the pass was a bit bigger than we expected.
The anchorage was in a very nice setting with good protection.


So rather than put the tinny in, we decided to put the kayaks in instead and head in towards the cay as it was low tide just before sunset.

The cay was more of a broken coral bank that was exposed at low tide than a nice fine sand cay.
Thank goodness we took dive booties.


There were a lot of birds both resting and flying around the area and it was great to get up close to them with the silently propelled kayaks.  





We also took a blanket, drinks and snacks to relax and enjoy the sunset from land for a change.



The next morning we did the normal scout around the outer edge of the reef looking for scuba sites and once again found a few on the NW tip.
We found the first pinnacle that was half-decent for diving but decided the northern wall looked much better with its deep water drop-off of 75m/250ft depth very close to the reef edge.

In the afternoon we dived the wall and it was full of sharks at depths below 18m/60ft.
We saw the usual reef sharks but also our first Swains Reef Silvertip Shark.
The larger oceanic sharks are normally found on the outer edges and we’ve seen many in the Coral Sea but we didn’t expect to see one now we had moved further back into the reef system.
Still we weren’t complaining….

If Paul had concentrated more on reef photos rather than chasing big sharks around, we might have got some more photos.
The late arvo setting sun did make a nice back drop.



The photo above is Paul taking a shot of Lisa who is taking a shot of a Bumblebee Shrimp which was on the Sea Whip.
Her photo is below.




We did a 2nd dive on the wall the next afternoon but this time about 150m/500ft further up the wall from the 1st location.

This time we had less sharks but more fish and 4 Dog Tooth Tuna that circled us many times during the dive.
There were also some nice coral formations on the shallower slopes as we were coming back up.








At most reefs we’ve had either remoras or large Giant Trevally (GT’s) under Lorelei hoovering up our food scraps.
At Star Reef we had 4 very large GT’s and we wanted to try to feed and photograph them but 4 at once would prove a little difficult.

When we returned from the 2nd dive, there was only one Trevally (which Lisa named “Fang”) and despite it being close to sunset, we decided it would be a good chance to try.
Paul just had on his snorkelling gear, weight belt and camera while Lisa sat on the rear swim platform with some chopped up pieces of fish.

At first Fang wouldn’t take the food until it had sunk a little and was further away from Paul and the camera.


As both Paul and Fang got more game, they both got closer to the bait.
Fang didn’t like the powerful strobes (flashes) at first and he smashed into the camera once and bit the strobes twice but eventually he got used to it.


After a while Fang was taking food from Lisa’s hand on the surface and pieces of fish that were floating just inches in front of the cameras lens.



We continued until after the sun had set and thought it was prudent to get out before all the commotion attracted some larger and unwanted denizen of the deep.

With NW winds forecast we headed only 2nm over to Z Reef which was an unusual shaped reef with a southern anchorage better suited to winds from the West and North.


It had a long spit at the NE tip and we thought it might be an excellent dive but after a lot of searching around the area, it was barren with no structure and just flat slopes of small corals running down into the depths.

 The upside of the NW weather was it brought with it some very humid and warm conditions with temperatures into the 30’s and 10 on the UV index.

Lisa decided to explore a series of 3 pinnacles in a bay close on the south-east side of the reef.
She jumped in with just a Bikini and a mask & snorkel (no fins) and was happily swimming around the pinnacle looking for areas to dive.
It was then a Tiger Shark (our fist Tiger in the Swains) swam up underneath her.
It wasn’t at all aggressive (like the Bull Sharks…) and was content to swim around Lisa and in the sand gutters around the pinnacles.
So Paul also jumped in and we spent ages in the water as it swam below us.
It’s a pity we didn’t have scuba gear or a camera in the tinny.

In the end we decided the pinnacles were a fun snorkel but not really worth a scuba dive.

That night we left our thicker wetsuits out for an extended time (so they were totally dry before packing them away).
We forgot they were out until 10pm and we out to retrieve them only to find 5 birds sleeping around Lorelei.
So we got the camera and took some photos with a Booby Bird that was sitting on the bow rail and had no intention of leaving.



The next day we moved again but this time it was a 12nm run to reef with no name but is labelled 21-250 on the chart.
We were hoping the diving would be better at this reef as it also had a decent NW anchorage to spend a few days if required and a square top on the northern part of the reef.


We took the tinny over the pavement at high tide and checked the first spot on the eastern face and it was surprisingly great.
The viz was also fantastic so we checked further around the northern tip and down the NW face and it was all good.

So we raced home, quickly rigged the scuba packs (fortunately the cameras were already ready to go…) and we were back out at the first spot on the eastern face in less than 30 minutes.

The dive was awesome!
There were sharks – 4 species and heaps of them.
As we descended down a mini wall to 15m/50ft, we had a large Bull Shark come up to us. It circled twice before leaving. Then a Silvertip showed up followed by dozens of Grey Reef Sharks. Then there were Dog Tooth Tuna, Green Jobfish and dozens of other fish schools.
Each time we left the wall to go out onto the coral slope we had to look left and right to see what big animal was cruising towards us.
It felt like we were trying to cross a busy road!!


The coral on the slope was in great condition with no COTS.



For Lisa it was small things galore to photograph like eels, fish, nudibranchs, cuttlefish, clams, anemones and the list went on……






Up in the shallows was also fun with soft corals everywhere and some great rubble gutters that were full of live shells.

Lisa taking photos on the floor in one of the gutters

Above and below are close up photos of the animals and their eyes that live within the shells




We also saw our fist Sea Snake whilst diving in the Swains.
It wasn’t an Olive Sea Snake like the ones we are used to handling on the reefs further north (and we didn’t know what it was) so we were reluctant to pick it up.


Finally!! We had a reef (with no name) that had heaps of diving options and we planned to do a few more around the reefs perimeter.

That arvo we listened to the weather forecast on the HF Radio.
Around Cairns was getting strong SE trade winds, Gold Coast had a strong wind warning with N-NE winds and Gladstone, Yeppoon (on the mainland west of us) and the Bunker Group of Reefs were having strong 20 knot N-NW winds.

And we were sitting out on the outer edge of the reef with 3 knots of wind and very flat conditions with a forecast of similar conditions for another 3 days.
Got to have a win sometimes, and this time it was going towards neap tides meaning the currents around the dive sites would be minimal for a week.
Yippee!!!!!

For the next dive we anchored in the same place but this time we went north along the wall instead of south.
It was a different time of day and a different tide but we couldn’t believe how different the dive was to the day before.
We only saw one shark and not many big fish but it was like a nursery with loads of small fish, baitfish schools and for Lisa, another dive with loads of little things to photograph.







Paul found a staghorn clump of coral that was filled with juvenile Red Throat Emperor that weren’t to shy about posing for a photo.



Like the day before, the shallows had gutters and loads of small bommies decorated with small but colourful corals.

Note the feelers of a Painted Crayfish sticking out from under the coral

Lisa’s photo of the Painted Crayfish up close


Paul getting a little artistic with a Brain Coral in the shallows

As we left the neap tides and went toward the spring tides, we also advanced towards the full moon and it was getting brighter each night.

The downside of that was the birds in the area could make out Lorelei’s shape and would want to come and roost on her overnight.

By 10pm we have hundreds (literally) of black Noddy Terns and a few larger Booby Birds on Lorelei.
We would go up and shoo them off but they would fly around a few times and come back in to settle once we had left.
After an hour we gave up…



It was like trying to sleep in a busy aviary at the zoo with the constant sound of bird noises and flapping wings.

We went outside at daybreak to find Lorelei completely covered in bird poo.
It was not only on the deck and rails but all over the tinny, solar panels, paddleboards, sail bags, rigging, ropes, covers – you name it – it was caked in it.
Not Happy…..


The next day we did a dive along the northern tip of the reef early in the morning.
Once again it was different from the day before with the deeper slopes covered in Gorgonian Fans and larger soft corals.

Lisa at the start of the dive and about to drop off the wall




Like the other areas of 21-250 reef, the shallows had loads of fish life.


That’s a lot of Clown Fish for the size of the host Anemone




We hung around for a while after the dive to play in the gutters without the bulky scuba packs on.


Despite wanting to do more dives at 21-250 reef, when we got back from the dive we decided to leave the reef and head to Centenary Reef in order to escape from the birds and also to be in a more secure anchorage for a blow that was due to arrive in 36 hours’ time.
We ran the desalinator the whole way while travelling and left it running for 2 hours after we were anchored up so we could wash the boat down.
It was good to get all the bird poo off but it also got rid of all the salt and other grime from the busy 6 weeks of reef work.

It did take most of the afternoon though and by dinner time we were stuffed.

By 9pm the birds had returned….
We tried strobe lights and loud music but they still nest right next to the blinking light and didn’t mind listening to Disturbed (Paul’s favourite band).

Paul spent 1 hour with an extendable boat hook shooing them away as there was a large sand cay only 800m away and he surmised they could go and sleep on that instead of Lorelei.

It took him an hour and just as he was about to give up, the birds gave up and left.
Thankfully……


We walked on deck the next morning to find a shark come out from under Lorelei.
At first we thought it was a Tiger Shark but then realised it was a harmless Nurse Shark but still reasonably large at around 2.7m/9ft long.
 Additionally there were loads of smaller white tip reef sharks.

We decided that later that afternoon we would jump in with them and try to get some photos up close.

With just 1 day before the storm was due to hit, we decided against scuba diving and instead spent a day playing in the kayaks as it was low tide around midday and the reef edge was offering protection to the inner lagoon.

We went and had a look at a few of the larger rocks on top of the reef pavement that we cannot get to in the tinny as it’s too shallow at low tide.


While Paul took a camera, Lisa took a speargun and we decided to stock up on fish prior to the storm so we would have time to make some yummy meals once the storm hit and we were stuck inside with time to spare.

The outer reef edge looked awesome for both spearing and scuba diving and we knew we had found a great spot to spend a few days even after the storm had abated.

Initially Paul mucked around with the camera and the kayaks in the shallows and over the drop-off.


Lisa speared along the drop-off but found most of the fish in the gutters that cut into the reef edge.



There were also loads of Olive Sea Snakes which were regularly coming up to the surface to breathe.


It wasn’t long before she had 3 fish loaded into the back of her kayak.



Once we got home we decided to fillet the fish straight away and use the fish frames to try and get the sharks up to the surface.
Paul used to do this for guests on the dive live aboard many years ago so we knew how to rig it up and what to expect.
Sure enough it wasn’t long before Lisa had sharks attacking the bait.

Lisa with the Tawny Nurse Shark





Once we had the sharks worked up enough, Paul jumped in with the camera.
The large Trevally didn’t care but the sharks were a little wary and would come up from the shallows but wouldn’t take the bait while Paul was nearby.

We had to be content with taking shark photos as they swum around.



The Nurse Shark also turned up but again it didn’t come into the bait and Paul had to dive down to get photos of it.


Instead he took a few photos of the Trevally feeding and a few of Lisa and Lorelei.




The birds were again a problem that night but we were too tired to fight and gave up at 9pm.

The storm and wind hit at around midnight and we went up on deck to find only about 6 Noddy’s quietly sitting on the solar panels but there was one Booby Bird who sat high in the rigging and had made a heck of a mess with poo spread out all over the aft deck area.
It was amazing how much mess one large bird can make from 15m/50ft overhead.

The storm turned out to be a “storm in a teacup” with the wind not getting nearly as strong as we thought it might be.
But at the same time it didn’t abate as quickly as forecast and instead on blowing for just 24 hours, it blew for 48 hours until it started backing off.

So it was a case of 2 days on board with the tinny up, everything packed away and eating, reading, watching movies and for Lisa – researching cruising grounds at some countries we hadn’t visited yet.
The sailing, cruising and exploring spark within her is still burning brightly….!!

On the second night of wind, it was still really hot so we went to bed with the hatches open.
At 2pm Paul felt a few drops of rain but it didn’t last long so he left the hatches open and went back to sleep.
It wasn’t until daybreak when he discovered his pillow covered in bird poo that he realised it wasn’t rain.....  All Lisa could do was laugh.  Bloody Birds!!!!!! L


After 2 days cooped up inside, we wanted to get out and do a dive despite it being rough and bumpy.
At low tide it was flat in the lagoon making it easy to get the tinny in but the downside was we would have to motor a few miles out the entrance and right around the outside of the reef to the dive site as the water over the pavement was only inches deep and far too shallow to get the tinny over.
Frustrating as the dive site was only a few hundred meters from Lorelei.

So instead we put the kayaks in and loaded them up with all our dive gear and paddled over the reef top to the outer reef edge.


Right on the edge was nearly dry and we had to wait for a surge of water to come over before we could paddle the 10 short meters off the coral lip and into the deeper water.

We found a great little hole to anchor the kayaks.


However with the super shallow tide, the only way to get out of the hole and onto the open wall was through a tunnel in the rocks that opened out into a long gutter.




There were lots of Olive Sea Snakes that curiously swam around us and our fins.



The gently sloping wall was a field of coral gardens interspaced with small humps creating havens for the fish.
Not a super action packed wall dive, but just a fun, cruisy and pretty dive.






The wind and seas were due to drop the next day and whilst they did briefly in the morning, by the time the tide had dropped low enough to enable us to dive, the wind had got back up and it was bumpy again.
So we aborted the idea of using the tinny and once again loaded up the kayaks.

Just as we were about to leave, conditions looked better again so we decided to paddle a little further and go and explore a large cut into the reef that was on the northern face.

Despite the onshore winds, it would allow us to anchor the kayaks in the shallows before swimming out and down onto the outer drop-off.

We were only at 12m/40ft when we noticed sharks – and loads of them cruising all around us.
They were only Grey Reefies and White Tips but it was the quantity that made it exciting.
Additionally there were loads of sea snakes and reef fish.

This is a different species to the Olive Sea Snake and as yet we aren’t able to identify it but it was larger and more aggressive

But what was most impressive was the incredible walls of coral in the gutters that cut into the reef edge.
The coral was in perfect condition despite being shallow at only 9m/30ft and going right up to the surface.

It was amazing gutter after amazing gutter going all along the wall.

Note the shark that decided to swim into the frame just as Paul took the photo




All through the gutters were large schools of Scissortail bait fish that hovered around the tops of the coral.



There were also stacks of curious Olive Sea Snakes that took a liking to Lisa.


Despite the amazing coral, there wasn’t a lot of macro life (as we think the currents would be strong at mid tide) but we did find some unusual Nudibranchs – some that we haven’t seen before.



On the way back into the shallows we sat on the edge of the shallow bommies and watched as the waves formed over them with the low tide.
It was hard to hold position as the surge threw us around and putting Paul’s glass dome port on his camera dangerously close to the sharp coral.

Note the wave curling onto the reef at the far left


By the end of the dive the current was really starting to rip along the wall and we were very glad we timed the dive right on the slack tide.
We paddled back buzzing that we’d done such a terrific dive using just the kayaks to get there.
The only cost was a little fuel for 2 air fills and a bit of muscle power.


The next morning at high tide it was too bumpy to put the tinny in so we had to wait until about 1pm when the tide dropped far enough for the reef edge to offer us protection from the swell.

It was the first time we had the tinny in at Centenery Reef and we really wanted to see the sand cay on a small reef just 1 mile away.


With the rapidly dropping tide we decided not to go ashore as we were worried about getting the tinny stranded on the coral bottom.
Also we didn’t want to scare the birds and have them fly away only to go and land on Lorelei!!
So instead we sat off just far enough as to not scare them and took photos with a zoom lens.



With the scuba gear already in the tinny, we went back to the main reef to look for a new dive site.
We checked all around the top part near where we had dived the afternoon prior.

It was either too exposed or all broken up, sheltered and a bit boring with no depth or raging with current that made the really good walls too dangerous to dive.
So we tried all the west side and it was the same.

We nearly gave up when Lisa noticed it was getting a little better towards the southern tip.
We’d never really had any success with the southern tips of any of the other Swains reefs but we had a look and found it a maze of gutters, bommies that were covered in pristine coral and loads of fish life.

The issue was the current that was screaming along the wall.
We anchored in the protected shallows and went for a snorkel and could feel it reducing by the minute.
So we quickly made the decision to gear up and get in to do the dive while it went slack over the turn of the tide.

At the start it was still a bit of a push into the current on the bottom but that brought in loads of curious sharks and even Dog Tooth Tuna overhead.



It was only shallow on the rubble floor at around 12m/40ft but it had the big fish action of a dive 3 times that depth.

There were also loads of Olive Sea Snakes cruising around and we swapped cameras so that Lisa could take some shots of Paul playing with them.
They are extremely venomous and around 4 times deadlier that the world’s most venomous land snakes, put Paul has spent a lot of time handling them (for guests on the dive liveaboard) so he has the experience.
Don’t try this at home….!!!!


Check out the school of large and curious GT’s behind Paul.
They circled us for around half of the dive


Down on the rubble section were scattered bommies full of life.

Lisa with a Giant Moray Eel

Lisa’s photo of the Moray Eel using her 60mm macro lens


Down deeper the coral was in excellent condition.



But the best coral was in the shallow gutters. They were filled with walls of pristine and diverse coral with not a single COTS in sight.






While Paul was shooting the wide angle coral scenes, Lisa was having a field day along the base of the gutters photographing the fish, nudibranchs and other sea life.






In the end we played on the surface with the very low tide almost exposing the coral on the reef top.


It turned into a mammoth 1 hour and 50 minute dive where were took almost 200 photos each and surfaced buzzing with excitement - but with sunset rapidly approaching.

Paul had hurt his back (again…) that morning and didn’t think much of it (as it doesn’t hurt underwater) until we had to pack up that evening and get the tinny up onto the davits.
By nightfall he could hardly walk and promptly went to bed.

The next day was the spring tides and despite it being a beautiful day with little wind, the currents were howling along the reef edge and the low tide was too early in the morning and too late in the afternoon to dive so we called a diving lay-day which allowed us to get scuba tanks filled, the huge pile of clothes put through the washing machine and for Lisa to cook some food including yummy baked treats.
Paul slept most of the day trying to get his back relaxed and out of pain but managed short bouts of sitting up to edit the photos from the great dives at Centenary Reef.

It had been 8 days anchored at Centenery Reef and the longest we’d stayed at any of the Swains Reefs, so we decided to pack up the next day and sail 20nm to Mystery Reef as the wind was perfect direction and strength for a great downwind spinnaker run.


Mystery Reef looked a lot bigger than Centenery and we hoped it offered better protection and would be a bit smoother at high tide.
Additionally there are no sand cays around Mystery Reef and we had our fingers crossed that there would be less birds trying to settle on Lorelei at night.

The spinnaker run was a lot of fun and it was a bright sunny day.
We had to pass a few smaller reefs on the way and Lisa was able to hand steer Lorelei right up along the side of Hammer Reef HammerHaaassaasaaaazxxwhile Paul was in the crow’s nest taking photos.




A little further on we had Dolphins come and play in the bow wave.
They weren’t large ones but were little bundles of energy darting all over the place and jumping around.




We arrived in time to anchor up, get the sailing gear packed away and enjoy sunset drinks and a cheese platter which was novel as we don’t drink at all when diving.


With a 6am and 6pm low tide, it was impossible to dive those times safely so we had no option but to dive the midday high tide.
Being only 1 day past springs, the high was a very high one meaning the currents were screaming both along the reef walls and also over the top of the reef system.
Around 90 minutes before the tide turned, we started looking for a place to dive along the outer walls. On the east side the current was pushing south and on the north side the current was pushing west, so we assumed it was coming in from the NE and splitting at the NE tip and pushing both down the side and across the top.
So we went right to the NE tip and there was a 200m/600ft long patch of reef where it was reasonably calm as it was right in the middle of where the current was splitting.
If anything it was pushing onto the reef which was a lot better than blowing you off the reef wall and into the deeper water.
Additionally, the areas was filled with bommies and gutters that ran parallel to the reef rather than cutting into the reef like we’d seen on the previous dives.

We jumped in for the dive at the perfect time and at around half way through the current backed off before slowly turning the other way.

The walls were once again filled with amazing hard corals with lots of fish and sea snakes.


But what was really cool were the loads of Painted Crayfish that were walking around in the small caves at the base of the bommies.



Lisa had worked out that there were actually 2 different species of Crayfish and took close up photos of their faces to confirm.
The colours also gave it away.

This is the more common Painted Spiny Lobster

This one is the slightly smaller and less common Pronghorn Spiny Lobster

Lisa also found what we could assume was a very pregnant Sap Sucking Slug as this one was really fat and all the others we’ve seen at the Swains have been slender.


That afternoon the wind backed off to zero and we had our first glass out in over a month.
We were hoping it would reduce the seas and swell a little for the following day’s dive.

Sure enough, the next day’s dive was in much nicer conditions with around 6 knots of wind, flatter seas and a hot & sunny day.
We tried looking along the NW face but found that everywhere looked pretty good and we surmised we could dive anywhere along the NW outer edge and have a good dive.
But the spot that stood out was right on the corner and was surrounded with a maze of bommies that could keep us entertained for many dives.

It wasn’t a deep dive but a long one with a little current pushing one way, then nothing for 30 minutes before turning back the other way towards the end of the 80 minutes underwater.

We must have swum a long way as we saw a lot of bommies to the north and missed the entire southern area – which didn’t matter as we’d just do it the next day.

There were loads of schooling fish in the shallows around the tops of the bommies which made for great photos if you could get the coral right in the frame, do a test for exposure and then sit and wait while holding your breath until the fish got game and came in close.
As soon as you exhaled they’d all scatter until you took another breath and started the whole process again. It turned into a game to see how many fish came into the photo frame before you had to breathe.




Down on the deeper slopes there were loads of Gorgonian Fans of all colours, Sea Whips with tiny shrimps and some interesting nudibranchs on the rubble sea floor.






On the way back to the tinny, we found a small hole in the reef that was a cleaning station with larger reef fish coming in for a clean.


That afternoon we filled scuba tanks, charged cameras and readied ourselves for diving again the next day – which never eventuated…..

That night we downloaded our emails and the weather to find not only bad weather coming in around 3 days time, but also an email asking for some family assistance back at home.
That night it blew a constant 15 knots and was still blowing when we woke up.

It was getting rougher by the hour and we realised we probably couldn’t dive in those conditions on the high tide anyway, so we quickly packed up and started sailing south.

Sailing at 8.5 knots through the reef system

We had nearly 50nm of complex reef to negotiate until we were out of the Swains Reef system and we figured it would take all day but we were flying along at over 8 knots and stayed that way until we exited the reef mid-afternoon.

The wind held all night and only dropped off a little at daybreak.


We had sailed 185nm in just 24 hours which was a great run and it meant we only had about 80nm to go until we made Rooney Point at the tip of Fraser Island.

The wind back off a little more and went for the E to NE so we furled in the headsail and put up the spinnaker for the final run.

 

We arrived at Rooney Point at 9:30pm and were very surprised to see over a dozen lights from other yachts all tucked into the corner of the bay seeking shelter from the NE winds.

All in all it was a pretty good trip back and we averaged 7.33 knots.

So that’s it for yet another Episode of our sailing adventures.

We’ve put a “Swains Reef Wrap Up” below for those private vessels that are thinking of going out to dive in the area.

Cheers for now
Paul and Lisa Hogger
Yacht Lorelei
Sailing the Swains Reefs



NAVIGATING

The Swains Reefs Charts (whether paper charts or any electronic charts we’ve seen) are basic to say the least.

It would be virtually impossible to find anchorable lagoons on those charts.

To navigate we use a free PC based software called Open CPN.
The one advantage of this software is to be able to create “snapshots” from Google Earth of the reefs and overlay them over the charts in Open CPN.
We would then quite simply navigate over those snapshots and use them to find not only anchorages but also scuba dive and spearfishing spots.
The satellite maps included in this blog are the snapshots from Open CPN converted into JPG’s and the information added in a photo editing software.

A screen shot from Open CPN using a Google Earth snapshot overlaid
onto the Swains Reefs electronic charts.
Note the difference in detail.

A more detailed snapshot of a reef overlaid onto the electronic chart.
There is a huge difference in not only detail but location of the reef.
The charts were slightly out of position but the snapshots were accurate.

A typical map we made outlining Lorelei’s anchorage, dive and spear sites
and any other potential areas for in the future.

SCUBA DIVING

The main reason we went to the Swains Reef System was to Scuba Dive.

The old dive guide books we spoke of at the start of our Swains posts were written in the 1980’s and are obviously a little dated.
Whilst they did help initially, the information in the books was only a general overview and only covered the southern section and a few of the larger and more protected reefs in towards the middle of the reef system.
The Tom Byron book excerpt on The Swains Reefs was only written after a one-off 6 day exploratory dive charter where they did around 10 dives at the southern area.
These are the covers of the books.


Initially we found finding the dive spots a little difficult as it didn’t follow the normal profile of where the best dive spots where on other Great Barrier Reef areas and in particular the most popular areas off Cairns and the northern Ribbon Reefs.  Up there it is predictable as to where to dive on a reef.
In the Swains it is not.

 We found great dive spots on the normally exposed-to-the-tradewinds SE face and at the very next reef the same area was terrible.
One reef would have the best area on the NW tip and the next reef across it was better on the SE corner.
So no consistency to dive locations which meant a lot of searching in the tender and either sticking our head over the side with a mask on or going for a quick snorkel.
We spent dozens of hours and probably travelled 80nm or more searching for dive sites. If we’d done that amount of searching in the northern GBR, we would have found 100’s of dive locations – not just the handful that we had discovered in the Swains.

For deeper reefs and bommies - when arriving at reef for the first time, we would motor along the reef edge that looked like it had potential in Lorelei using her high quality depth sounder and travel between 18m/60ft to 32m/105ft looking for potential dive locations that way.
We’d mark positions before entering the lagoon to anchor up and then transferring them to the tinny’s chartplotter so we could explore the area in more detail.

Whilst we have never given out GPS co-ordinates on our blog, the maps we have made are easy to download and should give divers a general area to dive.
Please be aware though that we are NOT beginner divers and the dive sites marked on the maps can be a challenge for the inexperienced.
Many of them have strong currents and must be either drift dived or dived on a slack tide.
Some are also deeper dives and are areas were we have seen large sharks like Tiger Sharks and Bull Sharks.
There are lots of more placid areas for a beginner dive like the shallow lagoon entries and bommies within the inner lagoons.
Our dive areas indicated are some of the most challenging dive spots on that reef, but for the experienced diver, also the most rewarding with fish life and quality of coral.

Whilst the reefs had an abundance of things like bottom dwelling reef fish (Coral Trout, Emperors, Parrot Fish, etc), GT’s, Sea Snakes, School Mackerel, hard coral and small soft corals, we found that the reefs lacked a lot of things that are normally so common on other GBR dive sites.

We didn’t see any schools of Barracuda, Big Eye Trevally (Jacks), and only a handful of Spanish Mackerel.
Whilst we started well with macro species for Lisa to photograph with a few rare things like Coleman Shrimp and Orangutan Crabs, the macro life mainly consisted of Shrimps, Shells, Crabs, Nudibranchs and Sap Sucking Slugs.
We saw no Leaf Fish, Frog Fish, Lionfish, Scorpion Fish, Sea Horse, Hawk Fish or Pipe Fish of any variety.
And it’s not like we weren’t looking or know what to look for and Lisa took her Camera fitted with a Nikon 60mm Macro Lens on every dive we did.

We saw very few large Gorgonian Fans and virtually no large soft corals.

There are no wrecks to dive that we are aware of.

We are probably a little over critical of Swains Reef dive sites in the blog.
It’s just we are a little spoilt when it comes to diving.
We have been independently cruising and diving the reef for 17 years now and Paul was also the Trip Director on Australia’s premier dive live-aboard which covered the areas from Cains to the Tip of Australia.
Needless to say we have done 1000’s of dives on the Great Barrier Reef and hundred’s more in over 15 other countries.
We are experienced photographers, PADI Instructors and have over 8000 dives between us.
So what we say is an average dive site, might just be fantastic to someone else.


SPEARFISHING

We are also keen Spearfisherman but we spear for fresh food, not for sport and not to fill the freezer with kilos of reef fillets.
So while we found the spearfishing excellent we didn’t spear for days and days on end as it was all too easy to jump in and 30 minutes later have a quality table fish or a Crayfish for immediate consumption.
What we did like were the huge amount of Emperor Species which are 4 star eating and are normally a difficult fish to approach and spear at most other reef systems we’ve visited.
For us it was novel to be able to spear these quality table fish regularly instead of the all-too-common Mackerel or Coral Trout that are in abundance around other areas of The Great barrier Reef.
We could have shot larger sport fish like Dog Tooth Tuna, large Spanish Mackerel, Job Fish and large GT’s – but what’s the point…..

Lisa with a 4 star eating Sweetlip or Red-Throat Emperor of 65cm.

AUSTRALIAN BORDER PROTECTION AIRCRAFT

After 7 weeks in the Swains Reefs the one big thing we noticed was the amount of times we were overflown by the Australian Border Protection Aircraft.
In the first 14 days we estimated we were flown over around 12 times.
And it wasn’t just random flyovers. They would fly over, then bank around and do a full low level pass coming right up the back of Lorelei.


It was always so low that we could see the large camera at the front rotating to keep lock on us as they flew past.
Then around every second time they would call us up with the same questions – vessel name, port of registration, last port of call and next port of call.

After a while they knew who we were and what we were doing and they flew past every second day or so and would only do a low level pass about every 5 days and call us only about once a week.

Whilst we’ve read a bit of negativity about the aircraft from other cruisers at the Swains (particularly international vessels with foreign owners), we think it’s great what they are doing in protecting not only our borders but also overseeing the reef management zones like the protected no fishing areas, etc…

During our entire 7 weeks there, we only saw 4 other boats and 3 were either commercial fishing or charter fishing vessels.
So in a way it was nice to know that the plane was regularly flying over in the unlikely event of an emergency.

 One boat however was the QLD Boating and Fisheries vessel and they did board our boat twice.
They were super nice people, very friendly and even helped with recommendations of heavy weather anchorages just in case it did turn nasty.


We hope this information helps any other cruising boats and/or independent divers wanting to visit the Swains Reefs.
We didn’t find a lot of information on the web about cruising and even less on diving so we hope this helps……

Paul and Lisa Hogger
Yacht Lorelei












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



















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