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Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Our Dives in the Coral Sea

Larry and I have passed through about half of the time we expect to spend diving on the Coral Coast of Australia. It's our third trip here – 2006 and 2010 also saw us scuba diving and visiting various wild and lonely places along this coast. We determined in 2010 that the very best diving was far out on the reefs in the Coral Sea. So we left Rosslyn Bay on August 9th and headed the 120 miles offshore to the Swain Reefs.

We have a set procedure for getting in the water. Once all my gear is on and I've done all my safety checks, I wait for Larry (getting his gear on in the cockpit) to call out his safety checks at which point I take a giant step into the water. I normally hang onto the ladder and do various things like clearing my ears and looking around. Since we've been here, often we've been approached by large and curious fish – possibly looking for 'handouts' as at places like Bait Reef we think tourists feed them. So in the past we've seen large and beautiful fish like the humphead Maori wrasse (shown in previous Blog photos).

This time, I saw a cloud of tiny fish swarming under the bow and near them were about 8-10 fairly small fish – of about 30-40 cm or 12-14 inches. The most remarkable thing about them was their unmistakeably way of swimming. Sharks are cartilaginous and thus (minus a bone structure) can swim in a very menacing and sinuous manner. I also noticed that they had very large and coal-black eyes and a prominent lateral line. This is common with many species of fish and even whales with dark coloration above that line and light below (to make them inconspicuous predators if seen from above looking down at the depths of water, and to blend into the light when looking up at them). They were giving me cool appraising glances - unlike 'normal' reef fish – more like shoppers at an estate auction who are eyeing a handsome item they will never be able to afford.

It was just before the time that Larry splashed down beside me that I noticed a large prostrate 'fish' on the sand below and slightly behind the boat. It had a sharklike shape and I kept looking for the white or black tip on the dorsal fins which would confirm that this animal was a relatively harmless white or black-tipped reef shark. Instead I noticed that it seemed to have lines on its body … as it came up from the sand the lines seemed to meld into a type of camouflage pattern.

By this time Larry had confirmed that the 'small' swimmers under the bow were sharks and we decided the large 'fish' was also a shark. I asked him if he thought he could get pictures or a video … he was taking the video when the shark made a third pass beside us … coming much closer than the first two iterations. That's when we decided to climb up the ladder and out of the water and find a new divesite!

Looking in our two underwater guides later on, we discovered that we had come in close contact with a tiger shark.

Our two guides list about 40 prevalent reef sharks and do not provide any photos or description of the tiger babies. But the tiger shark is almost twice the size in length and weight (at 650 cm and 520 kg) of the other listed sharks (including hammerheads). The closest competitor is the Oceanic whitetip shark which is 396 cm. Previously, we have seen and taken photos along this coast of blacktip (180 cm) and whitetip (215 cm) reef sharks … we have not been worried by sharks. We once encountered a fairly large white-tipped shark which Larry had to repel with his camera. On looking at all our shark photos, we have re-discovered this big fellow and decided that he was most likely the Oceanic white-tipped … which (along with the Tiger) is listed as dangerous.

After reading about Great White Sharks in the July National Geographic, I have not stopped thinking about the (presumed) female tiger shark and her numerous offspring. I don't even know that this is what we had stumbled upon, but it makes sense to me. The Great White female named Gretel in the magazine article seemed to head for the same 'hub' each time to mate and give birth. Some sharks give birth to live young … there are also related animals (like the ratfish) who produce an eggcase within which the eggs develop. So I may be completely crazy about this, but my 'take' on the scenario we envisioned is that we saw a mother shark brooding a whole lot of dangerous little baby tigers. That makes sense of what we saw. Of course, The National Geographic mentions there are over 600 species of sharks.(and my guides only have about 40!) but I'm sticking with my story.

Another factor in choosing a divesite is to stay away from any fishboats. There was a tourist fishing operation near the 'Tiger' site. With about 8 tiny 'Dories' and a Mother Ship, you can imagine that a lot of cleaning of fish was going on over there. I suppose that we're lucky that Mommy was well-fed. Mind you, I doubt her maternal instincts are very well-developed!

We re-anchored 12 miles away, and decided that from now on if we are near a reef, we'll climb down the swim ladder and put our fins on in the water. That way we won't make shark-attracting splashes.

After leaving the Swains, we travelled another 120 miles out here to Frederick Reef. After spending about 20 hours standing watches and then getting anchored, we were hoping that even with some fairly strong winds in the forecast, we'd be able to dive here. The waves and wind kept getting stronger and stronger … the winds far exceeded the forecast and on the first night the anchor started 'dragging' … I got up about 4 a.m. feeling very very seasick for the first time in many years. The heavy winds and the motion during the high tide (when a fairly low sand island that we're in the lee of is swamped) continued. Each time the wind crept above 30 knots, the anchor dragged further. We kept expecting that (in accordance with the weather forecast) the strong winds would abate, but they only got stronger.

By the second night, with winds gusting to 45 knots we had to re-anchor in the middle of the night. My job would be to weigh anchor and then lower it again after we'd circled around and Larry (with the assistance of our outside screen) would yell for me to lower it again. It was pitch black outside while I crept to the bow. Larry had turned on the foredeck light but envisioning that I wouldn't be able to see down into the raging black waters to notice the anchor was actually at the surface, I kept a turned-on headlamp hanging by its strap between my teeth. After getting past the safety of the cockpit, I hooked onto the lifelines. Getting to the bow was good exercise as it was literally bouncing like an in-use trampoline in the waves. Larry joined me up there to get the 'snubber' off. This is a springy nylon line which takes the strain off the windlass after the chain is let out. Then he was gone again - back to the wheel - motoring into the teeth of the wind so I could get enough slack on the chain to be able to haul it up. Even so, the anchor windlass kept failing as it could not take the strain on it. I held on for dear life … constantly and rhythmically being immersed as the bow thrashed in the heavy waves.

Finally I could see the anchor just below the surface of the water and I signalled Larry. I had a long wait as he circled back into position. Luckily the water here is nice and warm (about 25degrees). When he called to me, I started letting the anchor down … as I neared the specified length of chain he came up to put the snubber on. Alas, the stainless hook snapped and the whole arrangement (including plastic-encased anchoring line) fell into the water.

So that's how we ended up diving again - our 14th Ozzie dive in 2016. Larry noted where we lost the snubber, we swam under the boat towards the chain at the bow, and even before we swam past the bow we could see the snubber up ahead lying in the sand next to the chain. The visibility is just incredible. We look forward to having a memorable dive on the reef tomorrow!

At 8/15/2016 11:46 (utc) our position was 21°00.92'S 154°22.11'E

Thursday, 11 August 2016

The Swain Reefs

Most people, on hearing the name "Great Barrier Reef" naturally imagine a barrier. Nonetheless, unlike the reefs that surround many tropical islands with often a single navigable pass, the Great Barrier Reef is more like the Great Picket Fence Reef. It is made up of pancakes of coral reef of different sizes and shapes with lots of water between. It does break the ocean swell into reasonably gentle seas but does not impede navigation to the careful mariner.

Our interest in Swain Reefs, the southern-most part of the Great Barrier Reef is all about diving. We expected the waters to be far clearer than those near the mainland and imagined the ocean currents would nourish a healthy collection of tropical life.

After twenty hours of sailing east from Rosslyn Bay as close to the wind as we could manage, we arrived in the shelter of Horseshoe Reef, one of the Swains. Mary Anne lowered the anchor into water so clear she could see it bite into the sandy bottom some 35 feet down.

A day after arriving, we entered the water for the first time in over a week. Sharks have an unmistakable appearance and way of swimming and Mary Anne noted from the swim ladder that twos and threes of tiny ones were patrolling under TRAVERSAY. Our dive plan was to descend to a small patch of coral emerging from the sand directly below the stern of our boat. It was then she noticed a much larger shark lying somnolent next to the very patch we wished to explore and photograph.

Before we could begin the dive, it moved off the bottom and began to display an unwelcome curiosity by circling closer and closer to us. After a few quick photos and a video, we removed our fins and agreed to beat a hasty retreat back up the ladder. Later comparison of our photos with those in a reference book revealed that our shark looked very much like a Tiger Shark ... a species the book identified as dangerous!

Having lost interest in spending time underwater at Horseshoe Reef, we moved to Sandshoe Reef a few hours away and plunged back into the water. There we had a fine dive and encountered no sharks, friendly or dangerous. With visibility underwater of some twenty meters, we saw and photographed many colorful fish and much coral.

* * *

Qh, and if it appears we are having too much fun, on the way from Horseshoe to Sandshoe Reefs, the high-output alternator on our engine abruptly ceased charging the batteries and powering the desalinator.

"No worries" as they say here in Australia. The bits of broken belt in the bilge suggest a probable cause. If those belts are the whole story, we will replace them from spares shortly and then buy new belts when we are next in town. At any rate, we have many ways of making electricity. In addition to that alternator, we have solar, wind and a diesel powered generator separate from the main engine.

The adventure continues.

At 8/11/2016 06:21 (utc) our position was 22°12.59'S 152°45.09'E

Monday, 8 August 2016

Friends on boats!

We've been settled here at Keppel Bay Marina for a week ... laundry is done, groceries purchased and packed, new filters for the dive compressor have arrived and we're poised to head out to some offshore reefs for more underwater adventures. We've talked to a lot of racing folk, and have socialized with a lovely family - the Trews on a large Welsh/Aussie aluminium yacht called Tic Tac. There had been very few boats in the anchorages we've been in so it was a shock to get here and suddenly have the many racers arriving from the Brisbane-Keppel Bay Race,

We spent two weeks at the Townsville Marina so we got to know the helpful marina office staff (Scott, Mary-Anne and Kerry) ... at the dock we got to know our neighbours - Australians Michael and Elizabeth on SV Promise, Jim and Deb on Georgia Wray and Ashely and Brenda aboard the Canadian-registered vessel 'Ashymakaihken'.

'Swish' & 'Quest' ... race boats at the dock
During our stay at the various designated dive buoys on the Reef and with the limit of 2 hours per buoy, there was little time for visiting after cleaning the gear and editing photos. We found keeping our dinghy inflated and towing it impractical and even unsafe on our way south as we were often heading into the wind.
M.A. with 'Trew Crew' ... Maxx Daizie Rose & Chris
Keppel Bay Marina
Race boats for sale
Elizabeth and Micahel from SV 'Promise'

Evan from 'Sundowner'

Albert and Corry ... 'Sea Wolf'

the elegant 60' 'Sea Wolf'

Stern Cabin

When we visited NE Percy Island we inflated our dinghy and went over to meet Evan on 'Sundowner' whom we invited aboard. He was a fascinating mariner -  a muti-talented soul full of stories of his life in the Air Force where he'd been in charge of Base logistics, looked after the kitchens and then run a restaurant after retirement.  While we were in the bay, a beautiful steel boat came in - this was the elegant 'Sea Wolf'' owned by Dutch/Australians Corry and Albert. We enjoyed time aboard and admired her gleaming interior woodwork. They are sailing further North and putting their beautiful circumnavigator up for sale.
We feel refreshed and ready to head off into the 'wilds' once again. Both Canadians and Aussies live in huge countries. But many of the inhabitants rarely actually get to experience the 'Wilderness'. Many people cannot believe that we can't get the internet. Yet for the next 3-4 weeks we will again be isolated - meeting very few (if any) other boats and NOT having the internet. We can still report to this blog and send our position to the map, but we are very limited in our communications.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The Tiny and the Huge

chromodoris kutteri
After almost a week in the Percy Islands, we thought the headwinds had relented somewhat and that we could move onward under power toward the southeast.  After nosing around the bottom of Middle Percy and almost grinding to a halt, we realized that the wind and waves were determined to restrain us in our venture.  In our expectation of simply motoring to the next dive site, we had not really rigged ourselves for sailing and so simply persevered for the few short miles to an anchorage in the lee of South Percy, the southern outlier of the island group.

The two days until the winds actually relented a bit proved to be a blessing.  A reversing tidal current promised to nourish the sea-life much as at Pine Peak [the dive that wasn't] but, in the case of South Percy, the period of slack between the currents was adequate for a dive.

fryeria picta
Nudibranchs, one of the "cutest" categories of marine life, are a favorite of ours.  Our Australian dive sites so far had only offered the occasional  glimpse of these tiny colorful creatures.  South Percy was a welcome change to all that as they started to appear, brilliant against the dull background near our anchor chain, as soon as we had descended.  As we swam along the bottom into shallower water, a garden of coral replaced the uninteresting anchor ground - but the nudibranchs were still about.

* * *

A digression:

It is a common misconception that the wind pushes a sailboat along and that it must go in the direction the wind sends it.  In reality, through aerodynamic processes similar to those that support an airplane in flight, the wind over the sails pulls the boat forward.  Modern cruising sailboats can sail into the wind at an angle of just over forty-five degrees off the wind - racing boats even closer.  This has the effect of allowing the navigator to reach a destination directly to windward by placing the wind first on one side of the boat and then the other.  This process is known as "tacking".
chromodoris magnifica

While the wind does not much impede our boat under power, large waves certainly do.  The motion they induce not only slows the boat but also interferes with the efficient operation of the propeller and slows us to a crawl. The waves have no such effect on the boat under sail though.  The winds happily keep pulling the boat along at a much higher speed than the engine can manage.  In fact with strong headwinds and large waves, even with the extra distance traveled in tacking, the boat under sail will arrive before a similar sailboat under power motoring dead to windward.

* * *

After two nights had passed at anchor off South Percy the winds still continued out of the southeast. Our patience with this was waning though ... so we stowed the dive gear, rigged for sail and set off for High Peak Island under reefed mainsail. The day turned out to be a glorious sail with spray flying and the boat pulling us forward magically into the eye of the wind. Sailing to windward at first seems futile.  Your destination is always well off to one side of the boat or the other.  Nonetheless, each time you return to a particular tack, your target island is visibly closer even though you have never actually headed toward it.  Finally, after much of the day has passed, you find yourself  right in the lee of  your destination with wind and waves dying away.  Minutes later the anchor chain rattles out and you have arrived.

Just as we were hunting for a spot to anchor at High Peak there was a disturbance in the water just ahead of Traversay.  This resolved itself quickly into a nervous mother whale trying to nudge her baby out of our way.  The baby whale, like most babies, was both curious and oblivious to the danger.  We immediately slowed and turned to give them room ... and then reached for the camera.

High Peak proved another abominably rolly anchorage. Because of my choice of anchor spots far off the reef, it also gave us lots of exercise during our dive swim. But we did see yet another charming and different nudibranch.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Our stay at Middle Percy Island

"The rolling is abominable" warned our guidebook … 'Cruising the Coral Coast'. Having experienced a great deal of rolling in our day, it was not the discomfort of rolling which worried us, it was having to launch the dinghy and more particularly attach the motor to the dinghy. The motor's stored in the bow compartment at the front of Traversay III and getting it out safely in the midst of heavy movement has proved to be horribly treacherous in the past. We thought back to the time in South Georgia when the only way to view the thousands upon thousands of King Penguins at St Andrews Bay was by launching the dinghy and motoring over to get a close-up view.

However, we had a reason for our visit. During our two previous visits, we'd stopped here and a sign of our presence had been left in the form of a plywood sheet with the boat name and port of registry. We wanted to see if the old sign (with the letters excised with a dremel) would still be present in company with the thousands of other signs left by fellow 'cruisers' from all parts of the globe. We'd already spent considerable time with our few and scarce resources in making a new and better sign out of cherry wood, permanent markers and coats of varnish. The weather showed no inclination to improve for several days, so we cast aside discretion and decided to ford the shore break and head to the hut amusingly named the 'Percy Hilton'.

While waiting for lulls in the extreme rolling so we could launch our shore boat and looking over at the three catamarans anchored nearby, I noticed with envy that our neighbours were blessed with a far gentler and kindlier motion. This is the reason they are the favoured breed here inside the Barrier Reef. We called ashore to make sure we would still be welcome to go ashore (our last visit was 6 years ago) and the hostess Kate (whom we never met) assured us that all was still as we remembered – that Percy Island honey and now mango chutney were still being sold on the honour system and that in her view we should wait until high tide when the incoming tide would level out the shore break. Of course, being of the rigorous set who eschews relaxation and comfort (our neighbours meanwhile were suntanning or perhaps even having naps aboard) we set out immediately and only got minimally wet both going in and out when we got to shore.

Despite our embarkation (and later the debarkation) trials we had a lovely time ashore. The old sign was still there, but very pale in the face of having been washed by a lot of rain over the last six years. The new sign went up where it would surely be noticed – next to a clock which announces 'Time for a Drink' … the hands are set to 5 o'clock and all the numerals ranged around the face are 5's! We spent time reading as many signs as could be seen in the space of an hour (you could spend days at this!) and bought both chutney and honey, leaving our money in a large box marked with the words conveying the idea "Help feed us and we'll help feed you!"

At 7/30/2016 00:25 (utc) our position was 21°43.86'S 150°21.02'E

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The dive that wasn't; the dive that was

As in most southern hemisphere tropical waters, the winds here blow almost continuously with some strength from the southeast. And unlike most foreign sailors, we are being contrarian and proceeding down the coast into those incessant winds.

To avoid undue suffering, we are trying to move on the rare light wind days [there is never any wind of strength IN our favor] and SCUBA dive or just veg out on the days when traveling is difficult.

After motoring southeast in a rare calm, we anchored off Pine Peak Island in anticipation of a pleasant dive. A considerable current brushes across the face of the island's coral reef and, by bringing past a steady flow of nutrients, this tends to encourage vibrant marine life. The current along the reef sweeping past us at anchor, first one way and then the other, created safety issues for diving. It wouldn't do to be swept away from TRAVERSAY and not be able to swim back!

I timed the period of slack current between the tidal flows and found it a little too short for real comfort. Knowing the calm was forecast to last another day, I hatched a plan that we would tether one of us to our outboard powered dinghy during the dive. We could enjoy and photograph the coral while the dinghy floated serenely twenty feet above us.

When the morning of our dive dawned though, the southeast winds had returned early. My mind conjured up the way our dinghy likes to blow downwind in a fifteen knot wind. The outboard easily tames it but I imagined myself being towed away from the reef like a person attached to a very large kite. We didn't even bother to launch the dinghy, canceled the dive, and headed off to the Percy Islands some ten short miles to the southeast.

Changing winds required corresponding changes in our anchor location. First at White's Bay on Middle Percy and then at Blunt Bay on Northeast Percy we took the dinghy around the bay and looked at the marine life through a swim mask. White's Bay was a disappointment but Blunt Bay seemed to have possibilities.

In the end it was a better dive than we had expected. While the visibility underwater initially seemed poor, the life at close range was colorful and interesting. Each dive seems memorable for SOMETHING and the choice find on this day was a large cushion sea star. In typical fashion, I swam right over it thinking it to be a rock. Mary Anne caught my attention and posed for a photo holding up the excellent sofa-cushion sized specimen. Photos taken, she gently placed it back where it had been hanging out.

A good day! And worth the rolly anchorages.

At 7/27/2016 01:07 (utc) our position was 21°39.27'S 150°20.02'E

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

A Week of Diving

Here we are at the Great Barrier Reef ... we have spent a wonderful week - six days of diving, and one day off hidden away from some bad weather in Nara Inlet. Here in the tradewind belt, showers and strong winds can be expected. In Nara we met some other 'cruisers' on their boats. Most of the folks here are on Charter holidays and are 'temporary' sailors and don't tend to socialize outside their 'group'. As we swung at anchor, we went out on deck in the beautiful moonlit night. Next morning we heard the distinctive chuckling of the kookaburra.

For six days now we have gone from one favoured dive location to another. The Australian government has made secure moorings right next to the dive spot. They have done this to prevent careless destruction of the coral. It is very easy to accidentally ensnare coral with an anchor ... not while actually anchoring, but because the anchor chain will drag across the coral while the boat moves around at anchor. The government also regulates the size of boat and the time (2 hours). Last night we were lucky enough to get to this safe anchorage just before 'closing time' (around 3pm) so we have been able to stay overnight. The added bonus is that we have internet here so I decided to post a small record of our time here.

This post consists mainly of photos. Larry has taken between 50 and 70 photos on each dive, and I then edit them. Here are some of our favourites and the dive location.
Butterfly Bay mushroom coral

Maureen Cove

Maureen Cove dive 2 crinoid

Manta Ray Bay Maori wrasse

Manta Ray Bay branching hard coral

Cateran Bay Rainford's butterflyfish

Cateran Bay - homo sapiens

Blue Pearl Bay - 6-band angelfish & lemon damsel
Blue Pearl Bay