Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The Great Sandy Strait

Day after day the wind at Lady Musgrave blew stubbornly from the south, the very direction we wanted to proceed. From previous blogs, it can be seen that we can tack directly toward the wind ... but we don't enjoy the experience!

Finally after eight stationary days, the wind backed toward the east enough to allow an easy sail southward.  Off we went in late afternoon for the overnight sail to the Great Sandy Strait.

In previous travels in this area, we passed both south and north in the deep waters to the outside of Fraser Island, whose seventy nautical mile length rates it the largest sand island in the world.  On this voyage, we decided to travel behind Fraser Island both for the new scenery and to avail ourselves of our first smooth water since leaving Victoria Inner Harbour.

At high tide
Our passage started out with much shortened canvas and a boisterous sail south as close to the wind as we could manage.  By midnight, off the city of Bundaberg, the wind became lighter and then disappeared.  The waves and lively motion in turn made their exit as we motored the last miles toward the Strait in the early hours of dawn.

The Strait has not disappointed.  There are no waves at all that can be felt aboard Traversay III, either at anchor or underway.  This pleasantness does come with a price though.  The water is so shallow that we can only travel at half-tide or higher.  In addition, the vast areas of open water belie the reality that only thin channels of it are ever deep enough for navigation in a boat such as ours.  With the tricky navigation, we feel we cannot travel at night and must travel on a rising tide so that, if we do stray off the path and run aground, we can get away again.  Thus only a few hours a day are available for travel.  Enroute, we saw as little as 20 centimeters [8 inches] of water below our keel and here in our overnight anchorage, we expect the depth to be not much more than that.

At low tide
In a couple of days, we will head out into the ocean where the shallow water presents a different challenge: The ocean waves, on reaching the shallow waters of the Strait entrance break with some fury unless conditions are just right.  This creates yet more time constraints.  To allow us to leave, the tide must be fairly high and flooding [flowing inward] to reduce the propensity of the waves to break - an issue we will face at many Australian river ports with shallow entrances fronting directly onto the ocean.

But for now, all is peaceful ... and we have internet again!

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Lady Musgrave Island

It turned out our Tiger Shark experience in the Swains was not the last of our "scary creature" encounters!

For our second dive at Frederick Reef after the anchor snubber retrieval, we placed the anchor next to a coral "bommie" with a plan to capture more fish and coral photos in the phenomenally clear water. This, of course involved our swimming the length of the anchor chain [some seventy meters] both at the start and at the end of the dive in order to access the interesting coral formation.  These long swims led to Mary Anne's snake story.

Larry also seemed to act as a huge attraction to a snake-like being which slithered (sideways - like snakes can) all the way up to us from the sand 40 feet below. Alas - after a 40minute dive, it spotted us swimming back to the boat and slithered all the way up towards us again ... it was just like one of those horrible 'repeating' nightmares. It went right between Larry's arm and BCD. He kept trying to repel it - it bit his fin several times. But no harm done. When we got back and checked through all our books we realized that it was probably a stripey 'Harlequin Snake-Eel' ... these are harmless (as opposed to all the actual snakes in Australia - all of which can kill you!). We think something about Larry's long, sleek, black neoprene-covered body may have attracted her during Snake Mating Season.

Thinking that if it moves like a snake and looks like a snake, there might be a vague possibility that it actually IS a snake, we hatched a slightly different plan for our subsequent dives.  We anchored roughly a chain length upwind of the target coral patch and let out chain until we lay directly above our dive site.  This had the merit of shortening considerably any exit swim we felt compelled to initiate.

                                                                                                *  *  *

After Frederick Reef, we planned to visit Lady Musgrave Island.  From previous visits, we had fond memories of Lady Musgrave  and wanted to finish our Coral Sea diving both inside and outside its calm coral-fringed lagoon.  Added benefits would be to split the sail back to the coast into two segments and a chance to sight-see on the island.  Not having done any walking for a couple of weeks, this was a big draw.

A fair wind springing up led to a dawn departure from Frederick, a fast overnight sail the two hundred miles to Musgrave and an afternoon arrival into the smooth [at least compared to Frederick] waters of the lagoon.

Underwater Lady Musgrave represented the least satisfying of our Coral Sea diving.  The visibility outside the reef was better than inside but probably suffered more from following on the heels of pristine Frederick Reef than from any objective reality.  And we did see the largest scorpion fish of our Australia visit and our only crown-of-thorns sea star!


Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Our Dives in the Coral Sea

Anchored in sand
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.

Blacktip rockcod
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.

A photo from Frederick reef
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.