Into the Coral Sea

By Bill Barker
June 06, 2013
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Reef Dragon headed out of Mooloolaba on Tuesday, 14th May with the sun setting and with a fair wind behind us. After several months of cruising and surveying temperate Australian coastal areas, Reef Dragon was finally heading into tropical waters. And what tropical waters they were! Most of us are experienced in diving inshore areas or have done liveaboard trips to popular tropical reef sites. But here we were, heading towards what in marine science terms was a virtual unknown, 37.5 kms off the Queensland coast. What would we find?

Before setting our course for this distant destination, we could not pass the legendary Wolf Rock without a few transects. The morning after we left Mooloolooba we were anchored within sight of the rock. Soon Rick, Sam and I were in the water hoping for good visibility and little current, as we explored this rich location. The current was fine, but unfortunately the visibility wasn’t. Nevertheless we were excited to find a wide diversity of marine life, including grey nurse sharks and even a manta ray.

A few hours later, we watched the Australian coastline slide below the western horizon as Ian set a course for remote Cato Reef. About 40 hours later a perfect tropical dawn revealed our reef lying before us. A 15 hectare coral cay lay to the western end of the reef with countless thousands of seabirds wheeling above it screeching and calling in a deafening cacophony. To the east a solitary rusty wreck stood on high on the coral evoking the age-old dangers of navigating in reef waters.

But there was no leisure for romantic reflections. Within a very short time, Rick, Sam and I were in the water, laying tapes, identifying, counting and sizing fish and inverts and taking photos. Sites varied from flat reef areas around 10 – 15 metres deep, giant coral bommies reaching to the surface and lagoon habitats. Conditions were perfect for diving, with calm water and visibility of 40 metres and more. The data quickly piled up, outrunning the ability of some to enter it in the brief time available.

After our second day’s diving at Cato, we sailed overnight to Wreck Reef, a much larger reef complex 100 kms to the north. Once again the diving conditions couldn’t have been better. The outstanding visibility and the mesmerising deep blue surroundings ensured the diver was at peace with the elements. What were our main impressions? The coral cover seemed pristine and almost complete, with good diversity of both hard and soft corals. Fish life varied, bearing in mind that we were toward the southern end of the Barrier Reef and would not expect the diversity of places further north.

Some sites were mainly smaller fish, but some sites were populated by a good range of bigger animals, including white tipped and grey reef sharks, black snapper, humpnose unicornfish, the occasional hump-head maori wrasse, parrotfish, serranids of various species and the occasional turtle. On a couple of occasions we had close encounters with enormous Queensland groper. Also notable were the ever-present sea snakes, which seemed to have an inordinate interest in the process of marine surveys, following us up and down our transect lines as if they wanted to help out. Also of note was what we didn’t see: there were virtually no sponges or gorgonians and invertebrates and cryptic fish were comparatively few. This will provide something for future analysis, as well as whether or not the reefs were actually as pristine as they appeared.

While sailing from one Wreck Reef area to another we came across a seething bait ball overtopped by seabirds and jumped expectantly into the water with snorkelling gear and cameras. Though the water was over 40 metres deep we could see the bottom clearly as six grey reef sharks circled around us in the infinite blueness of the open sea. As we approached the bait ball we could see small tuna scything through the water in pursuit of their prey while schools of rainbow runner cruised around. The excitement reached high intensity when Sam and Rick sighted a marlin – but only for a few seconds before it disappeared.

We went ashore a couple of times on the coral cays, once to have a barbecue fish dinner (thanks to Rick) among the noddies, boobies and comical hermit crabs. It was unforgettable to be in such an isolated place, with the frigate birds, shearwaters and terns wheeling raucously overhead in the immensity of the tropical sky while watching our faithful boat silhouetted against the setting sun.

Rick kept saying we had to make the most of the great conditions as they couldn’t last. Unfortunately, he was all too prophetic. After several days at Wreck, our next survey target was the Saumarez Reefs, further west towards the coastline. We left on the evening of Wednesday 22nd May but by the time we arrived at Saumarez next morning the wind and the sea had both come up, making a safe anchorage impossible. Reluctantly, we headed for our next destination, the Swains, once again on the way towards the coast. The weather however became relentless, with 30 knot winds and 3 metre swells. When we finally arrived at the Swains this too proved not to be diveable due to the conditions. So there was nothing for it but to head for port. From Wreck to Gladstone it was four days of hard slog, by which time we were all starting to feel more than a little fatigued. Rick and I shouldered our responsibility on the night watches, but it was Ian and Sam who carried us through, along with the robustness of Reef Dragon itself. Ian’s experience, skill and calm judgement ensured that we never felt anxious, even when the wind was gusting up to 45 knots. Sam’s willingness and knowledge meant there was always a second reliable seafarer to help us deal with whatever nature threw at us.

On Sunday 26th May we were in Gladstone waters, if not quite in the harbour. Though we had had to cut our surveys short by a couple of days, we were well satisfied that we had covered our priority targets more than adequately. As far as is known, ours were the first surveys of these reefs and our data will form an important baseline for future scientific work.

As a newcomer to this kind of travelling, I can’t speak highly enough of the competence of Ian and Sam, not to mention their great company. Rick guided us through the scientific aspect of our work with his usual aplomb. Finally, my thanks to Graham Edgar for making the trip possible. If others on this project have experiences half as good as mine they will be well pleased.

More photos

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