"Time and tide wait for no one" is certainly an apt phrase to describe the passage of Reef Dragon from the port of Gladstone to the open ocean. And to reduce the time taken a yachty’s decision to take a well-known short cut is certainly tide dependent. And such was the decision to give the Dragon her head. Maybe her passage to the oceanic waters off Gladstone was a portent of things to come, but we had barely started of voyage when the starboard keel gently ‘kissed’ an uncharted sandbank, slewing her sideways. Fortunately, the tide was rising and we were soon underway again, eventually being met by an uncomfortable sea with a nightlong passage ahead. Welcome aboard!!
The first leg of this section of the Coral Sea voyage lasted about 3 weeks and would take the Dragon far offshore to reefs that had had no marine biological surveys ever undertaken. In fact, the furthest reef, Mellish, was approximately 750 km offshore, and closer to New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands than Australia. That fact alone was an exciting prospect for all on board. In between lay a smattering of reefs that were visited by the crew of five, and on arrival at each a round of frenetic activity would ensue. Fire up the compressor, cart tanks from bow to stern, lower the tender, get teams of divers in the water, tapes laid, fish and inverts counted, photoquadrats completed, cook meals, afternoon drinks and nibblies, glorious sunrises and sunsets to lift the soul, and yes, data entry to complete.
Over the course of the voyage we were accompanied on dives by one of more individuals of White Tip (Triaenodon
obesus) and Grey Reef Sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos). If you don’t believe me check out: Bobs Little Helpers. In fact, no sooner had you entered the water then they would appear out of the depths and follow at heel as you made your way to a bommie or dropoff to initiate a survey. However, none of the sharks adopted threatening postures and eventually became part of the scenery. What was a little disconcerting, at least initially, were the sea snakes that abound in the waters of the southern Coral Sea inner reefs. Not so easy to read the body language and their unblinking eyes gave them a more sinister quality. Up close and personal is their motto and that certainly proved to be the case, appearing when you least expected them – just one of the joys of diving the inner Coral Sea reefs.
One thing we all agreed upon was the paucity of corals. There were certainly areas you would associate with ‘picture postcard’ coral communities, but for the most part this was not the case. Whether you were surveying walls or bommies sheltered in a lagoon, those images of corals that evoke awe and wonder were not to be seen through the viewfinder of a camera. Nevertheless, the diversity amongst the fish communities always kept one busy (where would we be without cameras), with numerous species of similar looking Pomacentrids often a challenge to ID, size and count, especially when they were observed in mixed schools. Not so with the Butterflyfish and Angelfish – their striking colouration and elaborate body patterning not only made them great to look at but also easy to ID.
And now to that portent. One of the perils navigating waters adjacent to these reefs is anchoring, more so when the Sun is almost set and a brisk breeze is blowing across the surface of the water. Such was the case for the crew of the Dragon as it approached one reef after a long days sail. With three lookouts strategically placed and the skipper on the helm with just enough power applied to make steerage, the Dragon nosed ever closer to the more sheltered waters behind a small sand cay. Even with this level of care and vigilance the Dragon rode upon onto a bommie, slewing sideways courtesy of the breeze, and in doing so, snapped approximately 20 cm of the port rudder. A couple of minutes of frenetic activity by all on board saw the Dragoneventually drift clear, make for deeper water and eventually lay anchor. An in-water visual inspection by torchlight revealed no serious damage, but nevertheless it was a subdued crew that sat down to an evening meal that night. I think we all reflected upon the fact that we were several hundreds of kilometres offshore with the knowledge that numerous wrecks abound on these isolated reefs, often with the loss of life, and we had just ‘escaped’ a similar fate.
Repairs, a resupply and crew change took place in Townsville. The little bit of R&R was appreciated by all, and after
all, where can you get gelatos on a yacht! The second leg was a family affair with Graham’s two daughters joining the crew. A quick visit to the Yongala then once more into the Coral Sea. The weather continued with its mischief – sunny, warm to hot days, but always a moderate to strong southeast trade wind to make passages, and occasionally anchorages, a little uncomfortable. Nevertheless, the surveys continued with some exceptional diving to be had, made all the more spectacular by the visibility, always at least 30m and frequently much more.
The last few days of this leg were bedevilled by strong winds. These ensued a quick passage to the Great Barrier Reef, but also prevented the crew from diving a series of reefs almost within sight of Cairns. Frustrating to say the least! The final challenge for the Dragon was making her way up a small estuary to a marina. There was little room to manoeuvre in the estuary, which was bounded by muddy banks and a legion of mangroves. Eventually, after rounding a tight right hand bend, and to everyone’s surprise, we were confronted by a newish marina flanked by lots of expensive looking houses. The manager of the marina gave a hearty welcome and finished with a warning to keep an eye out for the local croc! And so ended this leg.
Now the challenge for you is to locate the reefs surveyed. Good luck! They include: Abington Reef, Diamond Reef,
Chilcott Reef, Flinders Reef, Frederick Reef, Holmes Reef, Kenn Reef, Lihou Reef, Magdelaine Reef, Mellish Reef, Saumarez Reef, Tregosse Reef, Willis Island and the wreck of the Yongala.
The crew: Ian Donaldson, Sam Griffiths, Graham Edgar, German Solar, Bob Edgar, Sophie Edgar and Anna Edgar.