“DO NOT TAKE PHOTOS” Paul screams at me from the foredeck. He’s serious; there’s tension in his voice.
I’m DESPERATE to take a photo but concentrate on steering. We’re manoeuvring through a coral pass on the Great Barrier Reef, with wind gusting 25 knots and a strong current running across the entrance. It’s pulling us sideways.
Our mission is to tie up to a buoy at Bait Reef. There are no other boats as far as the eye can see.
Ten metres away from us TWO humpback whales have appeared.
They’re huge. I’ve had my camera around my neck all day AND NOW, as if to taunt us, they dive, wave their flukes in unison, spout water and both breach and crash into the sea causing Baggy to rock.
I think I spot a baby humpback, then feel fine sea spray on my cheek. A humpback kiss.
Of course we see all this in split second moments, whilst pulling up to the buoy and avoiding hitting the reef.
It was the wildlife moment of a lifetime. I didn’t take a photo; Baggy didn’t hit the reef. And then they were gone.
With or without a photo it was a dramatic first encounter with the Great Barrier Reef – a World Heritage Site, now in a perilous condition, narrowly avoiding a UNESCO ‘in danger’ listing.
Loving all thing’s Aussie
We arrived in Mackay, on Australia’s east coast after a tempestuous crossing from New Zealand on 29 June 2021.
Mackay is one of Australia’s largest sugar cane farming regions.
It’s my first time in Australia and Paul’s second visit, after thirty years. So, please forgive the fresh-eyed, awestruck excitement about all thing Australian. It’s our new favourite country.
We picked up Aussie advice on the basics pretty quickly.
On swimming : “Swimming?! You won’t see locals in the water. We’ve got stingers, sharks and salties (crocs). And it’s cold. If you HAVE to go in don’t go any deeper than your waist. And keep an eye out. There’s no-one patrolling the beach.”
Note to self: the water is 23 degrees. It’s not stinger season and we’re cool with sharks. Crocs, however, are worthy of serious, respectful consideration.
On crocodiles : “Yeh, we get salties in the marina. Keep an eye out.”
Croc Notes to Self
1 Croc Credentials
✍️ Salties in Northern Australia are the biggest reptile on earth.
✍️ Salties are the same today as they were 20 million years ago.
✍️ Salties can grow to six metres long, weigh 1000kg and exert bite pressure of two tonnes.
✍️ Salties get through 4000 teeth in an average 70 year lifetime.
3 Croc Conservation
Salties are an integral part of the ecosystem. In Northern Australia there are an estimated 150,000 in the wild – and this population is growing fast. Wild ‘harvesting’ is illegal.
4 Croc Conundrums
Human deaths from crocs average 1-2 a year and attacks are on the rise. There have already been six human attacks this year. And local media headlines are graphic.
“Man survives croc attack by prising jaws off his head.” January 2021
“Giant four metre crocodile found with human remains in stomach.” February 2021
“They’re not phased by humans anymore, they don’t have a reason to fear us. They see us as food.” February 2021
“Man injured by five metre croc in terrifying attack.” April 2021
5 Croc Calamities
Farms. There are thirteen throughout Australia, most reportedly owned or controlled by fashion juggernauts Hermes and Louis Vuitton.
It apparently takes three crocodiles to make one handbag, so Hermes is planning to build the biggest farm yet, in Darwin. It will hold 50,000 captively bred crocs.
Similar to the Chinese wet markets, these places are said to be potential breeding grounds for zoonotic pathogens. And experts have warned the next pandemic could come from the fashion industry.
6 Our Croc Conclusions
🐊 Observe warning signs and keep out of the way of the crocodiles and where they like to live.
🐊 Keep fingers crossed we see one – at a distance – in the wild.
🐊 Don’t go anywhere near a crocodile farm.
🐊 Don’t buy anything made from crocodiles.
On local lingo: Everyone really does say ‘G’day’ ‘too easy’ ‘mate’ and ‘holey dooley’.
And forget any rumours about Aussies not liking poms. Everyone’s been a mate! A tourist information volunteer even took us for a drive round town in his car. Though, to be honest, there aren’t any other overseas tourists.
On COVID-19 : Some places are in lockdown, many aren’t and case numbers are low. You are reminded to check in with your phone app wherever you go. Apart from that life is normal, though we’ve seen a lot of shut up shops and businesses.
On drinking: Draft beer is served in pots and schooners. And we’ve been amused to see the glasses used to advertise ‘man stuff’ like sheds, patios and insurance.
Road Trip, Road Trip
During the short time we were in Mackay we hired a car, packed a tent and went out to visit some locals. It always feels good to get off the boat for a land break.
Meeting Eastern Grey Kangaroos and Wallabies
We set an alarm for silly o’clock and drove an hour in the dark to spot wild Eastern Grey Kangaroos and Wallabies. They reportedly hung out on the beach just before day break.
Sure enough, there they were, munching on mangrove leaves and digging for seed pods. Then, when the sun came up they hopped back into the mangrove.
A short video of our encounter can be seen on YouTube, Kangaroo Safari.
Meeting a Long-Nosed Bandicoot
It’s 2am and we’re camping in Eungella National Park.
Paul had been clattering the rubbish bag and banging around in the tent vestibule for a good five minutes.
Me: “What on earth are you doing?” Paul: No reply.
Because Paul wasn’t in the vestibule, he was fast asleep next to me. So who …. or what … was in our tent?
Bleary eyed we scrabbled around for a torch, gingerly unzipped the inner tent zip and peered out.
And there, tucking into our bag of breakfast porridge oats and sultanas, sat a brown furry marsupial, the size of a rabbit, with a long tail and exceedingly long nose. And, unfazed, it was in no hurry to leave.
We called him/her Snouty. Sadly, we couldn’t allow Snouty to finish off our breakfast, so we managed to shuffle him/her out, brought all edibles into the main tent with us and zipped up extra tightly.
And we enjoyed a follow up visit the following night. This time, with no food available, we listened to Snouty licking up some dinner dribbles on the ground sheet and rolling around in the washing-up trug.
Meeting a Duck-Billed Platypus
A highlight of visiting Eungella National Park was the possibility of spotting the elusive duck-billed platypus. It supposedly lived in Australia’s fastest flowing river, Broken River.
Spotting times were early dawn and dusk and people would stand in their own patch of undergrowth along the bank, binoculars and cameras at the ready.
There was a trick to spotting one.
You look for bubbles on the river surface as the platypus rummages in the mud for food. Then it will pop up, but you never knew where. And as fast as it appeared it would duck dive out of sight. It was a frustrating yet hugely rewarding game.
A short video of our encounters with this amazing mammal can be seen on YouTube Spotting Duck-Billed Platypus
Meeting Blue Tiger Butterflies
On a bush walk around Cape Hillsborough we walked smack, bang into the middle of a David Attenborough scene.
Hundreds of thousands of Blue Tiger butterflies 🦋 – rose like angelic clouds from their favourite Corky Milk Vine bushes as we walked by. There were so many we saw broken wings scattered along the path.
During their short six month life span they migrate between north and south Queensland, breed and over winter.
And there are over 399 other butterfly species to spot.
Then back to the Great Barrier Reef
After 10 days of land-based adventures we were ready to continue our journey to Cairns, 350 nautical miles up the coast.
Baggy’s furler was in need of urgent attention and ‘Pete the Furler Man’ was lined up to do the job. It was a four day passage, with a couple of dives squeezed in.
After a day of sailing and an overnight anchor stop at the Whitsunday Islands, we had an early start to reach our first stop on the reef before nightfall.
We’d sailed a long way with our diving compressor for this unique independent diving opportunity. But we were worried.
Lost in the COVID-19 media coverage the reef experienced a third, profound, wide-spread bleaching event in February last year.
Our first few dives were in the central sector of the reef where 33% of coral has reportedly been severely bleached.
As soon as we entered the water we were approached by a Giant Trevally, with a fish hook embedded in its mouth, trailing a weed encrusted fishing line.
He swam directly towards us and wouldn’t leave. We would have happily done all we could to remove the hook. But, he couldn’t bring himself to get quite close enough to let us touch him.
Then, our worst fears were realised. We were met with monochrome bommies and a seabed covered in dead staghorn and coral rubble. Whilst it offset the many colourful fish that darted around and there were signs of new life, it looked like a war zone.
The fish on this site were big and it was like visiting an underwater ‘old fish home’. Crumbling and in need of funding and refurbishment.
If the residents could talk they’d tell you how wonderful it used to be back in the good old days, with a wistful look in their watery eyes.
Overlaid with this experience was the continual haunting calls of the humpback whales. They were out there and close.
Thankfully, 145 nautical miles up the coast at John Brewers Reef we found thriving coral and a much happier community. But this was just a taster … Baggy needed urgent attention and we needed to get to Cairns.
Cairns: Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef
In Far North Queensland, Cairns is a place where 890,000 hectares of World Heritage, wet tropic rainforest meets the reef.
It’s tourist central, without the tourists and lots of birds instead. The sun shines, everyone’s chilled out, there’s an epic farmers market and, well, we could live here.
There were so many things for FREE!!
🏊♀️ swims in a huge, clean, croc free saltwater lagoon
🌴 walks round 38 hectares of lush, tropical botanical gardens
🤸♂️outdoor zumba, pilates, yoga, aqua aerobics and meditation classes
🏋️ park run and outdoor exercise machines along the boardwalk, with complimentary pelicans, cockatoos and parrots
🎤 live music, street entertainment and big screens showing the Olympics
💧outdoor fresh water showers, filtered drinking water and help yourself gas BBQs
A scheduled week quickly turned into ten nights, but by then Baggy was ship-shape (as were we) and ready to head back out to the reef.
So, what next?
Our plan is to continue sailing and diving up the east coast over the next couple of weeks. Classified as the ‘northern sector’ a staggering 81% of this section of the reef is reportedly severely bleached. We’ll soon see!
Our next landfall is likely to be Thursday Island. Then it’s a weeks sail to Darwin.
We’re on a tight timeline now. We have to leave Darwin by early September; so there’s no wiggle room for things to go wrong!
We’ll be sending location pings on Yellow Brick at every reef we stop at along the way.