Lone Rangers on the Great Barrier Reef

The handsome chap in the main photo is called King Edward. He’s a Potato Cod. He wouldn’t disclose his age, but we could tell he’d been living on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia a very long time.

We’re introducing you because he was the only new friend we may made out here. There was no one else … just us, the fish, the birds … and the giant saltwater crocodiles. But more on them later.

Cruising the Edge

We slipped our lines from Cairns on 26 July to sail up the Cape York Peninsula. Ahead of us lay 500 nautical miles of tricky navigation, one of the last great frontiers of Australia.

The coastline was a stunning wilderness of rugged peaks and deep valleys covered in old tropical rainforest.

Most of it is protected land and half the small population are Aborigines or Torres Strait Islanders. To travel overland here is a serious expedition involving a 4WD, CB radio and the savvy to be 100% self sufficient. There’s no-one to help you if you have a problem and phone signal is patchy at best.

A young Noddy checks into the Baggy hotel for a night

Sailing presented its own unique challenges.

The Great Barrier Reef is made up of around 3,000 separate reefs, some 12-140 miles from the mainland, narrowing as you head north.

The inner reef edge: looking for a place to drop anchor

There are a few sandy cays and blocks of dead coral above sea level, but we had to trust the plotter and our eyes to navigate all the bommies.

We had a great book on anchoring along the coast and reef maps showing us protected zones. But no anchorage or diving books for the reef in this remote northern area.

Far from any populated towns there were no dive boat operations and no buoys. In fact, apart from two nights on a buoy at Lizard Island, we hardly saw anyone at all. A boat in the distance and the occasional cargo ship trundling up and down the shipping lane.

Our Mission:

1 Sixteen days to sail to Thursday Island at the top of Australia in the Torres Strait. Anchoring at night.

2 At Thursday Island we were to re-provision with fresh food and water and sail on to Darwin across the Arafura Sea – a seven day, 24/7 passage.

3 Dive the Great Barrier Reef as much as possible on the way.

Challenges:

1 The rambling reef

We were sailing past a wild no-man’s land. And on the sea was a shipping lane and the coral reef, beyond which the Coral Sea broke in mountainous surf.

Many reefs were named, but many weren’t. So, in the pioneering spirit of diving discovery these held the most appeal and we have henceforth (unofficially) christened Titmus Reef at 13°50’.0S 144°17’.3E and Thompson Reef at 13°35’.8S 144°05’.3E.

2 The whistling wind

We had prevailing south east trade winds behind us most of the way. On an average day the wind blew a steady 15-20 knots. With a reef or two in the main, and the pole rigged, it was easy downwind sailing in the fresh breeze. Once settled we’d easily do six knots on flat seas with the hydrovane steering.

But while sailing conditions were generally great, finding shelter to anchor at night was a whole new ball game.

3 Anxious anchoring

Anchor check: a clear sandy bottom meant no damaged nemo homes

Our criteria was VERY specific ….!

✔️on a sand patch large enough the anchor and chain won’t destroy coral

✔️sheltered from choppy seas behind a reef wall

✔️access to a potential diving spot with depth and areas of interest

✔️ find the spot in time to be anchored by 3pm, 4.30pm latest, so we had enough sunlight to spot underwater bommies.

✔️no cloud cover otherwise we couldn’t see the changes in sea colour.

Getting it wrong meant potentially destroying coral and fish homes and a sleepless night of relentless rolling. And we quickly learnt that one night of that was a night too many. At one reef Baggy pulled at her snubbing line so much it eventually snapped.

But we’re confident we didn’t destroy any coral.

4 The Rewards

The reef is not dead, long live the reef

Starry puffer fish

Spectacular diving: to be assessed by shark, surrounded by giant fish balls, glide over beautiful coral and see incredibly healthy, diverse fish life was worth every challenge 1000 times over.

Yes, there was some patchy coral damage, but there was a lot of vibrant growth. And the diversity of fish and other bizarre life forms was extraordinary.

Dugongs: also known as sea cows. They’re friendly, protected and vulnerable to extinction and we had to be careful not to hit them. As mammals they have to breathe every 5-10 minutes and lounged on the surface of the sea before clumsily and reluctantly diving as we sailed past.

Dolphins: babies – tiny baby dolphins – learning to ride the bow wave.

One of Baloo’s few Australian trips ashore: Lizard Island – croc free and surrounded by stunning coral reef. Sigh.

Lizard Island: a hideaway holiday haunt frequented by Russell Crowe. And named by Captain Cook after the metre long, yellow-spotted monitor lizards we found lurking in the bushes.

On our way we’d passed Endeavour Reef, which Captain Cook’s vessel had struck in 1770.

And then we climbed the same hill he did on Lizard Island to spot a way out of the reef.

The Bagheteers were here: Signing the book on the hill where Captain Cook had once stood

Incidents …

My croc vision board: just two hours from putting it up we saw one!

Wild crocs: I was desperate to see one! Maybe too much ….

Our first siting was anchored off Night Island, a mangrove fringed reef with a sandy cay, about three miles off the Cape York Peninsula coast.

Croc on Night Island beach: hard to spot but he’s there … in the middle, on the beach shoreline …. watching us

We were in the heart of crocodile country now. And sure enough, about 1/4 mile away from us a four metre croc was sat there waiting for the tide (or us?) to come in. He was still waiting the next day.

Going ashore and swimming was cancelled. And there was much debate over who would dive to release the anchor if it got stuck …. !!

Helicopter medi vac: We then witnessed a shocking crocodile attack.

Scene of the attack: Portland Roads anchorage – remote, no phone signal and surrounded by thick mangrove.

We were anchored next to a camouflaged Australian Forces Army landing craft, at Portland Roads anchorage.

Two army personnel left the vessel by dinghy and disappear into the thick mangrove. They reappeared an hour later, speeding across the bay, screaming for help.

The two men were covered in blood and one was lifted on board. He had severe injuries to his arm and we saw him writhing in pain on deck as they fixed a tourniquet. Hours later he was collected by speedboat, taken ashore and a rescue helicopter arrived from Horn Island, 90 miles away, to airlift him to a connecting aircraft at Lockhart River.

We later found out they’d been attacked by a crocodile.

One man had been bitten; his friend had prised the jaws open to release him and been bitten himself and suffered four death rolls before he managed to stab him in the eye!!

The full story can be read here or watched on Seven News here.

It’s a miracle they survived. The crocodile didn’t – it was found and shot a few days later.

Adding extra frisson to our water tank filling: another croc sighting sign, next to the pontoon tap on Horn Island

Border Force Check: Despite our remoteness, we were being monitored.

We saw patrolling boats and experienced several low passes from an Aussie border force plane …. and a call on the VHF radio to check our intentions!

Black-spotted toad fish: One of our last underwater photos for a while

Flooded camera: Less of an issue in the grand scheme of life, but my underwater camera catastrophically flooded. At least it died in a wonderful place, doing what it loved best and, as cameras go, it had had an incredible life!

Diving over, the journey continues

We had ten memorable dives on the Great Barrier Reef and could have spent months there.

A few sad tears were shed as the kit was packed away for the foreseeable future. We don’t know where, or when, we’ll be back in the water again. But the Baggy show had to go on.

Back ‘on the road’ we rounded Cape Melville ‘the knuckle’ before our final sail up the coast where the barrier reef comes closer to the land than at any other point,

The Captain spies: Cape Melville

We were now headed for remote Horn and Thursday Islands, in the Torres Strait which separates Australia from Papua New Guinea, and where the Pacific and Indian Ocean meet.

It made for exciting pilotage. In some places the tidal streams reached a speed of eight knots.

The anchorage at Thursday Island is on the windward side and was untenable so we anchored at neighbouring Horn Island and caught a ferry to Thursday. There wasn’t much there.

I felt sorry for: all the cane toads squished and dried out on the roads
Paul was interested in: the northern most pub in Australia

But, in the words of Eric Hiscock in his book Around the World in Wanderer II, written in the 1950s (our little bible):

“At last we had reached the objective which has been in our minds for so long. Australia’s eastern coastline with its countless reefs and islands, together with the whole of the vast Pacific were now safely astern.”

We didn’t linger. We purchased some expensive refrigerated fruit and veg, got a couple of good nights sleep in the bag and left.

We had a six day 24/7 sail to Darwin ahead of us.

It mostly passed without incident apart from a night time encounter with an Indonesian fishing fleet. Why do these things always happen at night?

Who knows what this is?

The jumble of triangles on the right are fishing boats, the line of triangles ahead of us were lit AIS marked buoys which stretched for 18 miles across the ocean. Yup – 18 miles!

We couldn’t detour that distance and gingerly crossed the line.

TWANG – something hit the boat like giant elastic. Some kind of fishing or prawn net we guess – but 18 miles long 😵

Then the bush fires started.

Having crossed the Gulf of Carpentaria we closed the mainland and smelt them first. The heavy, sweet wood smoke gave us headaches, made our noses run and eyes itch. Then we saw towering plumes of smoke billowing into the sky for miles on end. At night it looked like the world was on fire with the unsettling long eerie glow stretching out across the horizon.

It’s bush fire season in the Northern Territories and apparently this year is worse than ever before – 246 wildfires in the area since the end of June and it’s expected to get worse.

Diver down: marine biosecurity check

In the early hours of Tuesday 17 August we’d made it to Fannie Bay in Darwin, but were off again early the next day for our marine biosecurity dive check.

Baggy was complimented on her clean bottom and pink chemicals were sprayed into her inlet pipes. We then sat at anchor for the rest of the hot day before being allowed into a marina.

Darwin: a lively, cultural melting pot of 60 nationalities

EVENTUALLY Baggy had the all clear and we cruised past Darwin to our resting place for the next three weeks – Tipperary Waters Marina. Only accessible by small lock .. and totally croc free.

It’s been an exciting, magical, emotional, eye-opening, fast, adventurous journey. And turning left on our world map was a significant event – it meant we were now heading back to the UK.

A video of our Great Barrier Reef adventures can be seen on YouTube Lone Rangers on the Great Barrier Reef.

In the next update we’ll be leaving Australia to cross the Indian Ocean …. but we don’t know where to yet.

In this crazy world, anything could happen! But, we’ll see you again before we go xx

3 thoughts on “Lone Rangers on the Great Barrier Reef

  1. How exciting, team Bagheera! Love your informative update. I longed to see the Darwin Festival pictures in vain, though…Maybe in the next blog! Sorry about the underwater camera 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As usual, you two, a totally brilliant blog, but a part of me feels that you both must have felt a little isolated out there, even though you saw so many wonderful things? The wounded guys after the shark attack nould not have helped! Anyway, you have obviously seen such wonderful marine life, and have crossed a big barrier over to Darwin – this is good! Keep us posted, Paul and Sally, along with fair winds and following seas!!!xxx

    Liked by 1 person

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