Every once and a while in your adult life, you fortuitously come across a slice of history – even profound Australian history, you simply did not know existed and you can’t figure out why this would be the case. So it’s with this thought that this weeks blog explores two parts in the one place.
1. Our visit to an amazing coral reef system off the coast of Geraldton perched on the edge of the continental shelf, and;
2. At the end of part 1, for those interested in 16th century history (yep, in Australia) an interesting summarised look into a infamous shipwreck Celia and I never knew about until 2.5 weeks ago.
The next leg of our journey started late one evening in the van after the boys drifted off to sleep, routine research for the next couple of legs of our trip from Kalbarri heading south. In doing so, we stumbled upon an amazing historical story about a particular Western Australian Island’s extremely dark history. A history of shipwrecks, hardship, mutiny and murder, bravery, and natural intrigue. In the 21st century, this group of islands are known for all the right reasons and has a nicely controlled level of tourism and sustainable commercial fishing. The strange thing about this though, Celia and myself had never previously heard of this Island, let alone the terrible atrocity that had occurred a very long time ago and why people from all over the world now travel to this special place. And it was through this new found discovery that made our next destination a simple decision for us, to see first hand this amazing place …so we set course for Geraldton some 150kms south of Kalbarri.
The heading of this blog will no doubt give this location away to some – particularly if you (unlike ourselves) already knew something of this piece of Australian (& Dutch) history and where/why it took place. Or because of it’s unique flora & fauna that scientists from all over the world love spending time here. Before we get into some of the detail, here’s a little background to this magical but desolate oceanic coral atoll in case you too are not familiar with the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, as they are officially named.
Commonly referred to as ‘The Abrolhos’, (Portugese for “keep your eyes open”) the group of islands are named after Dutch Commander Frederik de Houtman, who came across the group of low-lying treeless islands in June 1619.
An archipelago made up of 122 islands, the Abrolhos lies 70 kilometres out in the Indian ocean west of Geraldton – see inset. The islands are clustered into three main groups – Wallabi, Easter and Pelsaert – and spread from north to south across 100 kilometres of ocean. The islands and their surrounding reef communities are a meeting place for tropical and temperate sea life, forming one of the State’s unique marine ecosystems and the worlds most southern living coral reef.
These are pristine waters, a super rich biodiversity of marine and numerous examples of fauna, some of which are indigenous. There are also many historic shipwrecks, a modern thriving rock lobster industry, pearling, aquaculture and diving …all form part of the magic that is the Abrolhos.
The Abrolhos lie in the stream of the southward-flowing Leeuwin Current, which carries warm, nutrient-rich, tropical water along the edge of the continental shelf, from the north of the state down the length of the Western Australian coast. The current carries a vital cargo of larvae, eggs and many juvenile species of corals and other marine life much further south of their typical oceanic range. Water temperatures in the current are maintained throughout the winter at around 20 to 22C, enabling corals and tropical species of fish and invertebrates to thrive in latitudes where they normally wouldn’t survive.
It was however the many shipwrecks we read about whilst conducting research back in Kalbarri as part of my loose quest to photograph shipwrecks on the WA coastline. Shipwrecks where their final resting place were sitting above the tidelines and were approachable from the mainland for long-exposure photography – not that there are many wrecks above the waterline in WA I’m finding out.
And it was through researching these locations we came to learn about one particular fascinating shipwreck of the ‘Batavia‘ that ran aground on morning reef in the Abrohlos Islands in 1629.
From reading various transcripts, news journals, local museum visits, even a couple of books of the Batavia we also purchased …it was through all these learnings we both could hardly believe that neither of us had not heard about the Batavia, until know. How could this be possible and why is this historic event not taught in Australian schools – perhaps it is, we simply did not know. It was at this point when we decided to find a local charter and fly out to the Islands to gather a better perspective of the Abrolhos, it’s dark history, amazing scenery and why the vast number of reefs of the Abrohlos have become a graveyard for so many past mariners.
(***Following the end of this blog is a chronological dot-point summary of the incredible story and stunning events that unfolded after the Batavia ran aground on morning reef in June 1629 ***).
Our Geraldton leg started out by staying at the Sunset Beach Caravan Park 6kms north of the main Geraldton township and 11kms east to the regional Airport.
Our day out to the Abrolhos started windy as it often does on the west coast, however it was a little windier than normal with a wind forecast top of 30-32 knots or approx 55+kms p/hr and rising in the afternoon. Perhaps not the best weather conditions for light aircraft flying and to do some sightseeing, snorkelling, bird watching, swimming, beach walks and photographing an exposed coral reef in the middle of the Indian ocean where the highest land elevation is a mere 14 metres. However, it was the best looking forecast we were going to get in the short window we set aside so we went with it anyway.
We arrived at the small aircraft hangar at 8:30 owned and operated by Geraldton Charter. We went through our safety induction, signed the various waivers and then proceeded to taxi out to runway 21 in our little GA8 seater AirVan aircraft (made in east Gippsland VIC) with our young Kiwi pilot (Mark) at the wheel. A textbook take off directly into the wind followed by a sport’ish right hand turn and set a course for the most southern tip of the Abrohlos group, Pelsaert Island.
After a little onboard pilot banter, 30 odd minutes later, Pelsaert island emerges in our view and Mark gently descends the noisy Airvan to ~250M and levels out. The AirVan starts making deliberate right and then left slow weaving turns so we all could get a decent downward view of the various reefs for a photo or two and a glimpse of the very small land masses they were. This was all occurring whilst he was also giving us a runny commentary of the islands as well regularly speaking to the control tower in Geraldton advising our status and headings.
Mark was pointing out the different shipwrecks we were flying over at specific moments (16 known wrecks across the Abrolhos) however none of them could be seen from the air on the day due to the high winds, white caps and swells.
We also flew over the many of the permanent fishery housing for the limited fishing licenses the Dept of Fishing issue, mainly for Lobster fisherman, but also for Scallops and Finfish trade. Tiny islands like in the above image can be seen across 22 islands with fishing settlements which have been in existence since early last century and as a commercial fishery which thrives today through proper and balanced marine stewardship.
Another 25 mins on and we land on East Wallabi Island on the most northerly group of islands. It was a typical gravel airstrip for these parts flanked by low-growth oceanic vegetation and very dry and dusty. there is no fresh water in these parts so everything you need must be brought in and taken out with you.
We all disembark and were instructed to make our way down the northern end of the airstrip towards Turtle bay beach. “Once you hit turtle beach at the cairn on you’re right, hang a right and walk 1.5kms up the pretty beach to a Dept of fisheries purpose-built shelter at the end of the bay and I’ll see you there, Mark says rather nonchalantly”. We all collect our belongings, donned on more suncream and eagerly set off.
Despite the sand occasionally blowing in our faces it was otherwise a beautiful walk and we were pleasantly surprised to see at one end of Turtle bay was reasonably protected from the strong southerly winds.
After a cup of tea, we swam, snorkelled, hunted for lizards basking in the sun, picked up shells and other marine life (some living and not), and with our eyes wide, walked around this amazing part of the island.
We saw a few different species of sea and shore birds including, Lesser Noddy’s, various Terns, various Gull’s Sandpiper’s, Cormorants, Osprey and a nesting pair of white-breasted Sea Eagles …but sadly, no (yellow beak) Albatross which we hoped to see.
Some Tern species that nest here are among the largest migratory breeding colony’s in the world with 2+ million gracing these shores across the year. Although it was not peak season for nesting, we were fortunate enough to see some fine examples which made us feel a little what it must be like to be Sir David Attenborough for a few hours being in such a highly eco-important marine atoll which made it all the more special.
There were also native Wallaby’s on the Island called Tammar – a tiny Wallaby and the first pouched mammal documented by european explorers. A story (or legend) behind naming of the Island called Rat Island on the Abrolhos was due to an explorer of the time in the late 16th century was observing from a distance ‘rats ‘on the island with a rather long tail. Besides a few that were caught for food, he ordered a number of cats from Dutch East India (Java) to be brought down to the Abrolhos in an effort to dispose of them, but after the cats had no effect, he soon learned the said rats where not rats after all but small Wallaby’s. So they then needed to find a way of disposing of the cats and Wallaby’s and both were hunted and most were shot – some of the Wallaby’s however were migrated to other Islands within the Abrolhos including east Wallabi where we spent the day observing some. Perhaps true – who knows for sure.
Just before lunch, the boys (including our Pilot Mark) decided to do some snorkelling and hopefully catch a Lobster to take back to Geraldton with us. Less than 5 minutes after setting off, Mark was back on the beach with an adult male Lobster in hand – what a start. Another 15 minutes later another two more, all about 1.3-5Kg each in size.
We were graciously handed one to take home ourselves which immediately piqued Aidan’s interest in this strange tentacle wielding crustacean.
After I showed him how to pick it up and handle it without getting whacked by the antennae’s, Aidan built up the courage to hold it with both hands so I could grab a photo whilst he held his head just out of range. It was funny to watch.
The rest of the afternoon was spent swimming and exploring around this part of the island and keeping out of the wind as much as you could, which was not easy as the wind was picking up as the day progressed. There was a limestone coral outcrop approx 800M from the shelter, where we saw a couple of Sea Eagle Nests without any eaglets in them. We were informed later that in one of the nests where two eggs but I did not want to walk over to see myself as a little earlier we came across a deceased eagle that had succumbed to these harsh island conditions. Given the size of and sharpness of their talons, was not something I wanted to be “tapped on the shoulder with” from walking too close to their nest site so I gave it a wide berth.
All in all, we had a great day despite the gale. The wind kept the temp down a little which was nice for a change, however as forecasted, the wind continued to gain strength over the course of the afternoon and we still had to fly back to Geraldton. We walked back at the aircraft at around 3:30pm and the wind by this time was howling – literally.
The airstrip by this stage was a large dust bowl and those without eyewear were not faring well with all the sand and dirt swelling around the airstrip. A few final photo’s for everyone and we all pile back into the AirVan, engine growls to life again, clearance for take off is given and a bumpy and slight nervy lift off occurs. We thrust violently into the air as the gale takes hold and we’re hundreds of metres up in a few seconds and as the AirVan settles down we head out over the wreck of the Batavia but unfortunately the whitecaps put paid to seeing this old girl on this day.
As we hit cruising speed and altitude, it was time to reflect on a fantastic day and it became all too much for some with a quick kip and 30 minutes later, we safely arrive back in Geraldton.
The islands are an A Class Reserve, although visitors by boat are welcome to stay overnight in designated moorings only. There is no tourist accommodation available on any of the 122 islands and in day-visiting you must take all your own food and water provisions with you.
No matter how you get to the Abrolhos, and what activity(s) draws you to this amazing place, the trip out and experiencing this remote and desolate coral atoll is definitely well worth the expense and time.