Friday, March 20, 2020

Tin Can Bay to breakfast with the dolphins

[Kyle]The Admiral tells me that I'm still required to write the blog, even though we all have bigger things to worry about. Fine.

After waiting a week for the weather to calm down enough for us to cross the Wide Bay Bar, we finally left the safety and isolation of Rainbow Beach for Tin Can Bay. We were glad we waited. Even after the big swell from distant Cyclone Harold died down from three and a half meters to two, the bar crossing was way hairier than it was on our departure five months earlier.

A few big commercial fishing boats were headed out at the same time we were going in. They were going into the seas and would periodically disappear in a cloud of spray thrown up by their own bows before emerging from it with their front thirds completely out of the water. We had the waves coming up from behind us, so they hit us less hard and less often. The smooth channel between the breakers was not wide enough for us to pass the outgoing boats at a safe distance. They need deeper water than we do, so we had to try to skirt the line at the side. At one point, I turned thirty degrees to give one of them some room and ended up in the edge of the surf zone. A couple of big waves lifted our stern and threw us forward along the face for a foaming, wild ride. After the traffic passed, I steered back toward the smoother water in the deep channel. The next breaker crashed over our port quarter and slewed us broadside, despite using full starboard rudder. The crest of the wave broke over the boat, doused me and moved everything inside half a meter to the right. We rarely have stuff fall off of the shelves, but it's not never.

Entering the Bar was quit the adventure for us, but worse for those exiting
Things calmed down once we were inside the bar itself

We made it to the smooth water inside the bar feeling disproportionately bedraggled given the short distance we had come. At Tin Can Bay, we set anchor amidst the biggest group of boats we have been in since Sydney. We had come to this particular anchorage because we had missed it on the way south last year and I knew Maryanne really wanted to make sure we didn't make the same mistake northbound. People we know who went last year said the anchorage was so crowded back then that several boats were damaged when they swung into each other, causing several heated arguments. We're glad it was not like that now, but it still took us a while to find a safe spot.

We were hoping that most of the boats in the anchorage were local and thus unattended. We didn't want to be going ashore in any sort of throng. We were a little wary, considering the COVID-19 news of the day. Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, had just closed most businesses and banned any public gatherings of more than ten people.

The thing to do in Tin Can Bay is to go to Barnacles Dolphin Centre to participate in their morning dolphin feeding. We called them and they assured us they were still open. They even kind of hinted that they could really use our business, and asked to arrive by 7am.

Breakfast and feeding the dolphins
Such a pretty location too

So off we went, first thing in the morning to see the dolphins. We were relieved to be the only ones there when we arrived. That didn't last long (everyone else knew to ignore their 'arrive by' time). Right at opening time, about twenty others showed up. Oh, great! The staff was actually very good about explaining the new social distancing rules and making sure we all sanitized our hands while they were watching (for the protection of the dolphins). The guests were a different matter. Since nobody apparently had any symptoms, they all acted like it was the good old days when it didn't exist. As soon as the first dolphin arrived, everybody wanted to crowd together at the rail to see him. We could only back away until we hit the rail ourselves, then we were stuck. This is just great, lots of people coming in from lots of different places to a central spot.

The staff at Barnacles was pretty good about only letting enough of us down into the water at feeding time that we would all be able to stay in our invisible boxes. Apparently, a normal crowd for a day can be HUNDREDS, so we were each given three fish to the usual one.

The dolphins here are an estuarine species that live in the shallow waters of the Great Sandy Strait (Australian Humpback Dolphin). Local Aborigines used to have a relationship with them where the dolphins would get a share of the catch for showing the people where to fish, and helping herd the fish into the locals nets. Back in the 1950’s when an injured dolphin beached himself on the sand at Barnacles Cafe. The locals took pity on him and started to feed him. Several generations of dolphins and people later, a small subset of the Strait's dolphin population shows up every morning at the beach outside of Barnacles for a carefully rationed breakfast fed to them by human tourists. In payment, they often bring gifts – shells or seaweed or things they found floating down the river. They're on their own for the rest of the day.

Once it was Maryanne's and my turn, we fed our allotment of fish to our female dolphin as her three year-old watched, learning the procedure. She took the food as gently as if she thought it were a balloon that might pop if she grabbed it too hard.

{Maryanne: This was something I'd hoped we'd do on our way south last year, but weather, plans, etc nixed that idea. Our plan B was to visit them for our anniversary on our way north, but then the seas nixed that plan too. Eventually we made it, just a few days after our anniversary, and I was so excited to be able to see the dolphins so up-close. When 'our' dolphin took the fish from my hands she was so amazingly gentle about it. She swims around with her 3 year old 'baby' and apparently does not allow the youngster to feed from us, preferring to keep feeding him with her own milk. The local guides indicated she was quite old as a mother and as long as she was feeding her son, the males won't be pestering her, and they think this is why she is avoiding weaning her youngster - normally by age 3 they are much more independent.}.

Okay, that was pretty cool. Now we had to make our way upstream through a crowd of slobbering tourists to get back to the safety of our dinghy. There seemed to be a lot of elderly in the bunch and they suddenly all seemed to be coughing, clutching fetid hankies to their mouths. Perhaps this wasn't the best idea after all. What's done is done. Gotta go! {Maryanne: Kyle is grossly over stating the facts here for comedic fun, please don't stress on our behalves}

Friday, March 13, 2020

Passage to the Mainland

[Kyle]Oh, it was tough to leave Lord Howe. Unfortunately, they have a two week limit. Even more unfortunately, Cyclone Gretel was forming over the Queensland coast and half of the forecasts said there was a good chance it would try to head for Lord Howe. Our initial plan of sailing north to Middleton Reef to spend a couple of days there would also put us in the cross-hairs. We had to get out before it had a chance to get too close.

Farewell to Lord Howe Island

It was such a perfect, sunny, clear blue day. It would have been easier to think, “good riddance” if it had been cold and rainy.

When we cleared the pass, we hoisted the spinnaker and off we went. Since we were now moving almost the same speed as the waves, I dare say it was smoother for us at sea than it had been in the harbor. Our only motion was a nice, gentle pitching on a twenty second cycle - perfect for rocking the off-watch to sleep. By the time the sun set, we were fifty miles away and could still clearly see the twin humps of the tops of Mt Lidgbird and Mt Gower.

As morning arrived, so did more wind. Cyclone Gretel was tracking north of us. We were still a safe 500 miles from the center, but were feeling the effect. The waves also started building to more than we would ordinarily expect from our current twenty-knot winds.

By Day 3, we were back to being in proper storm conditions, like we had on our sail to Lord Howe. We weren’t bothering with the mainsail at all, just flying a double-reefed (25% area) jib. The wave crests were now high enough that we couldn’t see over them when we were in a trough, When standing on deck, my eye height is 3.5m above the water, so I estimated most waves to be 4-4.5m. Generally, Begonia is fine in seas that size. The bummer thing is that waves that high have little problem reaching over the gunwales and dumping a bathtub’s worth of water on any poor sucker standing there trying to roll another reef in the jib. The good thing was that it was now warm enough that it seemed like a better deal to get occasionally soaked in lightweight, breathable clothing than to swelter inside foul weather gear.

On Day 4, we arrived at the Queensland coast. I had planned our arrival to be at the only slight lull in the forecast in the hopes that we would have mild enough conditions to cross the Wide Bay bar.

Wide Bay bar is tricky, though, because it requires a big dogleg to get in. The initial course requires passing between two shallow sandbars over a slightly less shallow valley between them. The wind and waves were such that we would almost certainly get “totally awesome surfer waves” on both sides. The big question was whether there we be a sufficiently large smooth patch in between for us to get in. We were battened down for a pretty scary transit.

Since the sand at Wide Bay bar is slowly shifting, it is necessary to get up to date coordinates from Marine Rescue Tin Can Bay to be sure of traversing the initial leg over the valley between sandbanks. Maryanne called them for these and was told not to even try it, the bar was too rough. In fact, they said that the day before, they had to rescue three people who were swept overboard from a monohull that tried it. Granted, conditions were worse then, but only slightly.

That left us with three options. Option one was to turn and run with the wind up the coast to go around the north side of Fraser Island. That was bad because it would take us into really strong winds that were going the opposite direction from the East Australian Current. That current would oppose us until we cleared the shoals at the north side of the island. After that, we would be facing forty knot headwinds. Yuck!

Option two would be a windward bash southward until we could find some protection, maybe at Mooloolaba, if we could make it across that bar, but most likely not until we got in the lee of Moreton island. That would be at least a day and a half of beating into big seas.

Our third option was to tuck in at Rainbow Beach on the south side of Wide Bay. There are lots of notes saying “Calm weather only” and, “Extremely uncomfortable.” about the place. This is when it is great to be in a catamaran. A lot of anchorages that are so rolly that they scatter monohulls to calmer anchorages are merely uncomfortable for a catamaran. Also, our low comfort bar was reset at Easter Island. Those anchorages were like being at sea on a bad day, so as long as our anchor is holding and we’re not in the zone where the surf is breaking, we think it’s great!

So - Rainbow Beach it is. It’s a pretty place, named after the multi-colored shades of sandstone making up the cliffs behind the beach. We deployed the whole lot of our ground tackle, which held onto the bottom like an eye bolt set in concrete and gave us enough shock absorption to keep the anchor from feeling the motion of the boat above. It was certainly rough here, as anchorages go, but it is much smoother than it had been underway AND we were relieved of the necessity to have someone at the helm twenty-four hours a day.

Waiting things out at anchor outside the bar
Amazing cliffs of Rainbow Beach

The forecast was for it to be almost a week before conditions calm down enough to cross the bar. There is way too much swell to land ashore, much less even launch the dinghy, so we have to content ourselves with enjoying the view and not having to sit watches.

When we were settled in, we connected to the internet for the first time since Tasmania and discovered that our little five hundred mile sail from Lord Howe had taken us to another world entirely. The minor, but worrying coronavirus outbreak that we had left behind was now beginning to cause worldwide chaos. Markets around the world had crashed and governments were instituting travel restrictions and advising people to avoid going into public places. Only a couple of days later, most of the world was in lockdown and any long distance travel seemed like it would be very difficult and also a really bad idea. Our whole reason for sailing to this part of Australia now had been to have Begonia hauled while we visit friends and family in the US and the UK. That plan is cancelled for the time being. We have already applied for a visa change to a type that won’t force us to leave and come back regularly.

Our isolation a mile from the beach has turned out to be a good thing under the circumstances. As of this writing, we have already been eight days since being close enough to anyone to exchange even a big full-arm wave. We have plenty of food and water and our solar panels and wind generator are putting out more electricity than we can use.

Without the need or ability to travel, our new plan is to do a quick haulout to apply some desperately needed bottom paint, restock, and spend a few weeks in isolation at remote reef or island anchorages with few or no other boats. Because of our lifestyle, we tend to only go shopping infrequently. So far, in the last year, apart from little trips to replenish fresh produce or to buy bread, we have been to the grocery store only four times. Our average visit is three cart loads for over a thousand dollars. That may not be possible anymore without at the very least getting the stink eye as hoarders. We’ll have to see what we can do.

I can certainly understand that most people have far more to worry about than we do. I feel silly now telling stories about cute fishes or romantic beach walks when the whole world (as are we) is worried about whether their lives are about to implode. Perhaps it’s time to lay off it for a while until everyone feels like they can stomach a bit of self-indulgent fluff. We’re still here, though and we’re hoping everyone reading this is able to get through this relatively unscathed. We wish you all the best.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Lord Howe Island (A very special place)

[Kyle]Lord Howe was in fact so nice that even though we were both bushed from many off-watches with no sleep and both being awake since Ball’s Pyramid, we decided to de-lifeboat the dinghy and get right ashore, just to orient ourselves.

First impressions - Lord Howe Island
Kyle has a young white tern come and take a perch on his hat,
Maryanne gets to see a baby LHI Stick Insect
and we both enjoy an afternoon tipple

We walked down the main road to “town”. The road is basically a really nice, wide, paved footpath that is also used by a three-times hourly pickup truck. Drivers seem happy to slow down to walking speed and weave their way through. The most common form of transport on the island is by bicycle. Almost every guest house has a rack of loaners outside. What they don’t have is room keys. Sure, you get a door, but what would you need with a lock?

We had a walk on the beach and popped our heads into a couple of tour operator sheds, which we exited bristling with brochures and maps with which to plan our stay. Back on the road, we met some wildlife. There were several Tern chicks sitting on low branches, waiting for their parents to return with a meal. I stopped to look at one of them.

The little guy was almost in adult plumage, minus some remaining fluffy down on his head. When I stopped, he gave me that look I haven’t seen since my parrot days. He was looking at me and leaning forward and twitching his little wings like he really wanted to come see me.

I didn’t think he would (or could). He’s a wild bird, right? I turned to see if Maryanne was seeing all of this and when I did, the little guy flew over, hovered over me for a couple of seconds and then landed on my hat! He hadn’t been conditioned to use a finger as a perch, but after a couple of gentle tries from me, he figured it out and happily hopped off of my hat onto mine and then started chirping away at me as if he had come over to share some birdy gossip with me. When he was done, he flew back to his branch to wait for dinner.

We saw several others and while they weren’t as gregarious as my little friend, they seemed perfectly content to let us get in nice and close for a look. Their parents were equally unfazed by us and only seemed wary of humans to the extent that we are big and meaty and might accidentally squish them. As long as they were out of arm’s length, they seemed happy to come over and chatter away to us as well.

We enjoyed being bird spotters (not hard to do)
The white terns are on the the main drag so easy to find
We even get to see parents bringing fish back to their chicks

We walked to the Museum, where we found a lecture schedule that would keep us entertained for a few evenings. Lord Howe has what may be the most endangered insect in the world - a walking stick called a Phasmid. Maryanne asked where on the island we might be lucky enough to find one. Even though the museum was closing in, like, thirty seconds, the guy behind the counter took us into a back room where he brought out three of them in a vivarium. It turns out the phasmid had been eaten to extinction on Lord Howe Island by invasive rats. They were thought to be gone completely until one intrepid climber many years later found a small population living on a tiny ledge on Ball’s Pyramid. Since then, they have had some of them in a breeding program with the intent of re-introducing them to Lord Howe once they are absolutely sure the recent massive rat eradication program there has been successful. At the moment, they have been officially declared rat free, but they are waiting a little longer, just to be sure.

Lord Howe is also free of snakes and, my favorite, free of mosquitos! We walked back to the dinghy via one of the nearby nature trails and even though the sun was about to go down, we were not being mauled by mosquitos. Oh, I love it here! That Phil, he’s the greatest!

The next day, the weather was good, so we decided to do some hiking before a multi-day forecast of rain arrived. Lord Howe has lots of trails. The longest and most grueling is to the top of Mt Gower, which is usually the right-hand peak in photos. For that hike, you must pay for a guide. Since Gower is furthest from town, it was explained to us that the guide keeps up a pretty brisk pace to be able make the round trip in daylight. We remembered chasing our guide up the volcano in the Galapagos and decided we were not up for a whole day of that.

Scenery from the numerous trails
Mt Gower & its neighbour Mt Lidgbird dominate the view

Next in difficulty was the climb up to Goat Cave, most of the way up Mt. Lidgbird, the left-hand mountain in most photos. No guide was necessary, but it still sounded pretty grueling. I wanted to try it, but was worried Maryanne wouldn’t want to climb at the pace I thought we would need to maintain to get back by dark. We often divide and conquer for errands, but rarely on tourist stuff. This time, we made an exception. She would hike one set of trails and I another. That would tick almost all of them off of our collective list and still leave us with a big loop around the north part of the island on another day that we could do together.

The trail to Goat Cave did indeed turn out to be grueling. It started with a long walk to the other side of the airport, which from the dinghy dock essentially traverses the entire inhabited part of the island. Then it goes steeply up a sugarloaf mountain to the intervening viewpoint at Intermediate Hill. The nice thing about sugarloaf mountains is that they gradually level off as you climb. I got great views of the whole island, the lagoon and I could even see Ball’s Pyramid in the distance, just poking out behind Mt. Lidgbird. Then it was down the other side almost halfway back to sea level before starting up Mt Lidgbird itself.

Lidgbird is not a sugarloaf, but is instead a mesa. This means the climb starts out at a reasonable pitch, but then increases inexorably until it’s near-vertical. By the time the trail gets to the cave, the fixed ropes (recycled supply ship mooring lines) are necessary to keep from falling backwards into oblivion. I’m pretty sure Maryanne would have hated this part. I had been pushing myself pretty hard up until then and I was wiped out when I finally reached the top.

Most of the climb was through thick jungle, where not much could be seen but a continuum of trees and vines. Just before the cave, though, the view opens up and you finally see what all of the effort was for. Wow! I could see all of the way over the top of the high northern lobe of Lord Howe and had a good view of the Admiralty Islands beyond. These are a chain of small islets that serve as seabird sanctuaries.

Maryanne did her trail, which started up Intermediate Hill, but then peeled off part way up to go to some viewpoints on the far eastern side, most notably Muttonbird Island, which not only has loads of mutton birds (Shearwaters), but also Australia’s largest Gannet rookery. She came back the long way, which crossed over the ridge to the western side of the island. I came back via the same trail, but she was hours ahead of me. At the museum’s first lecture (seabirds), we compared days. She had walked 17km, I had gone 22. We were tired enough to have been in real danger of falling asleep during the lecture, but luckily our soreness prevented us from getting comfortable enough to do so.

Enough with hiking for a while. Our next thing was snorkeling.

We were delighted to be back in water warm enough for swimming without wetsuits. We spent the next day hitting every highlight of the lagoon’s reef system.

Lord Howe Island has the southernmost coral reefs in the world and we were keen to get a look at them. This is particularly so because as the world’s oceans continue to warm, more and more of the coral closer to the equator is suffering bleaching events from temperature stress and dying off. Coral in cooler higher latitudes has so far fared better, but the crisis is moving poleward. This may be our last chance to see a mostly healthy coral ecosystem before it gets this far. Maryanne knows a lot more about this than I do. Her Marine Biology dissertation was on coral.

Indeed, it was magnificent. There were a few stressed areas, but overall there were huge swathes that were over 90% living, compared to the typical 30-50% we have seen in the Tropics. There was a great variety, too, both of coral and pelagic fish species. We spotted several of the endemic Lord Howe Clownfish, which only exist in this lagoon. We took the dinghy from site to site, marveling at the multi-colored vistas below.

Our swimming tour of the lagoon took us two whole days, ending just after the nick of time with a shivering ride back to Begonia in a rainstorm.

We were blown away with the variety and quality of coral and fish-life in the lagoon

Begonia must have had enough water fall on her that night to fill her to the gunwales had the deck not been in the way. In the morning, it was as if it hadn’t happened at all. The sky was clear and blue and the wind was down to a gentle breeze. This was the day for Maryanne and I to do our northern loop hike.

That took us up to the ridge on that side of the island. The land there slopes upward to the top and then plunges vertically to the sea, offering high views of the Admiralty Islands below. At the highest point, we sat eating our lunch of granola bars while watching Tropic birds soar in the updrafts at eye level just a few meters away. Many of them seemed to be teaching their young to takeoff and land from their nest ledges. It looks pretty hard. Turbulence near the rock face seems to foil even the experienced adults, who have to abort and come back around for another try two out of every three times.

So many birds to see

We had planned to call it a day after the loop trail, but then changed our minds at the end and decided to try to hit every other trail spur we had missed. We capped that off with a trip to Ned’s Beach, where we waded in and fed greedy, swirling fish.

More trails and beaches - more scenery...

We rounded off our time in Lord Howe with two more lectures at the Museum, one on marine life and one on geology.

Phil is right (Maryanne, too). Lord Howe really is one of the world’s special places. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its physical beauty, pristine environment and incredible biodiversity. It has no snakes or marsupials, but in nearly every other category hosts a greater number of species than the entire Australian mainland. Many are found only on Lord Howe.

Lord Howe protects its unique environment very carefully. The island has just under four hundred residents and has a cap on visitors of no more than four hundred on the island at a time. It wasn’t until after we got here that we learned that airfares to the island from Sydney often cost more than going to Los Angeles and have to be booked a year in advance. We are indeed very lucky to have been able to see it.

One more little vignette: When Cyclone Uesi hit the week before we arrived, people went out en masse afterwards to find and rescue chicks who had been orphaned during the storm. Oh, it was tough making that last trip home in the dinghy. We really loved it there.