Sunday, June 28, 2020

Lizard Island

[Kyle]We had an easy, downwind, jib-only run for the fifty mile sail from Ribbon 5 to Lizard Island. The first half was a long leg in the wide gap between the inner and outer edges of the Great Barrier Reef system. This lane is forty meters deep and three or four nautical miles wide, so we had little to worry about other than staying hidden under the bimini from the tropical sun while the miles ticked away.

As we neared the bit where we would have to start weaving our way through more closely spaced reefs, my peripheral vision caught a spout about five boat widths to starboard. It was such a short glimpse that I was only half sure that I had even seen it at all. There was a little cloud of mist hanging over the spot, though, and it seemed too big to have been from a dolphin. There were a lot of breaking waves around, so maybe it was from that.

Then it happened again. “WHALE!! Maryanne, Whale!”

Oh, joy! We haven't seen whales for a while. We knew that both Humpbacks and Minkes were supposed to be in the area this time of year, but so far, we had only seen birds and a few flying fish. When this guy finished spouting, he pitched over for a dive. That's when we saw the little dorsal fin atop a big hump. Humpback whale!

Whales keep us company
in the second picture you can just make out the white belly presented to us on every pass-by

Then I spotted another spout too far away to have been from the same animal. Two humpback whales!!

As Maryanne went forward on the deck to get a better look at them, we heard “Pfff!...Pfff, pfff!” Dolphins! Dolphins AND whales at the same time!! Oh, and mustn't forget to navigate. There are reefs everywhere.

Dolphins too!

The dolphins behaved as dolphins do. They came racing up from behind, passed just out of reach, and then spent most of their time cavorting at the bows, leaping across our path in a crisscrossing pattern. The whales were different. They would start way back, maybe ¼ mile. They didn't surface to breathe nearly as often as the dolphins, so we would usually first detect them as a whale-shaped discoloration in the wave face two or three swells behind, matching its speed. About one wavelength away they would accelerate to what was at least double Begonia's speed. Then they would slowly roll upside down, exposing their white bellies before descending in a half-loop into the depths below. In aerobatics, this maneuver is known as a split-S. Usually, they would peel away when they were just to one side of us, although at least twice one of them went right between the hulls, probably three or four meters down. It made it easy to compare their size to ours. Eleven and a half meter boat, ten meter whale. Cool! Once they dove, we would lose sight of them until a couple minutes later, when they would reappear in the faces of the waves astern.

They and the dolphins followed us for ten miles as we gybed our way along in the deep water between the reefs to each side. They didn't leave us until we were abeam Lizard Island. The water there was only fifteen meters deep, which isn't enough room for whale split-Ses.

We rounded the corner into the main anchorage at Mrs. Watson's Bay. There, for the first time since leaving the Low Islands, we anchored with other boats. Most were in the left-hand side of the bay, where there is good holding in sand. The right-hand side is mostly protected coral beds and a landing spot for the resort that occupies that side.

The resort at Lizard is not merely an island resort, but may very well be the most exclusive in all of Australia. Room rates are all in the “If you have to ask....” range. (Their nicest private villa goes for well over $10,000 per day) This pretty much ensures that the clientele is mostly bazillionaires and movie stars. Apparently, it's one of Russel Crowe's favorite getaways. He was not in attendance, as the resort is technically closed for Covid, although a skeleton staff remains for upkeep.

Lizard is a beautiful and interesting island. It is the largest in the area. The part of the island not owned by the resort is National Park land, which has a campground (currently closed) and a few trails. One which we really wanted to do went up to the top, where a frustrated Captain Cook himself climbed in an attempt to find a safe route through for the newly repaired Endeavour.

Alas, the letter we had from the Shire Council to go with our transit permit had clearly stated that we were not to go ashore at inhabited islands. It even went so far as to name Lizard Island specifically as an example. Word was that most of the other boats in the anchorage were not locals either. We only recognized two of them. One had just arrived at the Low Islands from the outer reefs when we were leaving to enter the Cook Shire and the other was a chartered mega-yacht from Cairns whose AIS target we saw leaving there two days after that. Both were regularly shuttling people to and from shore.

We don't know about the first boat, but the mega-yacht had apparently already been in trouble a couple of times for this. When we were there, an Australian Border Force airplane tried repeatedly to call them on the radio to no avail. It's possible they weren't monitoring it, but it seems improbable that a boat that size doesn't have somebody carrying a portable marine radio on their belt. I suppose that way, they can pocket the 2% “Remote Community Fee” on the bill that is added on for all of the relevant fines to be paid.

As entertaining as all of this was, we decided to stay out of it and content ourselves with a day of snorkeling around the coral gardens in the bay. The resort's website boasted that they had lots of giant clams, some of which were two meters across.

Since we couldn't go ashore, we were determined to snorkel
We found more giant clams, but the big one eluded us

We swam a lot, but failed to find any two meter clams. There seems to have been some favorable rounding done in the marketing department. The large ones we did find were on the order of what we had seen at Ribbon and other places, maybe just under a meter and a half. There was plenty of good coral and swooping schools of fish to see as well. If we were resort guests, we would be quite impressed by having such good snorkeling right off the beach below our room. We could then get rid of the chill of the swim with a hot mud bath at the spa.

The health of the system may have to do with being in a cold patch of water that has welled up from somewhere. We wore our full wet suits and still exited the water shivering. The funny thing was that we found the biggest clamilies (what I have decided a group of clams just HAS to be called) on the northern wall of the bay, rather than in the buoyed-off area mentioned by the resort.

We didn't quite have enough mud on the boat for a spa bath, so we had to content ourselves with tea and biscuits to warm ourselves back up after our swim. Maryanne always seems most British to me when she says, “hot bath”. Since we couldn't have that, handing out tea and biscuits seems like a close second.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Ribbon Reef #5

[Kyle]On the day we moved from Ribbon Reef 3 to Ribbon Reef 5, a new bird showed up. It sat on the sea holding its wings up to keep them dry. It would fly to a spot just ahead of us, drift back a few boat lengths and then fly forward to repeat. It was so big, that at first we thought it was a juvenile Albatross. That probably wasn't right as albatross like the higher latitudes better. We did some more digging and finally decided it was a Flesh-footed Shearwater. We were half expecting him to follow us as we left, but instead, he stayed behind at the mooring ball.

Along the way, we were passed by a big commercial dive boat headed in the opposite direction. It was the first other vessel we had seen this far out. They didn't have AIS, so I tracked them on radar. They went from Ribbon 5 to Ribbon 3. We had just avoided having to share either reef with a hundred others. When the tourism really picks back up again, I'm sure it would be unavoidable.

With no land around, the birds treat Begonia as a mini-island

Ribbon 5 was much like Ribbon 3, only with slightly different snorkeling terrain and slightly different fishes. I'm pretty sure the tern from Ribbon 3 followed us there. Every day at 4:30pm, he would head straight for his familiar roost on the second or third stern step without even trying a different spot first. Most of the others did the same, lining up on their familiar spaces on the beam. The tern is too skittish, but the gannets all get a little pat on the back to remind them I haven't forgotten our agreement. Our next stop is at a real island, where hopefully the trees and beaches will seem like a better deal than a wet, rocking boat where they are only safe from harassment on the worst, most exposed section.

One of the later bird arrivals was a Noddy that touched down on the stainless steel railings by one of our stern step gates. He was having a terrible time holding on to the slippery surface. Every time Begonia pitched or rolled, the poor guy would almost fall off and would turn into a fluttering blur trying to regain his balance. He's never going to be able to sleep like that.

After watching him do this one too many times, I took pity on him and decided to try to gently spook him over to an adjacent coil of nice fat grippy rope. I approached slowly and put my hand on the other side of him. He walked over to the rope and got a foot on. I assumed the benefits of the rope would then be obvious, but he would struggle back onto the steel rail as soon as I backed off. My hand was close enough to him that I decided to try to pick him up and move him myself by getting him to perch on my finger.

Kyle "The bird whisperer" befriends a visiting Noddy

The finger perch is the first basic task taught to most pet birds. It can be critical to their safety in stressful situations, allowing them to stay under your protection and not panic, like teaching a dog to heel when their instinct tells them to run into the street. I've taught a few baby birds how to do this. The trick is to move slowly and gently so they don't think you're really trying to grab them.

My little guy acted like other first-timers. As I gently touched my finger to his breastbone, he at first seemed really confused. Then I moved my finger back, putting him just on the edge of balance. Not wanting to fall, he put one foot on me. I moved further until there was no way he could keep his balance and still hold onto the rail. He popped the other foot onto my finger and, viola! I was his new friend.

I tried taking him over to the aforementioned rope and discharging him using the reverse of the above procedure, but he wasn't having it. Before I could even pull my hand away, he jumped back on. Then I tried making a fist. That just made him fly to my forearm, where he would wait until I opened my hand to its original position. Then he would scurry back down to 'his' finger. Fingers are great! They are the perfect size for perching and they are heated! This one also has auto-stabilization from the wave motion. He had found his new home. He fluffed up his feathers and gave a good tail wag, which is what most birds do when they are content, and set to fixing his feathers for the night. He let me join in and take care of the hard to reach ones on top of his head. He even let me wrestle playfully with his little needle of a beak, gently tapping the finger to each side of his feet in return.

I was never able to get him to perch on the rope. The sky started drizzling and it was exposed there. He eventually decided that he liked the bow of the dinghy. It was out of the wind and protected from the rain by the solar panel above. The bow fender is a heavy canvas fire hose cover that is the perfect shape for his little feet. That, and his tail was hanging over open water, so we were both happy.

I checked on him a few times that night. He was always happy to hop onto my finger for a quick scratch or let me do it where he perched. I had to be careful about it because the nearby tern could see me and always looked nervous enough to be about ready to bolt into the night.

And of course, there was snorkelling too

When we awoke, the gannets were already gone. The tern left as soon as there was signs of activity. Our noddy was still there, though. I expected him to be less friendly in the morning, when the incentive to find a safe place to spend the night was taken over by the urge to go fishing. Instead, he seemed completely nu-bothered by our departure preparations, no matter how many bangy noises we made or how closely we came to his tiny head with our big, stompy feet. He just watched us, tilted his head and shook his tail every now and then.

When we departed, there was a brief flash of confusion as the wind swung from in front of the boat to coming from behind. His windbreak was gone. He shuffled around until he was 45 degrees to the new wind. Then the water under him started rushing the other way, which caused him to tilt his head and study it for a while.

It was an hour or so later, when Ribbon Reef 5 was well over the horizon, that I saw him stand up and give his wings a trial stretch. He did that a couple of times and then jumped into the air. He made a beeline due east toward Ribbon reef 6 or 7. He was a mere speck halfway to the horizon when he curved back and headed toward us. He flew at eye level, facing backwards to us into the wind for a few seconds before touching down on the top lifeline. Then he gave a big tail wag, jumped into the air and headed off towards a group of other noddies circling in the distance.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Ribbon Reef #3

No, I don't want to wear the ribbon.

We picked the better of two pretty horrible looking days to head across to the outer, eastern edge of the Great Barrier Reef at the Ribbon Reefs. The wind was occasionally touching thirty knots and the seas in the ocean on the outside of the reefs were reported to be about four meters. That wouldn't have been too bad, except that our first six miles had to be into the wind in order to get around intervening Cairns Reef. That helped to settle Begonia's contents and gave us a good coating of salt from the spray.

After that, we tucked into a wide gap between the landward and seaward edges of the Great Barrier Reef system. That kept the seas down and left us with only the wind. As we neared our destination at Ribbon Reef 3, we had to pass over the unprotected gap between it and Ribbon Reef 2 (There are ten in a row, numbered from south to north). That gave us about ten minutes of what the ocean is supposed to look like in winds like this. The waves were high enough that we couldn't see past the next one when we were in the troughs. Begonia's motion changed from flat and jittery to a slow roll up and over and then down each wave.

Another beautiful sunset at anchor

We did that a hundred times or so and then we sailed behind the southern end of Ribbon Reef 3 and everything quickly calmed down again. Our destination was still fairly well set back from the breakers on the outer side of the reef, but our motion was just enough to remind us we were on a boat.

At low tide, when things had calmed down even further, we dove in to explore our new surroundings. The first thing we noticed going in was the amazing clarity of the water. The visibility is the best we have seen in ages.

There was plenty to see. Reefs closer to the equator are the ones most highly stressed by climate change, so we weren't sure what we would find. We were half expecting to see the skeletons of a once great ecosystem. Instead, although there were patches that were in trouble, overall, the health of the coral here looked pretty good, with good coverage and plenty of variety. The terrain was also varied and interesting. There were shallow valleys, wide plains, steep mesas, deep canyons and high cliffs with overhangs that would crumble under their own weight if they were out of water. Snorkeling above it was like being a bird flying over a scale 3D model of a mountain range.

There were plenty of big schools of fish around. They were a bit funny because they would almost always flee as soon as they saw us and then subsequently follow us around as their form of entertainment. Sharks and turtles did the same thing. If we swam toward them, they would swim away. If we swam away, they would follow us.

Snorkelling on the reef

We also saw lots and lots of giant clams with their iridescent mantles. They have light sensing organs. When a shadow passes over them, they pull in slightly. If you touch them, though, you get to see something the size of an ottoman flinch, complete with the inevitable jet of water from the inside.

Also with us were plenty of sea birds. There were gannets, storm petrels and adorable little terns. I like birds, but they all seemed to be making a point about severely testing my affections. About an hour before sunset, we would notice the roving flocks edging closer and closer to us. They were casing the joint.

Rather than fly back to land for the night, which would take all of about ten minutes in the big tailwind (although getting back in the morning would take a couple of hours), they had clearly decided to cheat and stay the night with us. All of these bird types can sleep while sitting on the sea, but if it is rough, they get doused a lot and they are constantly drifting downwind, so they have to occasionally interrupt their rest to fly upwind to make up the lost ground. Plus, there is the danger of getting taken from below. Thus, they are really motivated to find a safe spot out of the water.

First to arrive were usually the terns. The first night, we had a pair. They both looked miserable as they had to struggle constantly to keep from being blown off of the deck by the high winds. Usually, the only thing keeping them from sliding backward was the claw of one toe hooked into a crevice. One returned the second night for what was surely going to be another sleepless buffeting. During one of my evening deck patrol circuits, I spooked him. He jumped into the air and the wind immediately took him. After a tremendous two steps back, three steps forward effort where he was only able to make forward progress in our wind shadow, he finally managed to touch down panting on our third port side stern step. There, he was protected from the wind by the step above. He hunkered down and almost immediately went to sleep. Aww! Well, I can hardly bring myself to shoo him off now. It's too dark for him to go anywhere else. That's fine. Terns don't make much mess and the steps are easy enough to rinse in the morning.

Next up are the storm petrels. They are also pretty small and not too messy. For some reason, they like to camp out right at the pointy end of each bow in the full blast of wind, rain and spray.

After that, the gannets arrive. They usually show up when there's barely enough light left to even see the deck. They are very cautious about their approach and will often make ten or more unsuccessful attempts before finally landing. One unfortunate individual whanged into an unseen shroud on one try. There are few one meter wide spaces with undisturbed air that go all of the way to deck level.

Gannets are not birds that you want on your boat. There is something seriously wrong with their digestive process and they all need to get to a veterinarian immediately. The problem is that they show up so late that they have already exhausted any potential distant island backups for the night and they will do virtually anything to avoid spending a night either aloft or on the sea, which makes them very persistent.

So, every night after sunset, we get into this battle where they try to land while I try to shoo them off. The problem is that they will land anywhere they can get a grip and they don't give up. I quickly learned that running around on deck flailing my arms like a crazy man only sends them higher, out of my reach. That puts their feathered butts over our rain catchment area. Also, being higher up means any droppings will be spread over a wider area by the wind. Thus, we made a truce. I would let them stay on the forward crossbeam if they would avoid the rest of the boat. That only leaves me one section to clean the next day, which also gets the most thorough rinsing while we are underway.

I realize that hurting one or even killing one might effectively scare the others away. That's what has to be done at some airports, but I could never bring myself to do that, mostly because no one was in danger of crashing a plane because of them so the 'sacrifice one for the good of many' argument falls flat. Also, they aren't 100% horrible birds

Gannets are annoyingly persistent, but they also have such sweet, docile dispositions. I walked right up to a few of them and tapped them on the back to get them to shift to one side or another. Mostly, I got innocent, “Please don't hurt me” looks in return. I found one guy sleeping with his head under his wing on one of our bimini solar panels. Oh, hell no! I slowly grabbed him with a hand on each wing to keep him from spreading them. He seemed to enjoy the hug at first and then woke up to find some strange, big creature with a light coming out of its head (my headlamp) picking him up. At that point, I was expecting to be jabbed at with a stabby, screaming beak and scratched with claws, but instead he stayed perfectly calm as I carried him to his new spot in the 'permitted' zone, where he fluffed up his feathers contentedly and promptly went back to sleep.

Some of the visiting Birds

The weather improved over time to where we could actually see the mountains on the mainland. That seemed to reduce their numbers each night as they could see an alternative to staying with us, but we always had one or two that insisted on staying.