Cruise on the Great Barrier Reef - 14 - 18 August 2012

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August 26th 2012
Published: August 27th 2012
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We welcomed aboard new passengers and crew, three of the latter had been on our cruise last year, including Captain Anaru. The Purser, Amy and the Trip Director, Chris stayed on board as well as other crew members. Our Chef, Mark who was supposed to leave the ship for a break in Cairns had to make a hasty return as the new chef had not turned up for work........ We were also joined on the cruise by a number of ‘elderly ladies’, with a group of four from New Zealand as well as several groups from Australia including Kay and Margaret from ACT (Canberra) - we hoped that the weather would stay calm for them and us.......We departed Trinity Wharf for the next part of our cruise and enjoyed an excellent sea food buffet (particularly the Moreton Bay Bugs) as we headed north. ‘Thank you’ Mark for standing in for the ‘absent chef’ - the dinner was superb.

The next morning we arrived in Cooktown in far north Queensland. Captain Cook had maneuvered his damaged ship HM Bark Endeavour, at the present site of Cooktown on 17 June 1770 for much needed repairs. Finding the climate pleasant and the local Aboriginal tribe (the Guugu Yimidhirr) friendly, Cook and his crew enjoyed an extended leave of some 48 days here, naming the place Cook’s Town, before heading back to England, leaving behind a legacy and the beginnings of local modern history............... Not surprisingly Cooktown is full of relics and monuments celebrating Cook’s visit and we took a leisurely stroll around the sleepy little town with its fascinating history. We particularly enjoyed the waterfront walk where we spotted groups of the bright yellow and red Figbirds singing merrily in colourful Frangipani trees - what a lovely sight.

We walked along the main street to the Museum which had excellent displays, not only on Captain Cook’s voyage but also the local area and its people. It was fascinating reading transcriptions from various diaries of the events that took place in 1770, particularly when the crew of the Endeavour came across a wild beast they had never seen before......... Captain Cook had written ‘I saw myself this morning a little way from the Ship one of the animals before spoke of, it was of a light mouse colour and the full size of a grey hound, in short I could have taken it for a wild dog, but for it walking or running which it jumped like a hare or deer; another of them was seen today by our people who saw the first, they describe him as having very small legs and the print of the foot like that of a goat...........’ Have you guessed what it was yet?

The museum was housed in an historic building which was originally a convent school and the history of this in itself was fascinating. The convent had continued until the war years when all the pupils and nuns were evacuated to Herberton in the Atherton Tablelands never to return to this quaint little town. I was particularly fascinated by a intricate wrought iron spiral staircase and a notice said that this was used by pupils only whilst the nuns used another, just as well as it was extremely narrow. When the convent was abandoned this staircase was transported to Herberton and used there but was returned to the museum at a later date.

We sailed out of Cooktown and arrived at Two Isles, an idillic deserted coral island strewn with large colourful shells and dead corals. We walked around part of the island and out amongst the corals exposed by high tide. We had to tread carefully following Chris who explained about the various corals and marine life we came across. A large pinkish eel slid out of a rock and Chris tried to get a close up photograph, but the eel quickly swam away in teh shallow water. It was amazing seeing the corals up close and out of the water, apparently they can survive for up to 12 hours above the tide line. We saw many large bright Blue Starfish and several smaller Brown Starfish as well as many Sea Slugs, these are usually black and dull but these were tinged fluorescent green with red tips. Back on board and just after a huge dinner Chris called us all out on deck where a number of large fish were swimming up close to the boat including a beautiful Tawny Nurse Shark. Chris had previously removed a fish hook from the Shark and it was now very friendly and came right up to him whenever the boat visited the island (obviously hoping to be fed as well). Swimming around with the Shark were several giant, and I mean Giant Groupers (Charley you would not want to get too close to these). The Grouper has a large mouth and a rounded fanlike tail. and the adults are green/brown/grey with mottled markings with small black spots on the fins. This massive fish can grow to 3 metres and weigh up to 600kg and were easily as large as the Nurse Shark.


The next morning we were moored off Lizard Island where several of the passengers were going to hike to Cooks Look. It was from here, the highest lookout on this part of the reef, that Captain Cook was able to navigate a safe passage back through the treacherous waters after repairing the Endeavour near Cooktown 242 years ago. One of his quotes was ‘A reef such as is here spoke of is scarcely known in Europe. It is a wall or coral rock rising almost Perpendicular out of the unfathomable ocean’. We were not going to take the hike today to Cooks Look as we had done this walk last year and indeed it was a long hard climb and would take up most of our time on the island. We wanted to see more of Lizard Island and its fringing reef so we took the first boat ashore and walked along the beach to the remains of Mary Watson’s cottage. Mary Watson (born 17 January 1860 - 1881), was an Australian folk heroine. She was 21 years old and had been married less than eighteen months when she died of thirst on No. 5 Island in the Howick Group off Cape Flattery. She, with her four-month-old baby, Ferrier, and a wounded Chinese workman, Ah Sam, had drifted for eight days and some forty miles in a cut-down ship's water tank, used for boiling Sea Slugs, after mainland Aborigines had attacked her absent husband's bêche de mer station on Lizard Island. Her diary describing their last days was found with their remains in 1882 and Mary became an emblem of pioneer heroism for many Queenslanders. After passing the cottage which was just a few metres behind the beautiful curved beach we walked along a short boardwalk through mangrove swamps and saw a variety of birds including several lovely Sunbirds. We later spent a few hours on the beach, snorkelling on the Fringing Reef (this is a reef that develops around an island). We saw many Giant Clams and many small reef fish but were disappointed not to meet up with the Tawny Nurse Shark we had seen off the boat the night before although I am glad we did not come across the Giant Groupers! Lizard Island has one resort hotel and no other accommodation, the cost per night is huge and not many people are lucky enough to visit this stunning island.

In the afternoon we departed for Ribbon Reef Number 9 we were really looking forward to this part of the cruise. Chris who was a marine biologist had explained the natural history and evolution of the reefs and we knew far more now than at the beginning of our trip. The Great Barrier Reef is not actually one continuous reef, but a series of thousands of individual coral cays stretching over 3,000 kilometres between the town of Bundaberg and the tip of Australia at Cape York. There are a number of different types of reef including; Fringing Reef, Patch Reef and Ribbon Reef as well as Barrier Reef and Atoll Reef. The Ribbon Reefs here are not named but numbered One to Ten up the coast, separated by narrow passages and renowned for the most pristine sections of the Great Barrier Reef. Approaching this beautiful reef in the middle of the ocean was stunning, everyone was on deck taking in the view as the darker inky waters changed to many shades of light blue. The crew moored the boat so close to the reef you could see the coral so clearly beneath the turquoise blue ocean and we could not wait to jump in. There were steps down into the water but once the Glass Bottom Boat was lowered off one could you the metal platform to easily glide into the water. We were not disappointed the view and clarity of the water was superb and we just did not want to get out, but after a while got so cold we had to climb back on board for a hot shower and coffee and freshly baked scones - you could easily get used to this way of life. We later went out on the Glass Bottom Boat and viewed the corals and fish from dry ground, although if you sat on the end of the boat you sometimes got a bit wet..... Huge clumps of Staghorn coral looking like more like massive underwater trees that stags horns spread across the ocean floor. The majority of these were a bright blue but we also saw white and cream ones. Equally bright colourful fish swam amongst these underwater trees which gave them protection from larger prediators.

The next day we arrived at Ribbon Reef Number 3 and again excellent mooring by the crew. The reef here had a massive bommie and with a high tide we were able to snorkel over the top of this as well as all around the steep sides. As you snorkelled over the edge it was like floating over a mountain and you could see clearly the ocean floor meters below and the coral growing all the way down to the ocean floor. A coral bommie is an isolated coral outcrop surrounded entirely by sand or rubble. They are centers of diversity and abundance and act as a refuge for fish and invertebrate communities and provide a safe nursery for smaller fish. This was the best snorkelling experience we have ever had and the fish and coral here were just mind blowing and we saw many things we had not seen before. Captain Anaru said this was his favourite spot of all on the reefs on the Great Barrier Reef and we could see why. It was hard to drag ourselves out of this delightful ocean but we had to move on. After lunch we continued to Escape Reef, a Patch Reef which is a reef that develops on top of a sunken mountain range. There were several huge caves under water and you could see larger fish sheltering from us snorkellers but the smaller fish came right up to see what we were about. Whilst we were swimming along the outer edge of a small bommie we heard this strange sound and we both looked towards the boat thinking that the horn had been sounded to call us back to the boat. We kept hearing this whining noise but did not mention it to each other at the time - its hard to communicate with a snorkel in your mouth. Back on board some passengers on the glass bottom boat trip had seen a mother Humpback and her calf and we were disappointed to have missed it but when we told Chris of the noise we had heard he said that was the mother calling her calf. We were so fortunate to hear the lovely call of the whale as she had passed so close to us and even though we had not actually seen her we had now experienced the wonderful ‘song of the whale’ in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef. The corals on Escape Reef were particularly bright and one was a lovely shade of pink with what looked liked blue, brown and red spiral jewels embedded in the hard coral. On close inspection they were actually Christmas Tree Worms, the multicolored spirals are merely the worm's highly derived respiratory structures. The worm’s most distinct features are two ‘crowns’ shaped like a christmas tree - hence its name. They are commonly found embedded in entire heads of large stony corals and we had seen quite a few on this reef. Again it was hard to drag ourselves out but Paul finally climbed back on board for a warm drink. When I looked around I was the only one left in this huge ocean - but the boat was nearby and I could see Paul keeping an eye on me from the bottom of the all was well. In the end though I got too cold notwithstanding the fact that water camera had used up its battery and so it was time to climb back on board..........

We had been so lucky on this cruise with ideal weather conditions and clear blue seas, the clarity in the water had been excellent and you could see right to the bottom of the ocean floor many meters below us at all times. We enjoyed snorkelling with all the brightly coloured fish, particularly the Anemone Fish (Nemos), the Moorish Idol (the last of its type), the Angel Fish, Butterfly Fish and the purple/blue/pink Parrot Fish, which you could hear munching away at the algae on the corals. The coral formations and colours were just magnificent and we had seen many we had not see before. The bonus was of course hearing the sound of the mother Humpback Whale calling her calf as well as seeing the Green Turtles feeding on the top of the reef.

On our last evening aboard it was time for the Coral Princess Quiz again and this time we were joined by Margaret (81) and Kay (80) from ACT. Guess what - we won this time mainly as Ken had remembered that the name for the algae that grew on coral was zooxanthellae. We had actually tied with a family from Belgium so there was a tiebreaker and we had to draw a picture of the dive master, Andreas. Paul as Captain of our team (The Wikies) had the task as none of the other team members volunteered, I am hopeless at drawing..... The other passengers had to choose between his drawing and the other joint winners. Well Paul’s drawing won the day and we were awarded the winning prize of a Coral Princess Pen - a unique end to such a unique journey. We will never forget our time on board the Coral Princess II the second time around. We are so pleased that Ken and Judy decided to join the cruise again as well as they had been such delightful company and it was sad to say goodbye again but just know we will meet them sometime and somewhere in this small world.................

On our arrival at Trinity Wharf two large navy boats were taking up most of the space on the wharf but the captain and crew managed to maneuver the boat in with the Navy looking on waiting to raise their flag. The Crew all lined up to say goodbye and it was really sad to be leaving after such an enjoyable voyage on the Great Barrier Reef. We waved off Ken and Judy who were heading for the airport for their flight back to Melbourne and we picked up our backpacks and walked down the jetty towards the Sebel Hotel. Later we wandered along the sea front and noticed that the town was extremely busy with people sitting all along the roadside. It was the Cairns festival week so we had an enjoyable meal watching the colourful parade pass through and later watched the fireworks from our hotel balcony. Tomorrow we head for the airport for our flight to Brisbane - see you there.

Additional photos below
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30th August 2012

Oh wow - so jealous!
Oh - it looks like we missed a real treat not doing this section of the cruise. Charlie would have loved to see the Nurse Shark especially (but maybe not the Giant Groupers - ha!). Great photos as always. We've just got back home now - and we're missing Australia already! Di x
2nd September 2012

What gorgeous photos, you both have a career ahead of you as wildlife photographers I think! Glad you had some time snorkelling, must have been fantastic (says me - paddling is about my limit!!) Take care. Love from us both. xx

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