Tuesday, 25 September 2012

One last snorkel on the reef

Looking back  across the Great Barrieer Reef towards the mainland.

With confirmation from the rigger that he wouldn't be arriving yesterday we quickly closed hatches and untied ropes to get out of marina and the Moon River on the dropping tide - usually a no-no for us with its associated risk of getting stuck on the sandbar for eight or more hours.
The Vlasoff Cay, and our last opportunity to snorkel the reef before stinger season, was too tempting so out we went with just a metre of water under us at the bar. Phew!
We had a magnificent day.
There was a light 7 knot breeze so we put the head sail out and kept a motor going to make the three-hour crossing.
With school holidays and this run of great weather we expected see a lot of boats at the reef but there were only half a dozen others apart from the regular commercial cats heading to Green Island and Michaelmas Cay.
The previous day, Sunday, over 70 boat trailers were parked at the boat ramp adjacent the marina so we guessed it had been a bit busier at the reef then.
Vlasoff was just as beautiful as last week but, as we arrived just after low tide (0.8m) there was a lot more of the sand cay out of the water - and some tricky reef heads to negotiate into a sandy anchoring patch. As the water is so clear, it is almost impossible to determine how far under the water the reef patches are but we knew we had over a metre less water than our last visit so couldn't necessarily take the same route as before.
Once safely anchored we dropped the ladder and hit the water.
Beautiful! And we had four hours to lap it up.
Vlasoff Cay with a bit more sand and reef showing.
The camera did a rare change of hands to prove that I was there too.
If you're not sick of seeing reef photos, here's some more.
 We returned to the marina on the high tide last night. The rigger is due today (maybe) to check the rigging he installed two years ago.
Today and tomorrow we'll tidy the boat for our month away, eat all the food or give it away. When we return at the end of October, it will be stinger season and so I doubt we'll be snorkelling anywhere as we make our way south to Townsville where Sea Piper will spend the Wet season.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Switched on

A project that has been several months in the making has been a new engine starting panel and our return to the marina marked the final stage - the installation.
Pulling out the old panel with its myriad of wires snaking every which way looked like a nightmare, but based on previous experience, I knew Royden had it sussed.
Out with the old ...
Some serious labelling took place at this point.
After two days, half of one spent racing to the bus to town to buy some parts following a change in the plan, the new panel is up and running - and looks great.
Neat as - and with circuit breakers.
With perfect weather conditions prevailing, we're itching to head out to the reef for another snorkel or two before our trip to Victoria next Thursday.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Wow: whales, then more whales

Vlasoff Cay - popular with the locals on a beautiful day like this.
All tiredness left us as we cast off the mooring at Upolu and headed to Vlasoff Cay to the east. We'd no sooner hit the deeper channel between the reefs when we sighted our first whales of the day - a mother and calf playing in the deep leads that mark the way out of this reef complex and through to Green Island.
They were quite a way off so we watched for a bit before continuing towards Vlasoff, mindful of the tide.
We'd planned to approach this cay about an hour before high tide, spend a couple of hours there and head off again while the water was still high. It's way less stressful picking your way through the reef when you know you've got maximum water under you. When it's calm, the water is so clear it's impossible to tell the depth until the depth sounder is over the patch - bit late then though.
Sea Piper at Vlasoff from snorkel level.
Vlasoff was magnificent. We anchored in a clear white sand patch in five meters as we couldn't find the one public mooring listed on the Parks website. (We did locate it later through the binoculars. It's way off the cay, probably in a position where you can get to it on a low tide I guess.)
The tiny sand cay just had its peak out of the water and within the hour a number of small boats from the mainland had anchored on its verge, families had spilled out onto the beach and an aquamarine beach umbrella had gone up. It looked gorgeous.
A tiny part of Vlasoff Reef
We dropped our ladder and snorkelled straight off the boat, as usual, and within minutes were gasping out garbelled `Wows!' through the snorkel. There were thousands of tiny bright coloured fish amongst the coral gardens and again Merman dived down amongst them but they were barely disturbed by his presence. 
So many fish in this beautiful coral garden.
We stayed in the water till we both started to cramp up. It was hard to leave such a beautiful experience but our pruned (more than usual) skin was another indication we needed to stop.
We gingerly steered Sea Piper back into deeper water and headed back towards Upolu and the gap out of the reef complex. The mother whale and baby (assuming it was the same ones we'd seen before) had made their way further into the reef channel and came up almost directly in front of us. We had to move off to one side as the calf leapt and played around its mother. We just stopped and watched. It was awesome.
I know this is off-centre, but this shows how close the whales came - even the little camera could get a shot.

We had decided to quit while we were ahead with the weather and head back to the marina for the night. Crossing the passage between the reef and the mainland, three whales erupted from the water. They were well off in the distance but their size and the display they put on was awesome. It continued for at least 40 minutes until the sea haze and distance made them fade from our view. It must have been a perfect whale play day.
Bet they all slept well last night - same as us!

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Norman Reef

Note to self: Despite beautifully calm weather and an available mooring, it is not a good idea to spend the night on the Great Barrier Reef with no protection from the swell.
We're a bit weary this morning after a lumpy night but it's another glorious day and we're making the most of it.
We left Low Isles yesterday morning and headed out on the high tide to the passage between Batt and Tongue Reefs.It was very peaceful but quite eerie out there. We were the only boat and because the tide was over two metres, the reef either side of us was not apparent - so no land marks and only the haziest outline of the mainland. As the tide starred to drop the waves started to roll over the reef edges giving some definition to our surrounds.
We were spat out on the other side of the reef into the Coral Sea. Again a different experience for us with a widely spaced rolling swell at the mouth of Trinity Passage, one of several shipping passages through the Barrier Reef.
Norman Reef - again my little camera doesn't do the colours justice, plus there's a water blob in the middle of the lens I've just noticed. Not surprising cos it's just come out of the water!
Our destination was Norman Reef which, we realised as we neared, was the end point of one of the big day-trip companies so there was a huge lunch platform and a helipad as well as two big boats. 
Fortunately the one public mooring was a long way from the commercial operation - and the mooring was unoccupied.
After a quick lunch we hit the water. It was stunning. Sea Piper was in 13 meters of water and it was crystal clear right to the bottom. The bommies and reef were full of fish and turtles - and my accomplished `Merman' had a ball diving down and rustling up some action.
The Merman of Norman Reef
Bommie - Norman Reef

Pick the little shape that is a turtle.

We reluctantly climbed back on Sea Piper when we could swim no more.
It was tempting to stay out at Norman Reef for the night but we decided to head for a little more protection at Michaelmas Cay which has a couple of moorings adjacent a sandspit.
There were so many coral heads and bommies it was like picking our way through a minefield to reach the mooring at Michaelmas only to find it was tagged for a smaller boat than ours and that we would swing out over some very big coral heads if we stayed put. One large mooring was already taken and the second large one, listed on the Marine Parks website, was nowhere to be found.
So we picked our way out of there again and headed to Upolu to rock and roll the night away with the turn of the tide sending the swell right through us and the slight breeze turning us side on to it. Blah.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Coo coo

Early morning Low Isles
The cooing of hundreds of Torres Strait Island pigeons and the expelled breath of emerging turtles are the only sounds we can hear this morning off Low Isles.
The pigeons fly in in groups each evening; in pairs, triples or larger flocks, to roost in the mangroves of the easternmost isle. The birds skim across the top of the water as they approach, seeming to just miss plunging in. It's a great sight - a black and white omen perhaps.
Yesterday we decided to snorkel areas around Low Isles where we haven't been before - and discovered a treasure trove of coral and fish, particularly off the northern side of the reef well out from the lighthouse island.
There were large bommies and deep drop offs around the edges of the reef, where the big fish hang out. Strangely enough the reef sharks were scarce. They seem to prefer being around the boats with the bat fish and the giant trevally, especially when there's the chance of the odd prawn head tossed into the water.
Giant trevally, reef sharks and remora hang around the boats at Low Isles.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Blue skies, smilin' at me

A whale breaching on the horizon made our day yesterday as we sailed up to Low Isles.
We'd been a week in the marina where Royden replaced our two starter batteries and installed a new battery charger. Meantime the wind was blowing a howler so we had no desire to be at sea.
However the forecast for this week is beautiful and we set off first thing yesterday morning to take advantage of the light winds and low swell. We were also keen to see the start of the Louisiades rally from Yorkey's Knob marina but as there were just 15 boats and they left in drips and drabs according to sailability and power-ability, there wasn't much to see. I was expecting something like the Darwin-Ambon rally which used to (and probably still does)involve dozens of yachts and have a spectacular send-off. Oh well.
As we had all day to reach Low Isles, we were happy to move along at under 3 knots, at times increasing to 5 knots with the odd stronger gust, the Code Zero doing its usual great job in light conditions. I suspect the tide and swell was having more to do with our forward propulsion than the wind.

The swell and tide kept us moving along.
The whale breach was followed by a couple of tail slaps and then it was gone. Gosh he/she was big.
Dolphins were the next to come out to play but unfortunately the mackerel didn't want to have anything to do with us. It's the first time we have crossed that stretch of water and not caught a mackerel. We can only suppose we were going too slow.
All three public moorings were taken when we reached Low Isles around 4.30pm so we nosed our way into the lagoon and dropped anchor for the night.
As always the reef sharks took an avid interest in our anchor, chain and hull. Maybe they remember that Royden always dives in here and checks that the anchor's set. Not this night though as we are in such shallow and clear water that we could see all was well from the deck.
This morning has dawned with some dark rain cloud drifting out to sea, bat fish circling our boat to get our toast crumbs and a pair of sea eagles sitting on a pontoon adjacent to Sea Piper. Not too bad a start.

A pair of sea eagles sit on the pontoon awaiting the arrival of guests from Port Douglas. The pontoon belongs to one of the big day-tripper yachts.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Back tracking

The blank blog space between Rose and Steve's visit and Mog and Kal's visit needs filling in - that's the gap that saw me exchange the company of Royden (who flew south for a meeting) for the company of Heather.
They did a direct in-and-outgoing swap-over at Cairns airport, including car keys for Heather's car and the same plane seat - 4A.
As you might have expected, this period was land-based despite the encouragement of nearby boat owners to ``take 'er out while the weather's good.''
Err, no thanks. Ditto for Heather.
We had our `no plan' flexi-plan and our Suzuki Swift hire car that proved perfect for our needs.
The six days turned into a bit of a food-fest as we discovered delicious eateries around Cairns and out in the sticks.
This wasn't deliberate but, God it was good.
Cairns Botanic Gardens boasts some unique plants including this flowering creeper from Java.
If you're visiting Cairns, the Botanic Gardens cafe (the old one in the middle of the gardens) is a gastronomic delight - there's no way you'll come out hungry as the serves are generous+. Mog and Kal will vouch for the waffle desserts.
Then there's the cafe adjacent to the Cairns Arts Centre in town. We tried their entree serves for two separate lunches (sharing four different dishes overall). As well as the presentation being awesome, the flavours were fabulous. I highly recommend the prawns, avocado and chargrilled capsicum with lemon mayonnaise, and the arrancini balls with that spicy beef surprise in the centre. and the ...
Enough already. This is sounding like a Mog Blog.
We also discovered little treasures like the Cairns Museum which is run solely by volunteers and located above a shop in Cairns Square. For $5 we had a beaut couple of hours in the hands of a volunteer (whose name escapes me) whose tactile tour had us playing and working just about everything that moved in the place. It may not appeal to everyone but for the time and our mood it was perfect.
Our furthest day trip was to the Atherton Tablelands. It's a beaut drive winding up through the mountains to Kuranda, across to Mareeba then on to Atherton and through patches of rainforest (on the highest road in Queensland) to Millaa Millaa (our turn around point).
Millaa Millaa has some interesting sculptures including this one of The Reluctant Cow. The expressions on the faces of the farmer, the cow and the dog in this piece are brilliant.
We had planned to take the loop road at Millaa Millaa which takes in three waterfalls however we learned at the Millaa Millaa Museum (again run by volunteers) that the bridge was down so we could visit just the one waterfall.
Millaa Millaa is a tiny, picturesque and well-kept town, but easily missed as it is off the main road. It has the most amazing cafe. Set up in an old shop, the place is beautifully laid out and the coffee and freshly made food delicious. It was a morning tea must.
Millaa Millaa Falls
Thank goodness it and the museum were interesting because the waterfall wasn't. The falls themselves are lovely but the surrounds are largely old concrete paths, new and old toilet blocks facing off across the pool below the waterfall - and one nice walk that takes you along the stream and away from the man-made ugly bits.
Comparing what we saw with a postcard from the museum, I suspect that the landscaping around the pool may have been washed away during the last Wet or maybe the one before that (Yasi?) so maybe it's just a matter of time before the local council pays the area some attention.
Nerada tea rooms with Mt Bartle Frere in the background.
We took an alternate route back towards Atherton to take in the Nerada tea growing plantation. I had no idea that Nerada tea was grown in Australia and even less idea that the Atherton Tablelands can get severe frosts, evidenced by a frost-burnt strip of tea bushes. The view from the tea rooms across the tablelands to Mt Bartle Frere, Queensland's highest peak, was worth the visit. But the lunch menu wasn't up to our expectations so we had a cuppa and left for Malanda. A walk around the town didn't yield much promise until Heather asked a young smartly-dressed woman where she would eat in town. We were directed back up the road to the Dairy Heritage Centre restaurant, part of the Dairy Farmers' milk factory.
What a surprise - a pleasant one. The history of dairying on the Atherton Tablelands is laid out around the restaurant - and the food was fabulous.
Again we ordered entree sized meals. Heather's dish had a dozen prawns. My calamari with mango dressing was mouth-wateringly delicious as well as generous. This would all have been OK had we not ordered a mango smoothie each (where one between us would have sufficed).
We wobbled out of there and set off for the Rocky Creek War Memorial Park to the south. We had passed this on the way up and were curious about the rows of stone blocks across a couple of acres of land while adjacent was a huge paddock for free camping which was being well utilised. The site, complete with around 100 granite obelisks and plaques bearing the names of serving units, is the former WW2 Army Hospital, evidently the largest Army hospital in the southern hemisphere.
Rocky Creek War Memorial Park between Malanda and Atherton.
After a full day out, you'd reckon we'd be putting our feet up on the boat and settling down to a gin and tonic but Cairns Arts Festival was still on and we had booked to go to Grace Knight's concert so it was a quick shower and change back at the marina and we were off to the Tanks Arts Centre at the Botanic Gardens. Dinner did not feature on the evening's agenda!
It was a fabulous concert with an hilarious artist who has the voice of a (raunchy) angel.
The wire sculptures are full of aluminium cans. In Cairns. Get it?
Determined not to miss anything, we spent Heather's last but one day taking in art installations along the Cairns Esplanade before heading off to another festival event, the Last Saturday Book Club where as luck would have it, the first of the three books under discussion was the one we were both reading: Anna Funder's `All That I Am'.
The next day, the airport swapover was reversed with hellos, goodbyes and hugs all round, and our week with Mog and Kal on board began (see last two blog posts).

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Upolu Reef

Snorkelling at Upolu Reef
At last, we made it onto the Great Barrier Reef proper.
We've had several attempts, getting within a couple of nautical miles, but on each occasion the weather has roughed up so much it would have been unwise for us, as first-timers, to be picking our way through the various and numerous coral heads.
As it was, we had perfect conditions (wind and tide-wise) and four pairs of eyes watching for bommies prior to wending our way through the reef entry between Green Island and Arlington Reef, and connecting Sea Piper to the only public mooring line at Upolu Reef. 
It had been a beautiful sail across from Fitzroy to Green Island early yesterday morning. With the mackerel lines out and a light breeze we had the Code Zero out but were forced to start one motor to keep us moving forward. Half way across from Fitzroy Island we had a hit on the mackerel line and Royden and Mog pulled in a beauty.
Royden had just finished up cleaning the fish when a huge humpback whale came out of the water less than 100 metres from the boat. He was heading south at a great pace and came out twice more before disappearing back under the sea.
We had thought all the whales had left this area already but obviously not. What a treat!
Upolu, and the surrounding reef area, was stunning, especially if you put polarised sunglasses on. It was picture postcard stuff. Brilliant blue water, white, white sand and scattered reef areas with little skiffs of white wave-foam occasionally breaking over them.
Thumbs up for Upolu Reef.
It was hard work swimming from the boat out onto the reef as the current was quite strong but it was something that had to be done! My little camera has not done the colours justice but hopefully Mog's camera with the polariser will yield some better shots.
We headed back towards the marina in the early afternoon, with the main sail and Code Zero out. Initially the breeze was light but we were happy to sail along at 3 to 4 knots or so as the forecast indicated the winds would strengthen.
The wind obliged and we gradually picked up speed, racing along at between 6 and 7 knots with a peak of 7.8. There was a fair bit of cheering and laughter as we reached each new `record' speed.
We arrived back at the marina around 5.15pm - enough time to shower, go out for dinner and then see Mog and Kal off on the bus into Cairns, for their early morning flight back to Melbourne this morning. Sob.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Ready, set, jump ...

Preparing to plunge ...
Ahh, this is the life.
Sea Piper is back at Fitzroy Island as I'm writing this. With Mog and Kal on board for only a few days, it was the obvious destination, offering walks, snorkelling and the opportunity to buy an icecream.
Setting off through the Moon River leads at Yorkey's Knob.
We had a mixed sail across from the Moon River yesterday. It was a beautiful morning to start with (hmm, so often we have started this way).
With the main and the Code Zero fully out we were heading south and making six knots, gliding along with the pleasing sound of the swish of water past the hulls - accompanied of course by the wind generator's whirring.
Immediately opposite Trinity Inlet the wind currents changed making it difficult to maintain a heading and gain ground so we opted for a motor sail which was OK but less quiet.
Approaching Cape Grafton we watched a rain squall obliterate the view of Fitzroy Island. It, and a 22 knot head wind, reached us about 20 minutes later but passed quickly enough.
Once it was gone the sun reappeared, the sea quietened and all was well with the world. It became a gorgeous day and we were able to anchor just off the reef at the island enabling us to snorkel straight off the boat. And of course we went ashore and bought an icecream for afternoon tea.
Snorkelling, swimming, walking and lolling around the yacht sum up today's activities which will no doubt be followed this evening by several games of Yaniv (card game) and at least one of Logo or maybe Siedler (board games).
Tomorrow we head back to the mainland for these guys to fly out early Sunday morning.
The forecast looks promising for a great sail back. Fingers crossed.

One of the well-fed inhabitants of Fitzroy Island.
One who wishes he might be a well-fed inhabitant of Fitzroy Island.