We have been taking it easy. After three weeks at the Reef we have spent a two weeks at the Keppel Isles. It is a mix of relishing these islands, having fun with a few cruising friends, needing to spare our necks after overdoing the diving thing at the Reef and simply enjoying life.
This time of year is special at the Keppels: you are surrounded with beautiful blue tiger butterflies during your walks ashore, red grevillea and grass trees are in flower everywhere on the islands, it is warm but not hot.
Bengie has been comfortable with her sojourn too. We take her for beach walks most days. She seems quite happy to get off the boat and have a bit of a wander.
We have visited the Keppels many times, but we still manage to discover new spots. It is the advantage of not rushing: you can wait for the right conditions to explore. Take Man and Wife Rocks for instance, two islets off the northeast side of Great Keppel, and Barren Island on the eastern side, both sites with a public mooring to protect large expanses of branching coral from anchor damage, both with their own appealing identity.
We snorkeled at mid tide at Man and Wife and found it had a special feel: the Man Rock goes straight down into the deep blue sea, edged with different soft corals and sea fans; you get a sense you are a long way offshore! We even saw a whale not far away. We had to keep an eye out for where we were at all times: there is a fair amount of current running between the two rocks and a drift dive is what you get, ready or not! We would easily go back there but at low tide, to enjoy the site at slack water.
We stayed the night at Barren Island, as it provided good shelter. We paddled along the lee side with the kayaks on one day and snorkeled the next at low tide. The island is rugged with ochre coloured boulders edging the shores, making landing difficult, but it is not as barren as its name suggests. It is covered with flowering grevillea and grass trees, there are two resident ospreys with a huge messy nest and a few reef egrets.
The particular appeal of Barren Island is that it is one of the best dive sites in the Keppels with large expanses of soft and hard corals in warm greens and rich russet tones. Being the eastern most island of the Keppel Group, and furthest away from the Fitzroy River mouth, it has the clearest, nutrient free water.
Back on Great Keppel Island another fun thing we did with our buddies Alex and Wendy from Gipsy was to kayak through the wetland. At high tide you can paddle up Leekes Creek, a salt water creek meandering through mangrove. It is tranquil with only the sound of bird songs, and the gentle paddle has a meditative quality. We explored every little arm and eventually got close to the Leeke homestead which overlooks tidal mangrove plains, but ran out of water!
Two things upset us during our stay: one an example of people’s carelessness, the other the result of climate changes.
In such a magic spot as Barren Island, it was infuriating to find half a dozen beer cans that had been tossed overboard by some halfwits and got trapped in the branching coral. Why can’t people stop littering and take their rubbish with them? It is not that hard to respect the environment!
Having seen beautiful healthy coral gardens at the more remote islets, it was a shock to read that in February 2020, the first coral bleaching event in 14 years had occurred in the Keppel Islands. Too much light and high water temperatures were a toxic mix. The corals mainly affected were the fast-growing branching corals that live in the shallow waters fringing the islands.
Our favourites Monkey Reef and Big Peninsula have been affected. We had to go there to see it for ourselves. It is so upsetting. Once vibrant, the corals show patchy bleaching all over and in areas algae is smothering what is left, something that had started last year. The fish are still numerous, but this is what the coral fields look like:
Information from the Australian Institute of Marine Science shows that mass bleaching was recorded in the Keppels in 1998, 2002, 2006 and now 2020 with minor bleaching in between. Coral bleaching occurs when warmer than usual water combines with high levels of sunlight causing the coral to expel the algae that live in its tissues. Without the algae, known as ‘zooxanthellae’, the coral loses its energy source and its colour.
Because of the excellent growth rates of branching species like Acropora, Keppel corals may recover within a year under the right conditions by cloning themselves, even growing back over the dead skeleton. We can only hope, but the damage we saw left us very sad.
We had several days of strong wind and had to wait for it to ease before we could go ashore to replenish our fresh food and pick up medical supplies for Chris. We finally moved on the last day of winter. A stop at North Keppel on a dead calm day, then a good sail to Pearl Bay and the Percy Isles saw us progressing further north. We are at Middle Percy for a few days with very patchy internet. So if we take a while to answer comments on the website that’s why, but we love hearing from you, so do send them.