The highs and lows of Reef health

When we take family or friends to the Reef, we want to share the sense of wonder we feel and show them how beautiful and precious a healthy reef is. But the reality is that some reefs exhibit signs of disease and degradation and we want to show this too, even if it breaks our heart.

We have come to the Capricorn & Bunker Reefs twice a year for the past four years and we see changes for the worst at each visit. Some of these are subtle: a little less dense coral cover, less variety of species, less colour. Others are more severe: bleached coral, dead coral smothered by algae, uprooted coral, decreased density and variety of fish population, Crown of Thorns Starfish damage.

Fitzroy Reef

Fitzroy Reef was an example of the two ends of the health spectrum. A bleaching event in the strong summer heat, severe storms that uprooted corals, pushing them over like fallen trees, left some of the central bommies in the lagoon lifeless, devoid of colour and with scarce fish life… And yet we also saw stunning, vibrant, varied species of corals and fish along the flats near the reef walls. It is hard to understand how in the one lagoon there can be so much difference. Here is a mix of images from different parts of the lagoon in a slideshow. Click right to see each image in turn.

  • Threadfin Butterflyfish
  • Sailfin Tangs
  • Crown of Thorn Starfish

Heron & Wistari Reefs

Both Reefs are next to each other, separated by a fast flowing channel. Both are platform reefs with an enclosed shallow lagoon. And here again there were major differences in reef health. In the past we have had wonderful snorkels there, which we hoped Murray and Maree would experience: an explore near the Heron lagoon northern edge at low tide, a snorkel at the wreck right in front of Heron island, and a wander over the stunning coral gardens of Wistari Reef. We tried them all with very mixed results.

The Heron Reef was not wonderful but okay. The novel aspects for our family were going up gutters full of fish, trying out split underwater shots in the shallows, snorkeling at the wreck of HMS Protector and getting close to very tame stripey snappers and sweet lips.

The shocking experience for us was discovering that the coral gardens of Wistari Reef have been destroyed by a bleaching event. We used to call Wistari the veggie garden: soft corals in the shape of broccoli, cauliflower, fennel, pink and yellow bunches of flowers… Practically all the soft coral is gone, leaving just sand and rubble. Here is a before and after view:

The redeeming feature of mooring at Wistari was a gentle afternoon, allowing us to fly the drone for a few aerial shots, and later a beautiful sunset of oranges at first then soft pastels.

North West Island

Having spent a couple of nights at Heron and Wistari, both tied to public moorings, with the wind picking up to over 30 knots and a heavy heart from our discoveries, it was time to move on. We departed Wistari headed for North West Island: a sled ride with only a third of the jib unfurled.

We were lucky one of the two public moorings at North West Island was available. On the program for the day: dinghy across the reef into the lagoon at mid tide for a walk around the cay, snorkel up the beautiful gutters at low tide, then a rest!

Once again things were a little mixed. We did manage to get across the lagoon to the island by dinghy. We walked right around the island, saw a few birds and turtle tracks although in fewer number than ever before.

But we can’t report on the state of the reef as the snorkel did not happen. When low tide came no one was keen to go. A warning on the mooring buoy not to swim because of the presence of sharks gave us the willies.

A member of the Marine Park team was taken here last year by a Tiger shark as he was swimming at the back of the patrol boat after a day’s work on the island. Another person was cleaning fish in the lagoon and got bitten by another type of shark. We guess the Park Authority are protecting their backside with notices such as these. But the warning had its effect: we did not dive.

The reality is that sharks are everywhere in the ocean; you are in their territory when you go for a dive; you need to be alert and not do silly things. If you are scared you won’t enjoy the dive and we want to have fun, not be fearful. But there is a fine line between being cautious and being paranoid though. If you want to snorkel or dive you have to take calculated risks. The perceived danger is different for different people. It is different between Wade and Chris, different for our guests. What goes into the assessment of risk? The weather conditions, the light, the visibility, the time of day, what’s happened recently, your knowledge of species behaviour, your personal attitude and confidence. It is also affected by what people habitually do at the site.

At North West Island lots of people come to camp and fish and many throw the guts and frames of their catch in the anchorage. And we wonder why it attracts predators!

One thing is certain: we make it worse for ourselves by being careless with what waste we discard in the water and where. The rule should be: don’t throw your scraps overboard in an anchorage or inside a lagoon. Dispose of them underway.

As our reef trip with family comes to an end, we feel terribly saddened by reef damage and yet we keep looking for positive signs, evidence not all is doom and gloom. It is stronger than us: we have to keep hoping, keep finding beauty and share this because without hope, it is just too depressing!

Off to Mackay!

From North West Island it was time to sail to the Keppel Isles. We were going to stay a little while at the Keppels, and in fact spent two beautiful days snorkeling at Barren Island, which we will share with you in a separate post.

But we are now on a three day passage to Mackay as we have problems with our port side dog clutch. We have had progressively worse difficulties engaging gears with that engine in the last few days and have had to make frequent adjustments. Finally it refused to engage at all. Wade has now adjusted the clutch so we can at least motor forward on the port engine, but we can’t put it into reverse. This makes manoeuvring tricky and of course we need that attended to before venturing anywhere remote! Since the boat may need to come out of the water for that fix, Mackay is the closest shipyard that will accommodate us!

Murray and Maree are still with us enjoying the experience of sailing longer passages in strong winds. They will leave us at Mackay.

Big waves… don’t poop us!

12 thoughts on “The highs and lows of Reef health

  1. Wow, I’m so sad about the reef damage, it looks like a war zone. I hope the reefs will grow back again someday. But so many great photos too, sorry about your starboard engine, weren’t they both repaired recently? Be safe, watch out for sharks!

    • Hi John – we normally focus on the beauty but we don’t want it to present an unrealistic view.

      The engines are fine it is the dog clutch that has carked it on the port engine. We can’t engage backwards and it’s touch and go on forward with that engine. It was changed only 18 months ago. We know it is a wearing part but expected a longer timeframe! Anyway, we’ll get that sorted for now and will see about a more durable solution at the end of the year.

      • The damage to the reef is very real. I bet it would cost too much to replace one or both engine.

      • As I said it is not the engine but the saildrive which is what we may well replace at the end of the year for both sides with something easier to service. But for now we’ll get the port side dog clutch sorted.

  2. I just hope that all reefs in the world, get clean and recover. Beautiful pictures, my friend. Enjoy yourselves! 🙂

  3. Wow, what contrasts in your stories, the beauty of the live corals and the sadness of the degradation …. still the vibrant pictures are always uplifting! Our sympathies with the never ending mechanical issues on boats, just when you think everything is perfect 😦

  4. I have never experienced the thill of seeing all of the undersea life that you present so beautifully, Chris, so it it is hard for me to fully appreciate the depth of your emotional reaction to all of the degradation that you have encountered. I guess the closest I have come to that feeling has been when I encountered an area where there has been a devastating forest fire that robbed the spot of its color and vitality. I really enjoyed your thoughtful discussion about the danger of sharks. Life is always a series of calculated risks, but life is meant to be lived. So you do what you can to lessen the risks and remain alert.

    • Thanks Mike for your thoughtful comment. Seeing the devastation at Reefs that were so beautiful a few years ago made me cry. Such a feeling of loss!

      And yes sharks frighten people but the ones we usually see are uninterested in us and just cruise past. As you say you need to stay alert and constantly look around you. There is a lot of irrational fear born from lack of understanding of their behaviour and lots of media hype.

  5. It is devastating what the reefs are like and still we get politicians denying or minimising the effect of climate control. Safe passage to Mackay, I hope the repairs go well, I can’t believe you have yet more repairs to do

    • Hi Sue – yes the polies are not making the right decisions nor working anywhere near fast enough. With all the evidence available, don’t know what can be done to get them to act!

      Dog clutch trouble is a pain. Buying a 20 year old boat certainly has its challenges. We are spending a scary amount of money and it is upsetting are plans for the Swains. Might have to defer that and go somewhere further north instead when we are operational again.

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