Southward Bound – Cairns to the Whitsundays

We have turned back! We have taken advantage of a longer bout of light northeasterlies and gone south.

We left Cairns on 8 October doing about 30 to 50 nm hops daily along the reefs and reached the Whitsunday Islands 10 days later. Rather than give you a blow by blow of our trek, we will focus on the highlights. You can read the full cruise story when we have compiled it at the end of the year. This is a longer post, so make yourself comfortable, grab your beverage of choice and enjoy the virtual reef hop.

This has been our itinerary (follow the orange line) spread over two sat maps as we have covered a lot of distance – about 340 nm!

Anui has been doing a great impersonation of a motorboat as the breeze was just too light in the morning to sail. In fact the only sailing we did was the leg from Fitzroy Island to Milln Reef and the one from Fairy Reef to the Stonehaven Anchorage on Hook Island! The new engines have been getting a serious workout! And by the way we can now say we made the right decision with the purchase of two 54hp Yanmars. We have a powerful boat, whether sailing or motoring! We typically motor on one engine at 7 knots, only turning both on to come in and out of anchorages to save on fuel.

Glassout conditions – motoring!

We fell into a routine. We would head out by 6am each day, travelling 4 to 7 hours in the morning, to arrive at our next anchorage by lunch time with the best possible light. We’d fly the drone to check out our surroundings before the wind picked up too much which generally happened well after we had anchored. We’d then go for a snorkel and spearfish wherever allowed. Later in the afternoon Chris would develop the photos, Wade would deal with the fish catch, we would plot the next hop.

Since most of the reefs have protection from the southeast trade winds, they provide some shelter when going north. However it can be a challenge to find reef anchorages protected from the NW to NE! So we have had to scout among the satellite images to discover possies on the way south with a backup if when we got there we didn’t like what we saw, as happened at Big Broadhurst. Five out of the eight reefs we stayed at were new to us. All but one we had to ourselves!

We were also lucky with the tides, typically leaving each anchorage at high water which gave us a safety margin as we followed our track out, and arriving at close to low or just past it which made it easier to negotiate the bommies and enjoy the afternoon at each new site.

Milln Reef

Beautiful Milln Reef

Okay, we did not exactly go south on this one, but could not resist the straight sail out of Fitzroy Island. As it turns out, this was the one and only sail we had while reef hopping! We had been to Milln a few times before, so knew what to expect. We picked up the public mooring but would have been happy to anchor.

Close up the anchorage with snorkeling spot on the right

The reef is recovering well from storm damage and heat stress with thriving marine life. Milln is in a green zone and on the outer line of the GBR. It helps a lot! We had a beautiful snorkel up the gutters and around lovely bommies to the right of the boat in the photo. We had fun with a Bumphead Parrotfish who let us come very close and a little Remora which as usual was keen on investigating us. Have you ever heard people laugh underwater?

  • Oblique banded Sweetlips
  • Fire Coral
  • Humpnose Unicornfish
  • Gutter at Milln Reef
  • Bumphead Parrotfish
  • School of Ringtail Surgeonfish
  • Bumphead Parrotfish
  • Bicolor Parrotfish
  • Steephead Parrotfish at cleaning station!
  • Remora
  • Headband Humbug
  • Humphead Parrotfish

Fore and Aft Reef (SE Flank)

The Nook at Fore and Aft

This spectacular anchorage was new to us. It is not for the faint hearted as you have to come into a nook in the reef, drop the pick in sand in deeper water than ideal surrounded by reef and bommies. There is only room for one boat. Normally, you anchor along the wide open beach-like sandy edge on the NW side of Fore and Aft. It was tight but oh so special! It also meant we were on the best flank for snorkeling.

Snorkeling area close up, straight off the boat!

We went straight off the boat and roamed around the big bommies nearby. The best pinnacle was the one with the deep gutters through it in the image above. Here is our reward for being brave:

  • Healthy plate and Branching Acropora
  • Crinoid
  • Layer upon layer of table corals

Faith Reef

Dreamy Faith Reef

This reef was on our must see list so we were delighted to have the conditions to stop there. Arriving at Faith at low tide is a sight to behold. It is a very pretty anchorage with the quintessential mix of aqua, sapphire and deep ultramarine of the water contrasting with the amber and ochre of the reef platform and pinnacles. Our blue anchoring hole was just big enough for one boat. It was stunning. We felt cocooned by the reef, surrounded by beauty. We went for a long snorkel straight off the boat again which is always magic.

Snorkel off the boat inside the lagoon then on the outside

Sadly the coral inside the inlet has been absolutely smashed by storms and is drab. There is also evidence of some recent crown of thorn starfish damage with bleached coral and a few culprits still around. Yet there is plenty to see and an abundance of fish life. We snorkeled both inside the inlet and on the outside flank of the reef which was in much better nick as is often the case. Schools of fusiliers, spotted sweetlip, a few maori wrasses, trout, angelfish as well as the smaller damsels and clownfish were plentiful. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay and spent a very comfortable night there.

  • Spine-cheek Clownfish
  • Crinoid
  • Lemon Damsel in the purple coral
  • Spotted Sweetlips
  • Crown of Thorns Starfish
  • Orange Cup Coral

Fairey Reef

The lagoon at Fairey Reef

Another new one we had on our radar for a while, Fairey Reef is a large lagoonal reef with a tight entrance subject to strong currents. We went right inside, targeting a shallow sandy area to anchor in. The feeling you get is one of vastness. The reef flats are broad and a dark umber colour, the lagoon is big with a number of obvious coral pinnacles to negotiate. This was a very comfortable anchorage, even when the wind picked up.

This is unfortunately another reef which has been smashed by storms, but being in a green zone, the fish life is abundant: big maori wrasses, sweetlips, trout, iridescent angelfish, and many other species which are less nervous around divers. We stayed inside the lagoon for our snorkel. There was a fair amount of current even inside.

  • Maori Wrasse
  • Pullers among the Acropora
  • Sixband Angelfish
  • Spotted sweetlip
  • Blue Angelfish
  • Blue Angelfish

We have been incredibly lucky to cover this stretch from Cairns to the Whitsundays entirely along the reef rather than via the coast and to explore five new spots. Of course not all were as beautiful as the ones we have covered in this post, but that is the way it goes. You never know until you try. Apart from enjoying superb locations, we have also gained more experience at negotiating our way around reefs, identifying safe anchorages from satellite maps and have fed our addiction!

We are in the Whitsundays until the end of the month and will go back out to the reef if the weather allows. We are going through a period of severe storms, with thunder, spectacular lightning and huge hail stones! Not a good time to be close to hills, nor out at the reef! We are waiting for the conditions to ease.

We have just re-provisioned, refueled and organised a date for the mechanics at Mackay to get our new engine controls fitted. This was left unfinished after our repowering of Anui since after two and a half months at the shipyard, we had decided to deal with this on the return south. We are scheduled for the works on 1 November.

20 thoughts on “Southward Bound – Cairns to the Whitsundays

  1. I loved the photos and I see that you’re putting the drone to good use. Take care Chris. 🙂

  2. Wow! It’s almost unbelievably beautiful at these reefs! The variety of colors of the fish and other life down there is like being on another planet far away. I’m glad that the Yanmar power plants have run so well for you guys, a very wise decision! I wouldn’t feel too confident about navigating around the reefs and bommies as you guys are, scary stuff! Thanks so much for sharing more of these beautiful reefs, truly a natural wonder! ❤️😎🇦🇺

  3. Dear Chris and Wade, have loved my virtual trip north on Anui this year and it just reinforces the desire to push harder with my rehab to ensure Aqualibrium will be part of next year’s fleet. Pleased to hear you are happy with the new engines.
    Thanks and best wishes and safe sailing. Gerry and robyn

    • So nice to get your comment and follow, Gerry! It has been such a tough road for you and for Robyn. We too hope you can return to Aqualibrium next year. We are glad our tribulations are bringing you some motivation to work hard at your rehab. We have been thinking of you. We have just spent a few days at Little Black Reef and reminisced about the time we spent together here last year with AQ and Bossa. It is a bit lonely on our lonesome this time with very patchy internet. We are thinking of sailing all the way to Victoria, Covid allowing, so if it happens we will be sure to stop at the Lakes and catch up in person. Talk to you soon when we get back to the coast.

  4. Lovely work! and inspiring us to push further north and spend more time at the reefs next year. Thanks, B&K Nautilus

  5. That looks like magic sailing and reef hopping ….. I was disappointed though Chris, I couldn’t find any use of the collective noun for cat’s used, I thought it had become a bit of a trade-mark! Will search for it in the next edition ….
    In the meantime, we’ve been stately home and garden hopping in Northumbria, still lots of flowers and gorgeous autumnal colours (not quite as exciting as the reef, but still good!).

    • No more Glaring of Cats for a while, Elgar! We started on our trek south earlier than our companions! Just spent a few days at a Reef we went to last year… on our own, no other yacht here. We think they have all gone south already! Searching for gardens too here… coral gardens… but this area has been greatly devastated by bleaching. Shocking change at Little Black and Block Reefs unfortunately. More on that in the next post. So do enjoy your garden hopping!

  6. When I look at your drone shots, Chris, it boggles my mind that you and Wade are able to navigate the Anui into such tight spaces. I don’t know much about sailing, but it certainly looks to me like there is not much of a margin of error in the reefs that you showed in this post. I really like the assortment of colorful fish that you were able to photograph, a number of which brought a smile to their face as a result of their outlandish appearance and/or names (like the hump nose unicornfish and the spotted sweetlip). It is great to hear the new engines are working well and presumably your stay at the shipyard at Mackay will be a whole lot shorter this time than the last time. 🙂

    • Hi Mike, the approach into a reef anchorage is very slow. We creep in. Wade is at the wheel, and once we enter the « nook » we are just gliding. We have the satellite map overplayed on our navigation software. We have marked a spot on the charts in advance and measured the radius so we know we have enough swing room. I am at the top of the cabin roof for a visual of what is around so I can see bommies and the reef edges clearly and direct Wade further. We both wear headphones to communicate. Between us we bring the boat exactly where we want it, drop the anchor and length of chain we need for the depth of the water – typically 50m in 10m of water. The deeper it is the bigger the radius needed, but we don’t go beyond 15m in depth. Fore and Aft in particular was tight but we had hardly any wind so we were ok. Sometimes the approach is clear of bommies, most times there are a few coral outcrops to negotiate. You get to gauge their depth with practice and can tell by their colour whether they are deep and can be motored over or shallow, and need to be avoided. That’s the job of the spotter on the roof!

      The reward is the view and the snorkeling. The names of the fish can be quite descriptive, a bit like those of birds!

  7. I enjoyed the post as I could see what you and Wade have been up to. Loved the fish, so many different ones to admire. Was good to chat today, travel safely to Mackay and enjoy the next time of exploration.

    • Hi Sue, it is good to be able to show above and below the surface as well as the whole itinerary. We have had great conditions for exploration.

  8. Thank you for sharing your well documented journey. We live on our 43 ft cat “Alacrity” off Airlie beach. Gary works week on week off. We have been exploring the reef and the Whitsundays for over 3 years. As an avid diver
    I can only agree with you on the state of the reef. The farthest away from shore, the healthier the coral cover appears to be.
    Unfortunately, commercial fishing boats now seem to have elected some outer reefs for their activities, emptying the area of coral trouts and other middle size reef fish that are typically shark food. So.less shark sightings Are they then moving closer to shore ?

    • Hi Dominique – we have noticed the commercial fishing boats… we need more restrictions to curb over fishing! We saw boats loads being unloaded at Mackay too under the ‘watchful eye’ of Fisheries staff… not good!

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