Reef hopping: Fitzroy and other favourites

After our second week of reef hopping, we are in a groove! So get your virtual fins and mask on, and come with us for a sail and a dive. We are taking you to Fitzroy and Heron Reefs along the Capricorn and Bunker Group, then to Barren Island in the Keppel Isles.

This is a long post with many photos to share, so make yourself comfortable and enjoy the adventure!

Fitzroy Reef

Fitzroy is another lagoonal reef, but without a cay. The lack of land reference gives you a sense of being more remote. You are anchored or moored seemingly in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by stunning aqua expanses. It is also far less crowded than Lady Musgrave, in fact we had it to ourselves for a few days: bliss!

But then the weekend came and so did some 40 boats, most of them small runabouts from the coast out for their fishing frenzy. For two nights the lagoon turned into a little city, but the peace and quiet returned during the day.

With a mix of variable and light northerlies, we stayed in the lagoon for nearly a week. We enjoyed our daily snorkels, exploring various areas of the lagoon. It never ceases to amaze us how different reefs, even different areas within a reef harbour different species of fish and corals. We also found sites varied from healthy, with masses of fish and a good variety of corals, to very poor and sad looking. Some areas had good visibility; others were a little murky. Sometimes only a few hundred meters separated good from disappointing.

The worst conditions were found around the central bommies in this aerial shot:

Fitzroy Reef central bommies

Down below, this is what it looked like:

We took it all in our stride and made the most of every dive. You go looking for new ‘beasties’, learn which ones will let you get close. You relax and start observing fish behaviour. You sometimes catch yourself giggling under water, as some of them are so amusing. You look for beautiful patterns in the corals and the sandy bottom, you are wowed by large schools of fish, you find unexpected sights like the ctenophores (comb jellies) and huge patches of seaweed floating just under the surface, and you simply lap up every moment.

Ann made a new discovery: a yellow smudgy spotty fish never to be seen again and not found in any reference book, not even on Dr Google. Greg pursued schools of Dusky Butterflyfish and Goldline Rabbitfish with his camera on a stick. Wade checked every cave and recess in search of good size coral trout and sweetlips, spearing us a series of tasty dinners, and Chris was on a mission to shoot a selection of arty farty photos of little critters. Here is a varied selection of what we saw:

  • Orangefin Anemonefish and friends
  • Goniopora
  • Giant Clam Maxima
  • Yellow Porite & Acropora
  • School of Blackaxil Pullers
  • Orangefin Anemonefish
  • Seaweed floating
  • Ctenophones
  • Blackaxil Pullers
  • Dusky Butterflyfish
  • Christmas Tre Worms
  • School of Goldline Rabbitfish
  • Goniopora or Anemone Coral
  • Banded Humbugs
  • Bluespotted ray

Heron Reef

Reef anchorages when not inside a lagoon typically offer some protection from the predominant southeast, but northerly flanks are exposed.  So we waited for the southeast to return before venturing out to Heron Reef, our next hop.

Cruisy sail to Heron Reef

We picked up a mooring at Wistari Reef, just across the channel from Heron, intent on an interesting snorkel at the wreck of HMAS Protector at mid tide. The shipwreck was once a gunboat, but now serves as a breakwater and a haven for marine life.

HMS Protector
The wreck of HMAS Protector

The Heron Reef is in a green conservation zone. It is a magic spot to see schools of fish slowly gliding past us snorkelers, unafraid. There are masses of stripey snappers, goldline rabbitfish, emperors, sweetlips, and many others of all sizes, even a sleepy shark under a ledge and turtles hanging around at cleaning stations. You can get very, very close to them all. And up above on the dilapidated wreck roost many seabirds: boobies, reef egrets, noddies, terns, even the odd seagulls which do not belong there!

The underwater images this time are courtesy of Greg, as the battery on Chris’s camera was flat!

  • Emperor
  • Sleepy shark under ledge
  • Green Sea Turtle at cleaning station
  • School of Stripey Snappers
  • School of Goldline Rabbitfish

We moved on the next day, sailing back to the coast since the weather was strengthening. It was a dawn start and Bengie was quite put off by the early rise!

What? Off already!

Barren Island

We stopped along the way at another unusual spot, Barren Island, the most easterly of the Keppel Isles. You cannot anchor there as there are fields of Acropora coral right up to the rugged shores, but there are two public moorings. We grabbed the larger one and went for a couple of snorkels.

Anui moored really close to the rocks!

Barren Island is a deep snorkeling site (5 to 8m), but that is also its protection from major bleaching. There was some damage, but overall the condition of the coral was good. You see mainly plate corals: fields of colourful Acropora and Montipora as well as encrusting and branching corals in rich shades of ochre, green, burgundy, in fact the same colours under the surface as you see on the rugged island! Every inch of the ocean floor is covered with hard and soft coral. The visibility was not great with lots of particles in the water and an overcast day, but we still could enjoy its uniqueness. It was also a great opportunity for Chris to test her new camera flashes. Here she is with her rig looking a bit like a spider!

Even on a grey day, not much flash is needed down at 5 meters to light up the scene. But it takes a bit of effort to dive down with the bulky rig. So it will be used to take images in deep water or poor light, but on bright days in shallow waters there is no need for it.

  • Barren Island
  • Christmas Tree Worms
  • Giant Clam

We stayed at Barren Island overnight, had a leisurely morning then sailed onto Great Keppel Island. We did not stay at the Keppels for long, preferring the reef to the crowds but it was an opportunity to replenish the fresh food supplies at Emu Park on the mainland, before we took off again! We are going back out to the Southern Reef today while the calm weather returns before heading further north.

22 thoughts on “Reef hopping: Fitzroy and other favourites

  1. Amazing, beautiful photos as always, guys! I can see the difference between the good and bad coral easily, that’s really sad. I hope it can re-grow in the future. Be safe! 🇦🇺

  2. Sounds like you are enjoying company. It’s always fun showing our friends “what we do out there”. Good to hear you found some interesting locations within the Fitzroy lagoon. I noticed the lagoon bommies looking quite sad too on our last visit. But as you say, there’s still plenty to see and respect, at the wonders we find down below.

    • Hi Amanda – no worse than last year at Fitzroy, but more damage at Barren Is. Going back for another stint towards Mast Head… we’ll see how that is! Good for our friends at least and the weather is holding.

  3. Chris – an admittedly ridiculous landlubber question . . . do you ever awake in the middle of the night so totally ‘alone’ from the rest of the world and feel that ‘aloneness’ ? Your photos are SO beautiful and so informative . . . shall repost . . . . enjoy !!!

    • Hello Eha – We like your questions. They make us think. We never wake up feeling alone. We feel the remoteness and enjoy it, that sense of getting somewhere special, far from land, that few people get to see. Thanks for sharing this post with your friends.

  4. You are having a great time reef hopping and seeing beautiful things. it is lovely that Greg & Ann are having a lovely time with you, it is such fun exploring the wet world.

    • Hi Sue, all these places that you know well! Yes we all think life is more fun when we are wet! We have been lucky with the weather too which helps a lot!

  5. How are you going with the free diving?

    As to the previous Q on feeling alone; I always feel that the activity of a boat in a constantly variable environment is in itself good company, it’s so demanding. You are always busy, even when lying down.

    When the wind drops to zero and the sea flattens to a millpond, that’s when the mood can darken.

    • Hi Roger, with the freediving we are just more comfortable going a bit deeper and waiting for the fish, whether spearing or photographing, but don’t really freedive a long way down.
      Re the aloneness- it was an interesting question. We guess every body feels different about life afloat depending on your temperament and the conditions.

  6. I can’t help but notice how high you are flying the drone–the Anui looks tiny in some of the shots–which suggests that your confidence with it has grown, Chris. I loved seeing Bengie’s glaring pose and am in awe of your colorful “artsy” underwater shots.

    • Hi Mike, with the aerials I really like to get a view of the whole reef if I can, together with Anui’s place in it. This means sending the drone a long way up and a long way back from us. The controller screen I use is crystal clear even in full sunlight and displays a map of where the drone started and the track it has flown, together with height and distance information so I always know where it is, as well as the strength of the wind and the battery life left…. I plan to the flight and nervously keep an eye on all that info to keep things safe.
      The artsy shots… luck plays a big part, but also understanding the behaviour of the fish.
      Thanks again for commenting so thoughtfully.

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