Last stretch to Cairns

For the last stretch of our Far North Queensland Reef Adventure, we headed close to shore to Low Isles, then Double Island. But we could not resist a last reef visit to Michaelmas Cay before sailing back to Cairns to drop Murray and Maree off for their return home.

Low Isles

Situated only 8nm from Port Douglas, Low Isles is a pleasant, protected anchorage between two islands: Low Isle itself, a coral cay with a lighthouse and a house for the caretaker who lives there, and Woody Island, an uninhabited mangrove Island with a large bird population.

Moored between Woody Island & Low Isle
Low Isles Lighthouse with its resident Ospreys

The waters are very silty and clarity extremely poor, which is a shame because the common reef shared by the two isles has some interesting hard coral and increasingly a lot of soft coral taking over, being hardier species for the turbid conditions.

Large amount of sediment on the sea floor
Sarcophyton soft corals dominant in some places

The lack of visibility in the water does not stop the charter vessels from bringing their loads of tourists for a “reef experience”. It is a busy place between 10am and 3.00pm!

We timed our visit ashore for a quick walk around Low Isle before the tourists turned up. The resident ospreys are still maintaining their nest at the top of the lighthouse, lots of Pied Imperial Pigeons roost on the island and we spotted a few Ruddy Turnstones, Terns and Reef Egrets wading in the shallows.

On dusk and during the night we were visited by Sooty Terns who enjoyed precariously balancing on the lines at the bow for a raucous party.

Sooty Terns on the lines

This got Bengie excited enough to get on deck, but the terns were too numerous for her liking and our scaredy cat had to beat a retreat! As you can see, she is a little brighter and improving slowly.

Bengie on deck at dusk

We did a bit of boat maintenance while in calm waters. We finished cleaning up Anui’s waterline. The batfish hanging around us as we were scrubbing off the green hairiness and brown algal growth spooked us a couple of times! We also did some running repairs. Chris took Wade, our jack of all trades, up the mast to replace two broken pulleys on the lazy jacks (the lines holding the mainsail bag), and we discovered a loose bolt holding the seat at the starboard bow and letting water into the front locker, another job with awkward access! Bread making was on too, with another large loaf made for our lunches, and French crepes were a must for Wade’s bithday!

Initially, none of us except Murray were interested in a snorkel in murky water, but he came back with some decent underwater photos from his paddles. So despite the lack of visibility and heavy sediment covering everything, we succumbed to temptation on the third day and jumped in for a snorkel too. It was worth it. The coral was better than we had seen at this spot in previous years, with some interesting hard coral species, although you had to be cautious not to stir the sediment with your fins. The visibility was down to a meter or two in places. The photos in the slide show are evidence of the resilience of the reef but also of what we can show by being very selective with where we point the camera and how we develop the pictures. So don’t assume all is good at the inner reefs because you see a few nice images!

  • Mushroom corals
  • Pachyseris
  • Turbinaria
  • Lobophyllia
  • Christmas Tree Worms
  • Lobophyllia
  • Starry Puffer
  • Lobophyllia
  • Christmas Tree Worms
  • Goldline Rabbitfish

Beautiful Michaelmas Reef and Cay

Early morning flight, well away from the cay

Our last stop at the Reef for this trip was at Michaelmas Cay. Although quite popular, it was a lovely spot to show our family the many roosting seabirds on the Cay and a last opportunity for good snorkels before we got back to Cairns. It was still quite windy, but Michaelmas is well protected so a good location to spend several days.

Michaelmas Cay
Michaelmas Cay, a major seabird habitat

Our time at Michaelmas was a highlight for us all. First we visited the cay with its hundreds of boobies, noddies and thousands of sooty terns. All were at different stages of rearing their young. Some were sitting on a single egg, other were protecting their tiny newly hatched chick, or tending to their downy offspring, yet others were collecting sticks for their nest. There was a lot of jostling for space particularly among the noddies. It was an absolute delight to observe.

  • Brown Boobies Couple
  • Noddy couple and baby
  • Hungry noddy chick
  • Noddies and chick
  • Noddy family
  • Noddy Chick
  • Brown Boobie and downy chick
  • Brown boobie and chick

Next came the snorkeling among coral gardens. Soft corals dominate at Michaelmas, but there are also healthy hard corals and beautiful giant clams. We liked it, opted to stay for three days and dive multiple times in different areas. The visibility in the choppy sea was not ideal but we still had fun.

We discovered something we had not seen before: this stunning pink critter. No idea what it was. It swayed back and forth in the current, like a frilly crepe ribbon. We sent one image to Eye On the Reef for identification and got a quick response. It is the egg mass of a nudibranch! The nudibranch lay their rosette-like ribbon of eggs in a spiral embedded in mucus on hard surfaces like a rock. Upon doing further research, we found it is possibly the egg cluster of a Spanish Dancer nudibranch. Isn’t nature amazing? Two days later we saw another one!

We love the research side of our explorations. Another recent identification which we were able to handle ourselves was that of the Eupolymnia crassicornis, commonly known as Spaghetti Worms. We have often seen these stringy critters but were not sure what they were so went about finding out! These worms have a segmented body, closely resembling an earth worm and create a tube like structure. They hide in sand, with just their long feeding tentacles poking out to feed on detritus. The white tentacles can be over a meter long.

Spaghetti Worm

We enjoyed beautiful textures in the various species of soft coral and used the macro lens quite a bit!

And of course there were interesting fish, big and small!

  • Sixbar Wrasses
  • Steephead Parrotfish
  • Juvenile Black Damsel
  • Sixband Angelfish
  • Roundface Batfish
  • Roundface Batfish
  • Juvenile Black Damsel
  • Staghorn Damsel
  • Banded Goatfish and Surgeonfish
  • Pink Anemonefish with Three Spot Damselfish
  • Pink Anemonefish with Three Spot Damselfish
  • Snubnose Darts
  • Goldline Rabbitfish
  • Harlequin Tuskfish

There were lots of Giant Clams, the Tridacna giga, over a meter long. Their mantle varied in colour from green spotted, to blue, or brown. The inside of the syphon was sometimes bright orange.

And of course Green Sea Turtles were out and about, although the water clarity did not allow a good shot.

Green Sea Turtle

What a nice way to end our Far North Queensland Reef Adventure with Murray and Maree. We reflected on the fact that of all the reefs we visited, the ones offshore of Cairns were the best: Milln, Flynn, Michaelmas really stand out and a little further north Mackay Reef.

Last snorkel for the trip!

Back in Cairns

And now we are back in Cairns. Murray & Maree were on board for a month and have just flown back to Melbourne. We would have liked to show them a Great Barrier Reef in better nick, to be able to do more, but we made the most of this trip and managed around the elements we had no control over. They experienced a different life to what they are used to, with its ups and down, mainly driven by what the weather permits.

We are getting organised for an imminent departure south – maybe over the weekend. We are collecting a few things we had waiting for us, getting Bengie checked up, doing the usual clean up after guests, re-provisioning and refueling the boat. We are working as fast as we can as there is a weather window of light ESE starting today for about a week. We are intending to zig zag our way between the islands close to the coast and the reef. We are also getting back to our normal weekly blog. So see you next Friday!

21 thoughts on “Last stretch to Cairns

  1. The photos are incredible, good visibility or not. It is a completely different world down there! Another great post, guys, thank you! ❤️😎🇦🇺

  2. Great photos (as usual). Macro certainly becomes king when the vis drops. But one of the most amazing aspects of coral reefs that they look amazing up close and completely different but equally awe inspiring from high up.

    • Thanks Bill. It is always fascinating to look for the small details and to take our time. Deciding to stay for a few days meant we could really choose our focus on each snorkel, or at least I did.

  3. Thank you, Chris for the great photos of birds variety. I loved it! Have a nice time, dear! 🙂

  4. Superb pics …. what a variety of plant and wildlife! You captured just about every variety of reef life in the one place! Interesting to see the ospreys nesting in the tropics, we like to visit one of their summer breeding grounds in the north of Scotland. Just like you guys, our Ospreys are heading south now for climatic reasons… here’s hoping for some balmy northerlies!

    • Hi Elgar, we had lots to share from our last big hops, so glad you like the mix
      Thé northerlies haven’t appeared yet, but light ESE are happening so we will go with that sometime next week when Bengie is back from the vet!

  5. I am only repeating what has already been mentioned…great photos. I will also say that on our trip north in 2016 I loved the soft coral garden at Low Isles and the birdlife at Michaelmas. Have a safe trip south. Trish

    • Hi Trish, six years is a long time for reef health. We were at Low Isles 3 years ago and found it poor. It is a little better now for an inner reef, but the vis is terrible. Michaelmas was a definite improvement over Low Isles and yes, the birds are a delight.

  6. Glad you enjoyed your last few days with Murray and Maree.. snaps are lovely, a great variety of nature. Well done. Enjoy the trip south.

  7. What a great adventure you had up north of Cairns. Great in sight into the coral, sea and birdlife. Sorry to hear Bengie has been sick but glad she is on the improve. I’m back in Melb and catching up on other people’s adventures.

  8. Loved the bird photos, Chris. The boobies were fascinating and it was so cool to see all of the chicks from the different species. Like most photographers, you are a bit of a perfectionist–I loved the shot of the sea turtle. 🙂

      • It is the fate of wildlife/nature photographers never to be fully satisfied. So we photograph similar scenes and subjects in the hope that the all of the variables over which we have almost no control will work together for us to capture a “perfect” image, which always seems just out of reach.

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