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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Beautiful Michaelmas Reef and 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!