Solitary Explorations

This week we are exploring the Solitary Islands Marine Park, a place where the warm waters of the East Australian Current meet cooler waters from the south. Tropical, subtropical and temperate marine life come together, making for some interesting snorkeling.

This is a longer post as there is much to discover. So make yourself comfortable, and we hope you will enjoy the tour!

To really appreciate these islets you need very calm conditions as they are exposed to a fair amount of current. Although there are a few public moorings, they are for vessels of either 10m or 13m length maximum, thus too small for Anui. The islets being Sanctuary Zones, no anchoring is allowed. Our approach was therefore to take turns at snorkeling: one of us would be in the water, the other would stay on the boat milling around, then we’d swap… not perfect but better than risking a fine or coming adrift on too small a mooring.

The conditions were near ideal: very light NE, less than 10 knots for several days. We used Coffs Harbour as a base for the southern most islets, intending to move to the northern isles and end up at Yamba later in the week. The only drawback was the amount of algal bloom which badly affected water clarity. You will see lots of pesky backscatter on some of the shots, but that’s life!

Sunrise at Coffs Harbour

The islands are all rather inhospitable rocky bluffs: no beach nor obvious landing spot. The sea bed around them is very different from what we are used to at tropical reefs. Yet the water is balmy, which we did not expect. Each islet has a special feel, with different seafloor cover, colours and critters.

Split Solitary

Split Solitary was the first islet we explored, the closest to Coffs Harbour, only about 4nm away. As the name suggests there is a split through the centre!

Split Solitary from the Eastern side
Approaching Split Solitary from the south

The seafloor was a mass of purple, dusty pink, green and rust seaweed swaying in the current. The colours were so rich and vibrant! Morwongs, Surgeonfish, Snappers were numerous. We were also lucky to watch a Whitespotted Eagle Ray slowly fly past us and saw a couple of turtles too. The snorkel was a good workout with current wrapping around the island even in the calm conditions. The schools of fish were going back and forth with the surge, as were we! Click on the first image and swipe left to see each shot in full screen.

We so love the shafts of sunlight!

South West Solitary

Another island with a split through it, South West Solitary or Groper Islet is about 8nm North East of Coffs. We snorkeled on the northern side of the island. During our dive we noticed that one of the moorings only had one strand of a three strand rope left and reported it.

South West Solitary from the northern side

The schools of Silver Sweep, Sergeant and Surgeonfish were fun to swim with, not perturbed by our presence and more interested in chomping on the algal bloom! Brown and dark green seaweed covered the rocks with urchins and sponges clinging to the crevices. It was not as colourful as Split Solitary, but still worth the visit.

South Solitary

South Solitary is about 10nm NE of Coffs. It is made up of four separate islands: Main Island with the lighthouse and cottages, Birdie Island, Archie Rock and an unnamed islet to the north-east. South Solitary is the only island to have been inhabited in the Solitary Isles group.

Photo and map by

South Solitary had a special appeal for us. Some years ago we watched the 2010 Australian movie ‘South Solitary’. It recounted the harshness and monotony of life as lightkeepers on a remote island off the Australian coastline. It was nice to see this fascinating cluster of islets up close.

With rocky, abrupt escarpments, the group has no beaches or natural landing points and is surrounded by deep water with a bottom made up of sloping rock slabs and gullies of stones and coarse sand. We motored right around the island. Here is the tour.

We should have had several snorkels at different locations but only went in the water off Birdie Island, at the calmest spot. The current was quite strong and snorkeling alone in deep water was a bit daunting. During the dive we kept an eye out for pelagic fish, especially the endangered Grey Nurse Sharks but saw none, probably because we did not go to the right spot nor deep enough.

The rocky sea floor there was quite barren and a little disappointing. But we did spot striking fish like the Groper and Blue Tangs which stood out with their brilliant colour.

Blue Tang

The schools of Silver Sweep were also lovely with the aqua marbling in the water and the shafts of light beaming down into the depths. The fish seemed particularly attracted to the algal bloom blanketing the surface of the ocean.

A surprise there was the quantity of Ctenophores, a type of comb jellyfish, drifting mid water. They are hard to photograph as the camera has trouble focusing on their clear gelatinous body as they move past. They varied in size from 5 to 10cm long. If you are wondering, these strange beasts do no sting. Instead of having harpoon-like stinging cells as in the cnidarians, comb jellies have sticky cells which act more like a rope covered in honey. They are not toxic. They are the type of critters to photograph at night when their combs are lit up and they look like space ships! We have included a photo from a few years ago taken from our previous boat so you can see what we mean.

Here is the link to the original 2016 post

Camera up in the air, the agreed signal to get picked up… Wade is bringing the boat around to Chris who is shouting « Don’t run me over, slow down, stop the boat » as the boarding ladder is horizontal and Anui glides past!

We are hanging around Coffs for longer than originally planned before heading for the Northern Solitary Isles. Our big inverter (original to the boat) croaked it and we had to get a replacement from the local suppliers. We installed a Victron Phoenix 3000 watts. Then we found out the element for the hot water system (also ancient) coincidentally died too! We can have hot water when we run the engines but not through the solar panels. Fortunately the element was readily available and is on order! Two weeks without fixing something or spending money… that was too good to be true! Aargh!

By the time we were ready to go again, you guessed it, the fine weather was gone! Swell, wind and rain had taken over. The next period to make the trip to the northern Solitaries and cross the Yamba bar safely with a rising tide and low swell is not until next week. So we are staying at Coffs and using our mighty dinghy to revisit the closest of the southerly isles in the calmer periods. It is a rough ride but at least we can tie the dinghy to a mooring and snorkel together!

Worth the rough dinghy ride just for that shot!

Stay tuned for the next instalment of our Solitary Explorations.

26 thoughts on “Solitary Explorations

  1. So fortunate to be able to have such an intimate experience with the Solitary’s – usually a sail through zone for us in winter. Nice warm water in March I expect.
    Chris & Suzanne on Discovery II

    • Hi Chris & Suzanne, we have long wanted to explore here and for once we have time. Last time we were on Take It Easy, which was allowed to be on the public moorings. Not the case with Anui, but we are finding ways to see this interesting marine park.

  2. Another interesting spot with lots of life, colour and movement. Thanks for sharing and brightening a very gloomy overcast morning in Melbourne.

  3. Fabulous photos! Full of light and colour, critters and shapes. The one of Wade is amazing. Thank you!

  4. You did well too, get out and see all of them, albeit constrained by having no buddy with you.
    Thanks for the wonderful post

  5. Well, all my Friday tasks seem to have flown out the window since I clicked on the ‘Solitaries’ – what a fascinating learning experience about a place I did not know existed! First time for me on the ‘takeiteasy’ also . . . Love the photos and am so glad the weather smiled! Would be fascinating to spend some time atop the lighthouse . . . and it looks such a clean and happy environment for all the many fishes no doubt ignorant of such nasty things like fishing boats and nets . . . ~! Hope Bengie was happy lazing in the sun . . .

    • Thought of you Eha as we were posting! Glad you found this trip interesting. With a declared marine sanctuary around each islet, the fish are protected. No fishing allowed and as usual it shows!

      The only way to get onto South Solitary these days is by helicopter!

  6. Great text and pics as always. Interesting to see the Solitaries from below. We have sailed around them too, and agree they do look a bit formidable. Wonder how the lighthouse keepers got ashore.

    • Hi Meredith, the Solitaries are very abrupt. Apparently access to South Solitary used to be by a crane erected on top of a kind of jetty to bring stores and people transported up in a basket! It would have been quite scary.

  7. Great adventures and pictures! Pity about the lack of moorings , but well done for yet another winning improvisation. One of our favourite haunts in that part of the world was Red Rock. Lots of birdlife and good kayaking up the creeks and camping near the inlet. I doubt the bar would be passable by even the smallest yacht.

    • Hi guys, you are very much in our thoughts as we spend time here. Had a good look up the coast and can’t see anywhere to anchor with some protection, let alone go into the local creeks. We are waiting for the right conditions to go to North West and North Solitary for a snorkel then continue to Yamba for the night with the right tide to get in. Might be a challenge!

      • You should be ok going into Yamba, but you’re right, the coastline within striking distance of Coffs is all pretty exposed. We’ve had fun with our tinny and kayaks in most of the creeks between Port and Yamba, Some nice quiet isolated spots in amongst the coastal sprawl. Good luck with the bar at Yamba!

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