Thursday, 12 September 2013

North Queensland Trip, Part 3

The Whitsunday Islands

Whitsunday Islands, courtesy of Google Maps

The seventy-four islands off the coast of Airlie Beach comprise the 'Whitsunday' group, named after the day that Captain Cook first sighted them. Prior to this, they had been the home of the Ngaro Aboriginal people for at least 9,000 years, and the descendants of these people maintain important connections to the islands in the present day.

My main intention of visiting these islands was to scuba dive for the first time. The weather decided to present a bit of a challenge however, as the 'trade winds' kicked in immediately upon our arrival at Airlie Beach. This tropical phenomenon is often welcomed by the locals as it brings a cool sea-breeze and some refreshing rain showers to an otherwise muggy climate, but to me and my travelling companions, it meant that our tours kept getting cancelled and rescheduled. It did lend itself to some dramatic scenery though!

Rain shower, Border Island horizon

I believe a key element to a great travel experience is flexibility, and ours was certainly tested on this trip. When our plan to camp overnight on Hook Island suddenly became impossible, we instantly decided to head out to Daydream Island on the next ferry instead. The resulting day spent at a coral cove like this made our decision seem all the more wise!

Lovers Cove, Daydream Island

Despite a large percentage of this small island being landscaped into a resort, the wildlife remains abundant.  We saw Surf Parrotfish (Scarus rivulatus) and Diamond-scale Mullet (Liza vaigiensis) shoals swimming around the shallows, and spotted yet another Common Tree Snake (Dendrelaphis punctulatus) creeping out onto the coral beach to warm up. In the scrubby hillside vegetation behind the beach, I saw a juvenile Sand Goanna (Varanus gouldii). Apparently the adults are a common sight around the resort pool, no doubt scaring foreign tourists with their impressive size and fearless manner. On this particular day, the Common Wallaroos (Macropus robustus) occupied the landscaped areas instead, striking the same pose that most of the tourists were making.

Common Wallaroo, Daydream Island

The largest island in the chain is Whitsunday Island itself. It is not a coral island like the kind found further out on the Great Barrier Reef margin, but is instead what is known as a 'drowned hill' island. Once upon a time, the island group would have formed part of the mainland's coastline, but a steadily rising sea level has since cut them off and allowed fringing coral reefs to develop around their edges. The most famous attraction on these islands is Whitehaven Beach, a 7km stretch of finely-powdered white sand that lures backpackers from all over the world.

Humpback Whale, off Whitsunday Island
To experience this wonder, we went out on the only tour brave enough to face the trade winds that day: Whitsunday Ocean Rafting! With our knowledgeable and adventurous guides Carl and Dylan, we sped out into the Marine Park on lightweight inflatable rafts, with the wind in our hair and everywhere else! Our first stop was Dumbell Island, where we had the chance to snorkel. The water visibility was limited due to the choppy seas, but I did see a huge Sixband Angelfish (Pomacanthus sexstriatus) weaving through the coral hollows, and plenty of Scissortail Sergeants (Abudefduf sexfasciatus). Back on board the raft, we also had good views of a late-season Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) migrating south through the island passages.

Our next stop was a lookout on Whitsunday Island itself, overlooking the breath-taking Hill Inlet and Whitehaven Beach. Though the viewing decks were packed with fellow tourists, the sheer spectacle of what lay below calmed me into a kind of trance, and my memory of this place now is one of peace and silence when I know that's not entirely accurate. I recognised at the time that a mere photo of the panorama would never do it justice, so I went one better:

Continuing on to a lunch stop at Whitehaven Beach after, it was definitely a great day!

Our other excursion into the Marine Park came by way of a yacht called "Illusions" and her lovely crew members Josef and Naomi. On our last day of the holiday, we headed out of Abell Harbour early in the morning and ploughed through choppy seas to the calm waters of Blue Pearl Bay. Situated on the sheltered side of Hayman Island, the waters are rich in marine life, and I was surrounded by inquisitive fish immediately upon entering the water, especially the Yellowtail Fusilier (Caesio cuning).

Yellowtail Fusilier, Blue Pearl Bay
Of the four people scuba-diving that day (including our instructor Naomi), I was the only "first timer" and I must say what an alien and alarming experience it was initially. Taking that first breath underwater goes against every rational instinct in your mind and body, and you have to put all your faith in the apparatus on your back - not easy for a control-freak like me! Under attentive and professional guidance from Naomi, I managed to get the hang of things in a short amount of time and I suddenly noticed what a strange world I had been immersed into. Never before had I seen so many types of fish in the one place, schooling gracefully around the coral. I was a little too overwhelmed to make much use of my underwater camera, and some amazing species slipped by without having a good photograph taken. Highlights not pictured here are the Common Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) and the Blackback Anemonefish (Amphiprion melanopus), the latter of which may be better known to you as 'Nemo'.

I did have the presence of mind to take a video though. Seen in this footage are species that include Bengal Sergeants (Abudefduf bengalensis), juvenile Humphead Parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum), Stripey Snapper (Lutjanus carponotatus) and the Fusiliers and Scissortail Sergeants again.

The huge fish at the end of the video is 'Priscilla', a Humphead Maori-Wrasse (Cheilinus undulates). My first indication of her presence was a shadow falling upon me as her body blocked out the sunlight above. Underwater and in her element, she is a truly impressive fish.

Humphead Maori-Wrasse inspecting me! Photo by Naomi from "Illusions"

My reef fish book says this endangered species can grow up to two metres long, yet is known to be a shy and retiring type that is hard for divers to see. I'm not sure I agree with that!

Humphead Maori-Wrasse, Blue Pearl Bay

There are over 600 species of Wrasse, of which Humpheads are the largest. The Wrasse family are a remarkably diverse and interesting collection of fish, and have been discovered in recent years to undergo sex changes as part of their normal life cycles. This means that 'Priscilla' might actually be a 'he' rather than a 'she'.

Other Wrasses seen on the dive included the Red-breasted Maori-Wrasse (Cheilinus fasciatus) and the stunning Moon Wrasse (Thalassoma lunare), the latter of which can also be seen darting around in the video.

Moon Wrasse, Blue Pearl Bay

I enjoyed the challenge of fish identification, particularly in rare moments of victory. Butterflyfish were the easiest to ID because of their unique and consistent markings. Clockwise from top left: Triangular Butterflyfish (Chaetodon baronessa), Beaked Coralfish (Chelmon rostratus), Vagabond Butterflyfish (Chaetodon vagabundus) and Gold-banded Butterflyfish (Chaetodon aureofasciatus).

Butterflyfish, Blue Pearl Bay and Langford Reef

New Caledonian Sea Star, Blue Pearl Bay
After diving, I had time to snorkel and found more fish in the shallows, including Rainbow Coral-Bream (Scolopsis monogramma), Queensland Grubfish (Parapercis queenslandica) and Foxface (Siganus vulpinus). I also found this New Caledonian Sea Star (Nardoa novaecaledoniae) which was something of a novelty to me, as I've never actually seen a starfish in the wild.

Before we knew it, it was time to leave Blue Pearl Bay, a place that had become one of my all-time favourites in just a few short hours. Back on board "Illusions", we sailed to nearby Langford Reef, where the coral gardens had formed around an island sandspit. This slight change in habitat resulted in a few extra fish species being seen, including the Dot-and-Dash Goatfish (Parupeneus barberinus), Mural Glidergoby (Valenciennea muralis) and mixed schools of Ringtail (Acanthurus auranticavus) and Yellowfin Surgeonfish (A. xanthopterus).

Yellowfin Surgeonfish, Langford Reef

Climbing back on board exhausted after one of the most exhilarating days of my life, I felt a little melancholy to be saying goodbye to such a beautiful place. In most parts of the world, going on holiday in your own state or province is considered a 'stay-cation' - a short little trip you make when you can't afford somewhere more exotic. I guess when you live somewhere as vast and magnificent as Queensland though, you can feel like you are a million miles from anywhere without ever leaving the state.

And when the crocodiles and stingers and spiders get too much, there's always 'Wild Brisbane' to return to!

Crested Terns (Thalasseus bergii) on Langford Reef with Airlie Beach in the background

* Dedicated with a big THANK YOU to Lana Perrin and Chantelle Emmerton - the two most adaptable travel companions I could ever wish for! :-)



  1. just gorgeous skies and turquoise waters. so glad you got to scuba dive!

    LOVE that adorable wallaroo!

    1. Thanks! Yes that Wallaroo was too cute. I was only about two metres away from it and it looked at me briefly, then went straight back to sleep!

  2. Great description of taking the.y first breath - I still can't keep both eyes open with swimming goggles on having only just bought some! What great, great photos and love the video too. the first one is so perfect it almost looks like a Disney cartoon. What an amazing state you live in and I'm so pleased you've had such a great time away.

    1. Thanks Em, the whole trip was a lovely experience! The second video is a little jerky from me being way too over-stimulated, haha!

  3. I was amused at the seeming smile on the face of that wallaroo Christian. That it should lay there snoozing as you snapped a photo so close, or had you zoomed from a distance maybe? Your under-water experience was a great adventure and you got some marvellous photos to remember your wonderful holiday. I'm amazed that you would have gone straight in the deep end with no experience - even though you had some tuition but it is a huge undertaking for a first-timer I'm sure. Well done; those fishes and the whale are amazing and the blue water near Airlie

    1. Thanks Carole! The Wallaroo was literally about two metres away - it's very used to the resort visitors I'd say. I laid down next to it and had my photo taken and it just kept snoozing the whole time. I saved that photo for Facebook though as I thought it looked a bit unprofessional for the blog.

      I was definitely scared for a few moments of the scuba. Another tricky thing was floating and moving correctly amongst the coral, with is like razor-edged concrete as it turns out. I am already thinking of where to dive next year though! :)

  4. I almost felt I was under the water with you there Christian. What a fabulous place to visit so close to home, and as you say, thereare so many wonderful places to be discovered. Well done on your first dive and camera work - I don't think I would ever have the nerve to dive and rely upon breathing apparatus. Love the name "Daydream Island" - no other desctription required.

    1. Thanks Phil, I'm often "daydreaming" of these islands now that I'm back to regular life!

  5. Such a beautiful place you must of had an amazing time