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|
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!
|Yellowtail Fusilier, Blue Pearl Bay|
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|
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! :-)