Shark Bay - October 2015

29-30 September   Dowerin to Monkey Mia

It is off to Shark Bay with Sandpiper once again. This time, our main purpose (besides enjoying ourselves) is to research some locations for a Shark Bay Sailing guide book I am writing (watch this space).

We had an uneventful and easy drive from Dowerin, through Moora to pick up Highway 1 at Badgingarra. Then it was on through Geraldton and Northampton to overnight at the tanks, about 50km north of the Murchison Crossing. It is a good little overnight stop yet we had the place to ourselves. The morning run on to Denham was easy and we pulled in around 10:30 to re-fuel, buy a pack of mullet from the Fish Factory, catch up with friends and fill the water tanks at the De-salination Plant. The water there is $1 for 20 litres. It is funny how careful you are when made to pay.

We pushed on for the final 25km to Monkey Mia and launched in very pleasant conditions. The anchorage is as crowded as I have ever seen it, the number of semi-permanent boats or long term stayers increasing all the time. There were far fewer fishing boats in evidence which meant that we did not have the usual trouble securing a parking spot for car and trailer close to the ramp.

With the tide predicted to be low the next morning, we anchored on the edge of the bank to ensure we were floating at sunrise

1-2 October 2015 – Faure Island & Gladstone

We got going early, facing a 35nm sail to Gladstone. Gladstone, on the eastern shore of Shark Bay, is a destination as part of some research we are doing for the Shark Bay guide book we are currently writing.

It looked like someone had pulled the plug on the bay, with exposed banks in all directions. We had to head north for a couple of miles to get around the Monkey Mia bank then turned eastwards to negotiate through the numerous flats along the way. The wind was 5-7knots from the south-east so the motor purred along to help. We chose some charted paths through the flats between Monkey Mia and the northern end of Faure Island but most showed the charts to be incorrect. It was easier to try and sight the channels, which was easy enough because most banks were exposed with the 0.2m tide. Cruising down one narrow channel, I saw some surface fish activity so I trolled a lure behind and was quickly rewarded with a good sized doggie mackerel, enough for several meals.

By the time we reached Green Turtle Flat on the northern end of Faure Island, the banks had begun to cover and sighting the channels was harder. Relying on the chart, we were soon aground on a seagrass bank. Deeper water was only 100 metres or so away but we had to wait for the tide to rise. On the other side of the bank, at least a dozen sharks waited for food to flood off the bank. The smaller ones would come over to investigate us in the shallows but the larger ones appeared more shy.

After a half hour or so we floated sufficiently to drift over the bank with the tide and resume our trip. The water on Green Turtle Flat was crystal clear and it lived up to its name. Turtles of all sizes were in abundance, either lazing on the surface or foraging amongst the weed beds. We cleared Faure Island and managed a steady 6 knots with full sail and the tide with us, the first time so far on the trip the engine was silent. The peace and quiet was short lived, however, and the wind died away to force us to start the motor again. Nearing the northern end of the Pelican Island bank, the charts let us down once more and we found ourselves on a shallow bank where the chart said there was 25 foot. We eased our way off to deeper water, rounded the bank and ran south with the rising tide, managing more than 6 knots with the engine just ticking over and not much help from the light breeze. The charts indicate a marker stick at the head of the channel into Gladstone but it was not to be seen. The channel, however, showed clearly as the tide gurgled its way through. We shot through the 5 mile channel with the tide at almost 7 knots, spending much of the time gazing down into the clear water to the aquarium below. Turtles and dolphin were common and at one point I watched a large estuary cod laze on the surface before heading for the bottom as the boat came up on it. The channel market at the eastern end of the channel is still there and could be clearly seen for over 2nm away. At the end of the channel, the deeper water broadens out and we sailed through a short stretch of tidal overfall and disrupted water.Another 5 miles took us east to the old port of Gladstone. Here a long rock groyne gave access to a short timber jetty. Constructed in 1890, this facility serviced lighters that loaded wool to ships waiting in deeper water or even transported wool around to Denham and Monkey Mia. A small tramway served the jetty from a wool storage shed. Today, the site is a popular camping spot for caravanners.

We anchored in clean sand to the north of the jetty. With the wind still light from the south, the position gave us shelter for the night. An alternative would have been to use Gladstone Bay, about 2nm to the south. The area is subject to boating restrictions outside of a line between the marked channel and the old jetty due to the large number of dugong that frequent the seagrass meadows around Gladstone.

We enjoyed a pleasant walk ashore and a chat with a caravanner before settling in for the evening with a beer over sunset.

Sunset at Gladstone with the ruins of the old jetty in the background

During the night, the wind followed predictions and went to the north east. We awoke to a slight chop and enough breeze to warrant putting up the sails but not enough to relieve us of the motor. About a mile off the jetty, we came across a herd of dugong. We are used to seeing dugong as loners but here there were at least eight that we counted. They eased around nearby and worried little about the boat ghosting through their midst. The light breeze gave us some assistance for the 9nm out through the channel. We made excellent time with the assistance of an outgoing tide. Navigating this area against the tide would be hard work.

We relaxed on the autohelm for the fast run north past Pelican Island. The island itself is very low lying with sparse vegetation. It is a major pelican breeding area. Despite my best efforts, the uncharted shallows at the northern end of the Pelican Island bank gave us problems. The wind had died completely so the surface was glassed out and sighting the shallows was not possible.

Finally, we made it across to Faure Island. I tried to follow the inshore sands as a way of getting through the banks. At one point there was a large school of feeding fish just off the sands so Christine anchored while I took the porta-bote and flicked a lure at them, hoping for a feed of tailor. They proved to be small mackerel tuna and they quickly threw themselves over the lure. I hooked one and it gave a great account of itself but they are poor eating so it was released to fight again. Besides, we still had plenty of mackerel to eat. The next hour was one of total frustration, trying to find a way through the endless shallows. The water was like a mirror and we had absolutely no idea of the best way to go. Finally, the tide had risen high enough to allow us to motor slowly over most shallows and we just set a course for Monkey Mia and went straight, sometimes crossing narrow channels and other times crossing shallow seagrass beds. We had the company of a beautiful dolphin for a good 20 minutes as he used our pressure wave to get a free ride. We have experienced this many times before but this was really sensational.

Dolphin on Green Turtle Flat

We arrived back in Monkey Mia around 3:30pm, a round trip of over 70nm, most of it under motor. It is definitely a trip where the weather and tides need to be right but well worth the effort in terms of the marine life we got to observe right up close.

3-4 October – Monkey Mia

A few days at anchor at Monkey Mia was not hard to bear at all. Saturday consisted of bagging a spot at the Monkey Bar for lunch to watch the West Coast Eagles get an absolute belting in the AFL Grand Final against the Hawks. It was a sad thing and the solitary Hawks supporter was very vocal, much to everyone’s disgust. However, the atmosphere was terrific and if we had to see such a sad spectacle, the Monkey Bar is not a bad place to be.

On Sunday, we slept very late, watched the crowd mill around the dolphins, worried about all the crazy swimmers paddling around in the boating lanes and generally relaxed. We caught up with our friends and co-author on board the Shark Ark, a very comfortable 52 foot motor sailor anchored off Monkey Mia. Just hanging out at Monkey Mia is enough in itself.

We had planned to spend the Monday lazing at anchor and maybe doing a bit of crabbing then haul out Tuesday but the forecast suddenly changed and gave us a prediction of 30 knot southerlies for a 36 hour period. We decided that the best anchorage in 30 knots is the trailer and pulled the boat out early, heading back across to Denham, where we settled in to life on land at a friend’s house.

Anchored off the beach at Monkey Mia

5-6 October – Denham

We used our time ashore in Denham to catch up with acquaintances, do a bit of shopping for supplies and pick up a couple of bit of needed hardware. One major annoyance is that there appeared to be something seriously wrong with the Telstra 3G network in Denham. For the two days we were there, it was very difficult to maintain any kind of data signal. Apparently it has been a problem for a while.

A new recreational boating jetty has been built, with the last finishing touches required. It is longer than the old one. After only two days, the surface is becoming stained with squid ink so it is being put to good use already.

After many years of avoiding the Shark Bay Discovery Centre, we finally went and had a look. I have to admit that we had missed something all these years. The display is quite outstanding and we so enjoyed some of the video clips of local identities talking about history and points of interest that we bought a DVD. I thought I knew most things about Shark Bay but there was plenty to learn in the comprehensive display. One disappointment is that the fishing aspect is very under represented. Later, talking to one of the local identities outside, he expressed a concern that many of the large collection of photograph from Denham’s past have not been displayed.

7-11 October  -  Freycinet Harbour

The weather performed as per predictions and we launched on the Wednesday around 9am. The breeze was blowing at around 15 knots from the east, ideal for sailing across Denham Sound towards Useless Loop. The target destination was Boat Haven Loop, a wonderful safe haven. The forecast suggested one good day followed by a day of 20 knot southerlies. We set off with a full genoa and one reef in the main and made 4.5 knots against a falling tide. However, after less than two miles, we were dropping below 4 knots. Shaking out the reef helped for a brief period but we fell away again. A little bit of engine hardly compensated and it was clear that the wind had died for the day. With luffing sails, we pulled in the genoa, followed a couple of miles later on the main, and subjected ourselves to the constant drone of the engine as we ticked off the 17nm south west to Lefebre Island.

Lefebre Island has some shallow corals on the south western side so we anchored for a short time and caught a black snapper that would feed us for dinner, before motoring on to the northern end of Carrarang Peninsula. We hoped to find a nice anchorage with a sandy beach but, with the tide low, approaching the shore was difficult. In the end, we anchored several hundred metres out over shallow sand. Within minutes, we were surrounded by small sharks, ranging from half a metre to a metre and a half. They swam boldly up to the boat, before turning and zooming away over the sand. It is the sort of thing one expects in Shark Bay.

Thursday also followed the weather predictions. The forecast was for 30 knots and we got 30 knots, recorded on our little handheld wind meter. It was mostly around 23 knots. We were comfortable in our little hidey hole, especially when the tide went out, leaving us high and dry. I explored ashore and wandered over the exposed low reef. The only real sign of life was mullet, which were abundant in the sands around the reef strip. A neat camping area was set up on the point with what looked like a well used track leading in. The surrounding scrub was a profusion of beautiful wildflowers, gorgeous purple daisies, Tamala Rose in bloom, a small pink myrtle like shrub and many more. The king was the mulla mulla, in an amazing violet hue. It was at its peak and made a beautiful show.

In what must be our best run of weather predictions ever, Friday arrived with a light south-easterly breeze as promised. We headed around the point, standing a mile and a half out to get around the extensive flats. Then it was a motor straight into a short chop. By the time we had reached Charlie Islands, the breeze had dropped and the sea began to take on an oily glaze. After slipping through the shallows around Charlie Island, we headed over to Freycinet and Double Islands, about 3 nm distant. Freycinet is an absolute delight. The approach is in a good depth and there relatively free of rock. A small sandy beach near  the northern end would be a suitable place for landing in the dinghy. An overnight stop at Freycinet would be a definite possibility, although a change of sides might be necessary when the sea breeze arrives. We eased along the shores of Freycinet Island, photographing caves and other features.

From Freycinet, we motored on through glassy seas to Baudin Island, pulling in to a lovely sandy cove for a spot of lunch. The sight of a cruising squid made me break out the jig but, as so often happens, by the time I had rigged up the squid had vanished. Then it was on to Three Bays Island, one of our favourites. We inspected the anchorages and made a few notes for the upcoming guide book. As we pulled out, the wind arrived, the first puffs of the sea breeze from the south-west. We got the main up and the genoa out then enjoyed a  6.5 knot sail across to Baba Head, about 5 nautical miles away. From there, we ran before the wind along the coast towards Salutation Island.

Shortly after leaving Baba Head, we spied a strange looking object sticking out of the water on the edge of a shallow bank. I assumed a fisherman had made a makeshift marker out of something and altered course towards it. We kept trying to guess what it was made from. Surprisingly, when we got close enough it turned out to be a seal, lying on its side and waving a flipper up in the air. The seal seemed just as surprised as us and it swam rapidly over to the boat. I assumed it was going to greet us or ask for a free feed but he kept going under the boat and shot off at a great rate. Seeing a seal in Shark Bay is a big enough surprise (I have seen one before at Dirk Hartog Island) but to find one at the very bottom of the bay is amazing. This was a very small fellow, a metre at most and very dark with a pale stripe along a flipper. It had to be an Australian Sea Lion, although after our time in SA last year I would have leaned towards an Australian Fur Seal, well and truly out of its range. Unfortunately, we could not get the camera out quickly enough.

Freycinet Island, one of the prettiest in the area.

The beautiful eastern beach at Three Bays Island

The southern side of White Island showing the huge cavern.

With the wind behind us, we gull winged the sails and sped along. Two miles off our target anchorage, I changed my mind and turned in to the coast to shelter in one of the many sandy coves along this shore. Though shallow, it proved a comfortable overnight stop.

Saturday dawned mostly calm, with a light easterly promising to give some assistance in our sail north. However, by the time we had checked out a few points around Salutation Island, the glass reappeared and we spent the next 5 hours motoring.  Our route took us past White Island, where we admired the spectacular cavern overhang on the north side. We crossed the depths of Henri Freycinet Harbour to catch up with the coast again at Goulet Bluff, following the inshore banks along to our overnight anchorage in in the lee of little Wilson Island. This is a great little spot. A couple of Shark Bay families were picnicking and fishing on the beach, enjoying the idyllic conditions and catching a big feed of whiting. Christine lazed in the water and chatted while I snorkelled around Wilson Island, admiring the heavy population of big bream, sweetlips and bluebone. A couple of small estuary cod stuck their heads out from under the small ledges. A pretty spot.

Wilson Island is a great little overnight anchorage

We spent our time packing up the porta-bote and stowing it on board, because tomorrow is the last leg back to Denham.

Sunday morning produced a 10 knot southerly promising to give us assistance in the run north to Denham. We had a 17nm run, taking us past the spectacular Eagle Bluff, which was as long as the breeze lasted. The final 10nm was under motor alone so we took the opportunity to ready the boat for retrieval. It certainly saves a lot of time to have the jib stowed away, the main rolled on the boom and under a cover and all lines stowed in the locker. Berthing was easy and the retrieval went without a hitch. Lowering the mast and making everything ready for towing was hot work in the 34 degree heat and we were glad to be done. We once again parked up in the back yard of our friend’s house suddenly realising just how exhausted we were. Cruising is a strange past-time; most of the time you are sitting around watch the world go by but when you finally reach your destination, you are whacked.

Majestic Eagle Bluff

12-13 October       Denham to Dowerin

The drive home was laborious, mostly because of the very hot southerly that presented as a significant head wind. It cost us fuel and even threatened to overheat the car. It was unseasonal and undesirable. Still, it failed to spoil what was a wonderful two weeks of living on the water and exploring the wonders of Shark Bay.