North West Island and Masthead Island
Arriving to North West Island
The wind was still from the East but waves a lot smaller.
We took a course to North West Island and just motored. The Island is about 30
miles away from the shore and 25 miles from Hammocky Island.
Soon we saw the familiar island outlines –we have visited
it before (4 years ago camping for 2 weeks with UNSW Underwater Club and Gonzie
actually had been here a few times). By coincidence, the barge was arriving at
the same time as us and it brought a few campers to the island with lots of
Having reached the island, we dropped the anchor on the
northern side, pumped up the dinghy and went to the reef, Gonzie with his
spear-gun and I with my camera.
North West Island is the 2nd largest coral cay in the Great Barrier Reef. It is only
100 ha and you can walk around it in 2 hours. The island is on the south of the
Great Barrier Reef and is not far from the famous resort Heron Island, actually
the name “North West” was given to the island because it is situated on the
north-west from Heron. The island is very popular for camping, fishing and
diving, especially during December and January, however no one is allowed to
live here permanently. The only “buildings” that exist on the island are 2
composting toilets, and there are absolutely no other facilities, the campers
even have to bring fresh water with them.
The island is covered with pisonia forest, which creates a
cool microclimate inside the island on hot days.
The island is also important for seabirds and turtle nesting.
For many people living in Northern Hemisphere turtle is a
symbol of slowness. As for the sea turtles, they are slow only on land, but at
sea they are super fast. They also have excellent navigation abilities,
supposedly finding their way around by sensing the magnetic field of the Earth.
Sea turtles live on average around 80 years and start having babies at 30, when
they come back to the place where they had been born many years ago.
North West Island is the largest green turtle nesting site
on the southern Great Barrier Reef. From November to February the female turtles
come out of the ocean at night on the rising tide, crawl up a few meters and dig
their sand nests where consequently they lay white round eggs (which look a bit
like table tennis balls, but smaller). Then they throw more sand on the eggs
with their back legs and return to the sea before the high tide goes, leaving
the eggs in the sand for 1.5 - 2 months.
The turtles always move perpendicular to the tide line and
are not good at avoiding obstacles. Therefore it is not recommended to set up a
tent close to the beach as cases are known when a turtle would knock a tent over
at night or crawl inside. Both cases would be a worth nightmare for me if I was
in a tent :).
Some turtles die getting stuck in the tree roots and branches.
Baby turtles, unlike their parents, are very fast on land.
Having hatched from their eggs they rushed to the sea. Of course, not many of
them survive: sea gulls pick them up before they even reach the sea and sharks
are waiting in the water.
Turtle soup canneries operated on the island between 1904
and 1926, however in our days turtles are protected species.
North West is a major seabird nesting area. The mining of
guano occurred on North West Island during the 1890s. Seventy per cent of the total breeding population of
Wedge-tailed shearwaters (or muttonbirds) nests on the island. Muttonbirds are
monogamous forming a long term pair bond that lasts for several years. Both
sexes participate in digging a burrow, or repairing the burrow from last year.
Then a single egg is laid in that burrow, and if that egg is lost then the pair
will not attempt another that season. “Divorce” between pairs occurs after
breeding seasons that end in failure. The birds leave early in the morning for
feeding at sea and return to their burrows at dusk. At night pairs call
frequently, both to reinforce the pair bond and warn intruders away from their
call is long, with an inhaling component (OOO) and exhaling component (err).
This mournful “howl” is quite loud and disturbing, and when I was camping on the
island (4 years ago) this drove me crazy! Staying on the boat away from shore
solves this problem.
Muttonbirds are also where sensitive to light. In their
heads seeing the light means the dawn and the instinct make them fly towards it.
This way they often crash into the camp lights.
On the boat we also turn the light when it gets dark and
had birds crashing over a few times. One bird flew into a mast and fell
unconscious. Gonzie picked up a poor thing, hold her on his lap for a while and
patted like she was a cat. Then we made a “nest” for her from the rug on top of
the boat so that she can fly away later at sunrise. In the morning we found that
the bird flew away leaving some guano for us as a “present”. Another bird
crashed and fell into the cockpit and when Gonzie tried to lift her and put
higher up so that she could fly, the bird started fiercely biting him! He had
scratches on his hands for a while after this. After this we gave up and let the
birds just recover themselves. The next night, however, fishing boats arrived
with a lot more lights then us, so we didn’t have any muttonbirds over.
It was raining for the last 2 days and we didn’t do much.
Gonzie tried to spear but found no fish worthwhile shooting. At midday the rain
stopped and a big rainbow appeared. We waited for the high tide and actually
visited the island by dinghy. It hasn’t changed much in the last 4 years, except
dry trees broken by cyclones lie in different spots and there were a few new
signs and information tables about seabirds and turtles installed.
In the morning we took off for Masthead Island, 14 miles
away to SW. Masthead Island looks very similar to North West: a flat coral cay
with lots of trees on it.
There was no wind and the water was almost without a ripple
and very clear and we could see the reef looking down from the boat. We dropped
the anchor on the northern side of the island and went to explore the reef in
the dinghy. The water was so clear we didn’t even need the mask to see fish a
few meters below. It was convenient for finding coral trout’s and emperor’s
hiding spots to come later for fishing.
There were plenty of turtles resting near the reef edge and
swimming away really fast, probably disturbed by our dinghy engine.
A little further from shore we saw about 20 (!) large
stingrays in one spot. What on earth could they be doing? I was trying to take a
photo of their gathering randomly sticking the camera (in the case) in the
water. The photo didn’t come out to good though.
In the morning the wind changed to north-east and so did
the swell making the anchorage uncomfortable and we moved to the south side.
Today Gonzie caught 2 trouts and 1 emperor: now we have
fish for at least 3 meals. We decided to stay on this island for longer.
We spent on Masthead the whole week, anchored on the same
spot. The weather was wonderful and the sea was mirror-flat most of the time.
The visibility underwater was also excellent.
Once per day (in the morning or closer to sunset) we drove
the dinghy to the reef for some snorkelling and spear fishing. The island is
closed for camping from October to March due to sea bird nesting, there was
rarely another boat nearby and we basically had the whole island for ourselves.
Due to its remoteness and “no camping in summer” rule there is plenty of fish
here. Gonzie would jump in with his spear gun and get a coral trout in the next
2 minutes! He also tried to spear red throat emperors, but they are to quick to
hide and his spear gun is not powerful enough to shoot from the long distance.
I would swim beside him snorkelling and taking photos. I
took a few good photos of a spotted eagle ray, but wasn’t so lucky with turtles.
We saw a lot of turtles swimming when we drove the dinghy, and they would often
come out to breeze near the boat, but I saw a turtle underwater close enough to
take a photo only once. Gonzie saw a big loggerhead turtle, but didn’t have a
camera with him.
One day we went to the reef quite late and stayed in the
water until sunset. I saw a huge shark sitting under the rock (I think it was
bronze whaler) and actually got scared. Instead of trying to take a photo I
jumped into the dinghy, not knowing whether to regret it or not :). Sharks on
the reef are normally not dangerous, but this one was too big … who knows what’s
on her mind at sunset.
The reef doesn’t surround the island evenly; its eastern
tip extends to the sea a lot more and totally dries out at low tide. Most of the
time, we could easily drive the dinghy from our anchorage on the south to the
reef on the north, rounding the island from the west. We could easily do it even
on low tide.
From eastern side our boat on anchorage looked closer somehow and we were
curious to have a look at the reef on that side. When we started crossing the
tide was still high enough but this drying part turned out a lot larger than we
expected. The tide ran out before we crossed the reef edge and reach the deep
water. Some coral bommies started to dry out of the water. The perspective to
leave the inflatable on the reef and wait here till the next high tide didn’t
appeal to us and we had to unload the dinghy and carry it over the reef edge and
then carry the fish in a bucket, anchor, spear-gun, snorkelling gear into it.
Sometimes curiosity is punished! :).
Back to North West Island
In the morning we went back to North West Island, where
Plucky and his 4-years old daughter Taylor arrived for camping. They were on the
island already, camping together with some nice people from New Zealand.
This morning we went to Broomfield Reef and met Plucky and
Taylor who arrived to the Reef on their friend Kevin’s power boat.
We decided to do a dive around the bommie and Plucky kindly
agreed to be our boatie and drive the dinghy, as the current was fairly
Then Kevin’s boat left, Gonzie and Plucky went for a spear
and I stayed on our boat with Taylor . I didn’t have any children’s toys on the
boat, but find the way out with making shell necklaces, drawing pictures and
At sunset they came back with a decent size emperor. Also today is
Plucky and Taylor stayed over at night. The guys went
spearing again at 5 in the morning and came back a few hours later with 7
spangled emperors. We motored back to the island and had freshly deep-fried fish
later in Plucky’s camp. Also it was nice talking to Kevin, his wife and other
people on the island.
The wind changed to favourable and it is the time for us to
go home. We got up at 4:30 am, upped the anchor, lifted the sails and left
watching an amazing sunrise over the island.
Late at night arrived to Bundaberg and anchored in the