North West Island

On the beach at North West with WDS moored off the shelf in the distance.

We woke on Saturday to much more pleasant conditions than the previous day, having had a reasonable night on the anchor. We checked the forecast, and decided to head off straight away, having coffee and breakfast en route to North West Island. There was a light South Westerly breeze which allowed us to set full main and jib on a very comfortable reach, while we had a bacon and egg roll for breakfast. By 9 am we were congratulating ourselves on having decided to abort yesterday’s trip, as this was complete champagne sailing in comparison!

The trip of around forty miles passed very quickly as Otto steered in a very benign seaway and about 10 knots of breeze, and we arrived at North West at about 2:30pm. This was one quiet anchorage, with no other yachts, just a couple of small fishos moving about and one boat on the island, high and dry. We had only been here once before with Clare and Paul, and remembered that we anchored close under the lee of the island, not far from the reef edge. This time, we surveyed with our sonar live, and found a good sand holding with bommies, just a little further north than the last time, but in the same general area.

North West is a large coral cay, almost the most northerly of the Southern Great Barrier Reef group. It has a massive fringing reef area, but only a very shallow and fully enclosed lagoon. Anchoring here is at the edge of the coral shelf, in the lee of the reef and the island, but at least an easy escape if the weather turns bad! We located a shallow sandy area with about 6.5 meters at low water, expecting a rise in tide of around 3 meters. As we arrived, it was just getting to the bottom of the tide, so good timing for checking out depth. We were greeted by manta rays and turtles, and as I watched the anchor set itself and then followed the chain back to the boat, I realised how clear the water was. Even though we had 30 meters of chain out, we could still see all of it and the anchor. When Pete swam to check the anchor, I went as well, and from the surface, wearing my snorkelling mask, I could clearly see the anchor nicely set in the sand. Pete didn’t even need to dive down to check it!

We had a quick bite to eat, launched the Goon Bag and perepared to go snorkelling before the sun got too low in the sky. As we drove along the reef edge, we could clearly see the bottom, when to our horror, we both spotted the familiar shape of a huge shark! Pete swore it had stripes and was a tiger shark, but I was to busy being horrified at the size of it to worry about its colouring! We kept on driving, and discussed our enthusiasm for a snorkel after seeing that, and pushed ourselves to get in. Warily, we masked up and dropped over the side of the dinghy, very close to the reef edge. Needless to say, we saw no scary predators and plenty of pretty fish and coral, though the visibility wasn’t so great. It was after 3 pm and the sun was getting too low to make the best of the underwater scenery, plus the tide beginning to change was stirring up a bit of sediment in the shallower sections. We decided to call it a day, proud of ourselves for having braved the water after “ The Sighting”, but ready to relax on deck, and get the fishing action happening.

Sunset was magical, not least because we were the only yacht to appreciate it. Being a new moon, there was no moon to detract from the black velvet sky, choc full of stars and Milky Way, with just the vague loom from Gladstone the only other light. The wind had died to nothing, so we were able to have dinner on deck, but we were both tired and retired early.

We woke with the light in the morning and got straight on to inflating the paddle board. We had decided to paddle in to the island on the rising tide, to see if we could find a route to take The Goon Bag in. We knew there was a way from seeing some of the fishos take their boats in last night, to camp on the beach, but we weren’t sure of the depth over the reef and whether there was any sort of channel. After a quick coffee, we both got on the board, me lying down on my belly with the back pack, and Pete kneeling and paddling. It was about a 10 minute paddle, made a little longer by Pete trying to chase down manta rays, but with brilliant viewing of the coral shelf, then the sparkling blue of the shallow lagoon. As we came into the beach to land, the water was so clear and blue you just wanted to cavort in it! However, we were here to walk, and swimming must wait!

We walked up the beach a little way, then found some signs to the camping area. It’s a similar set up here to Lady Musgrave, where you need a permit to camp and must bring your own water, fuel and equipment. No fires are allowed and all rubbish must be taken off the island with you. Again there are turtles and sea birds, so you need to be aware of nests on the beach and forest edge. We found a track across the island to the southern, windward side, so followed that through the pisonia forest. Then we walked around the cay, following the beach back to where we had landed. We beach combed for shells and coral on the way, also picking up plastic litter to take away with us, and a large number of balloons, obviously washed ashore. I will never again have balloons at any celebration, they kill too many sea creatures.

I had walked ahead of Pete as we approached the paddle board, and saw a small fishing boat come roaring across the coral ledge and into the lagoon. The 4 guys aboard were hooting and having a ball, and as they pulled in near me, 2 of them jumped out of the boat into the water. I waved, but kept heading for the board, to have a drink of water and a swim, as I had been walking in my wetsuit and was roasting. As I got out of the water, I saw Pete chatting to the guys and went over to join him. The skipper, Hadley, introduced his mates who he had taken out for a weekends fishing. They had been out fishing last night, and 2 of the guys being southerners, were absolutely wrapt to be in this utterly beautiful location after a night at sea. They were into the rum and cokes after their swim, and it was only 9:30 am! We chatted for a while, then as we were leaving they asked if we could take some pics of their catch, which we were happy to do. They wanted us to take the pics from the paddle board, of them on the boat, so we obliged, our eyes popping as they started pulling out massive coral trout after massive coral trout, after massive sweetlip! We weren’t sure exactly how many they had but there were at least 8 fish!

Photo shoot complete, they insisted on giving us a thank you gift of one of the smaller coral trout, which we very gratefully and delightedly accepted, paddling back to WDS with Pete lying on his belly, coral trout resting on his bum and me paddling! It seemed a much tougher paddle back, but we made it, fish intact, just as the boys were leaving. They came by and took some pics and we gave them the blog details so that they could follow us. Hadley had told us he had booked to camp on the island for 5 days in July around his birthday, and we hoped that the weather would be as beautiful for Hadleys celebration as it was today.

Pete quickly got to work filleting the trout and getting it in the fridge, so we would be able to have some for dinner. We had some lunch and waited for the tide to drop, before heading back into the water for a snorkel on the reef edge. This time we had the tide and sun right and picked some great spots not very far from WDS. We anchored the Goon Bag in sand, and swam the short distance into the coral ledge, following its channels and bays and watching the myriad of fish go about their daily lives. The visibility was much better than yesterday and the only shark we saw was a white tipped reef shark. Gave us both a pause, but we carried on anyway. We found a natural spa, where the water was draining off the edge of the coral shelf, as the tide receded, causing a pool of bubbles. Better than a spa, you could look below the surface and watch pretty coloured fish of all shapes and sizes cruise among the coral heads!

Despite wearing wet suits, the cold eventually got the better of us, and though we went exploring for other spots in the dinghy, I was too cold to get back in the water. We returned to WDS for a hot shower and a cup of tea, and some relaxation time after the days exertions! Pete threw out the fishing line and found about 5 large looking fish getting keen on the lure. We tried to identify them from peering down through the water as they moved a bit like small sharks, but nothing in the fish book helped. It wasn’t until one finally deigned to take the lure and we got it on deck, that we found out what they were. As Pete brought it in it landed on the deck and seemed to stick there. No matter how hard he tried Pete could not move it. Finally, when the fish flapped in discomfort, he unstuck and we realised that the pattern on the back of his head was actually a huge sucker plate. It was a remora! Even though there was a possibility this may be good eating, we weren’t terribly keen, and we had two enormous coral trout fillets in any event, so we released him. Not without difficulty, however, as he had decided he liked the bucket and wanted to stick with it, so after a bit of a fight, eventually he let go and went back to join his mates under the hull!

Remora loving the bucket!
very bad picture of the remora stuck in the bucket!

Needless to say, Sunday dinner was grilled BBQ coral trout, which we paired with a butternut pumpkin and sage risotto and a rather good Margan 2013 Chardonnay. Talk about a match made in Heaven! We toasted Hadley and his mates for providing us with such a fantastic dinner in what we felt was probably the best location in the world at that moment! We ate on deck under another black velvet and diamond sky, with the gentle lapping of the ocean off the reef edge for background music.

The weather forecast improved again, so we planned for at least another day and night, to do more snorkelling and to take The Goon Bag into the beach through the channel. Monday morning dawned clear, blue and warm, and though the anchorage had become busy overnight with a catamaran and a trawler pulled in, by 8 am both had gone. This mornings exercise was to be a paddle board workout, so after coffee and breakfast of fruit and yoghurt, Pete headed off towards the pole channel marker and back. As he was heading off, a roll on roll off ferry hove into sight and on Petes return we watched with interest as he turned towards the island. On my turn to paddle up to the pole, it looked like the ferry was going to head through the channel, so I varied my route a little over the covered reef, but he hung off, clearly waiting for more tide.

We checked our marker rock when I got back to WDS and it looked right for us to take The Goon Bag in through the channel, so we headed off with water, snorkels and camera to see what the channel was like. There looked to be around a meter and a half at the shallowest point, but got deeper once over the main shelf and into the lagoon. We anchored the Goon Bag and had a snorkel, but there was not much to see other than sand shells and some small fish. Of course the mantas and turtles played once we had finished snorkelling! Whilst we were in the water, the ferry made its approach to the beach and proceeded to unload a vast amount of people and supplies. We were very glad we had walked about yesterday, when we were the only people there. Pete found out that it was a school group, with a couple of Island caretakers, and an enormous quantity of supplies! What a fabulous school excursion!

I did some stretching on the beach and some Pilates to work off some of the tightness from paddling and snorkelling, while Pete walked up to investigate the ferry. Then we walked a little, doing some beachcombing for shells, before heading back out to the big boat to have a rest from the sun.

It’s pretty magical to be the only boat at an anchorage like this, surrounded by so much beauty. We have the deep blue ocean on one side, a coral cay, lagoon and reef on the other, with the vague outline of distant headlands towards the mainland and Tryon Island just showing to seaward. The sea is a thousand different blues, from the light turquoise green of the shallow lagoon, through the purple of the reef edge, to the deep turquoise we are anchored in, thence to the deep royal blue of the deep ocean, all of which is shimmering as the wavelets reflect the the sun. The sky is deep azure overhead, with a few small, white cumulus clouds towards the horizon which is a pale, pale cerulean blue. Then we have our coral cay, with different shades of green between the dense pisonia, casuarina and octopus tree forest, which is separated from the turquoise lagoon by a strip of the whitest sand, darkened in a few places by the bleached bones of fallen trees. None of our photos do this justice, and my words are just a pale representation of reality. I cannot remember a better Monday, any time in my life!

During a lazy afternoon, we saw our first whales, spouting a good few miles distant. More sea life to add to the daily tally as we progress. Despite a continuing good forecast, we decided that we really need to make some progress north, so that we have a good chance to see more of the islands, which start at Broadwater Sound. We therefore decided we would leave in the morning, have an overnight at Keppel, a quick stop at Rosslyn Bay so we dont need to stop at Mackay, and then head for Pearl Bay, Port Clinton or Island Head Creek. From any of these mainland anchorages, we can do Island stops all the way to the Whitsundays.

In the evening, after another magical sunset, we ate the second coral trout fillet. Pete decided to cook it en papillot, using baking paper and foil, with ginger, spring onion, soy and coconut milk. To go with it, I cooked up stir fried veggies with ginger, garlic, chilli and soy. The fish was sensational, and once again, we toasted Hadley and his mates for the finest seafood dinner we have had. A long day of Island and lagoon adventuring, paddle boarding and relaxing had us exhausted, and after watching the slim, smiling crescent of the two day old new moon set, we had an early night.

Waking early, seeing more clouds than we had seen the whole time we have been anchored, we knew we had made the right decision to leave beautiful North West. We had a good breeze, though dead downwind, to make a relatively quick trip back to Keppel. We packed everything ready for sea, getting the Goon Bag up on deck, as well as the paddle board, and packing the snorkelling gear away. We were happy to be leaving here in good conditions, with such fantastic memories of the last few days at our island paradise. Unfortunately, we were sailing too fast for Pete to fish, but we filled the time whale spotting instead, and had our first close encounter, with a pair of whales passing within about 50-100 meters of us. We now look forward to daily whales, instead of (or as well as?) daily dolphins, and Willi the Whale is very excited to be back amongst his fellows!

whale splash
After the breach!

One thought on “North West Island

  1. What a beautiful post. I am so relaxed just reading it. So glad the weather held out for this part of it and that you avoided that school camp!


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