Western Australia’s Houtman Abrolhos Islands are rich in history & wildlife.
SHIPWRECK, MUTINY, MURDER AND SURVIVAL add to the mystique of the 122 remote and rugged islands of the Houtman Abrolhos, often referred to informally as the Abrolhos Islands, located off Geraldton on Western Australia’s mid-west coast.
Rich in history and sunken treasure, 20 shipwrecks have been found in Abrolhos waters and, while the Batavia and Zeewijk are the most well-known, there are thought to be many more lying undiscovered.
In addition to their colourful past, the Abrolhos Islands display a remarkable assortment of sea life, flora and fauna, with over two million birds breeding on the islands. Tropical and temperate oceans meet along the 100km spread of islands, treating anglers to a variety fish from pink snapper to coral trout and big pelagic species.
Famous for its superb diving, fishing, snorkelling, windsurfing and surfing, the Abrolhos is a destination we always wanted to visit. It was only when we purchased our seven-metre LeisureCat that we had a suitable vessel to attempt the voyage, which, in our case, was more than a 400km round trip.
ABROHOLS ISLANDS WEATHER
Following some marine chart preparation, our only problem was waiting for the perfect weekend, with very little wind and swell; a rare occurrence at the Abrolhos.
Our three boys, Austin (eight years old), Cooper (5) and Bailey (3), were as excited as we were about our big adventure. They had visited the shipwreck museum in Perth several times and were enthralled by stories of the Batavia – mutiny, lost treasure and particularly seeing the skeleton exhumed from Beacon Island, complete with a grizzly axe wound to the skull!
A perfect weekend loomed in March – the weather was set to be calm for the following five days – so I sprang into action, getting everything packed for an evening tow to Geraldton.
There are shacks on the Abrolhos owned by lobster fisherman who work there, but unless you have written consent to stay, all visitors must sleep on their own vessel and be fully self-sufficient.
Safety is paramount, particularly when attempting offshore trips. We took every extra piece of safety equipment we owned – a satellite phone, a spare EPIRB, a well-equipped first aid kit plus a new Yagi antenna to provide mobile phone coverage.
I filled the esky with ice, packed pre-made frozen meals and filled every available storage space in the boat with food, a small barbecue, some pots and eating utensils, snorkelling gear, fishing gear, inflatable body boards, cameras and plenty of extra fresh water.
Having towed the LeisureCat the last 100km of the drive on Saturday morning, we were greeted by the most spectacular view – the Indian Ocean was like a lake. We couldn’t have wished for a better weekend. We filled the boat with fuel and launched at the main Geraldton boat ramp.
We have done plenty of adventurous four-wheel drive trips and remote camping, but this was easily the biggest trip we had attempted in our boat.
Totally self-sufficient, we felt like early explorers, ready to discover a shipwreck for the first time.
Our destination was the northern Wallabi Group of islands, around 50nm (90km) from Geraldton. I was hoping the swell would be minimal so Austin and I could snorkel the Batavia wreck.
My husband, Ashley was keen to catch some good sports fish, while Cooper was rather intrigued by the story of the Batavia mutiny and wanted to visit Long Island where the ‘baddies’ were hung. We were all hopeful of finding the Webbe-Hayes Forts, the oldest European-made structures in Australia, now 385 years old.
Travelling at 23 knots, we were making comfortable progress to the Wallabi Islands.
Undistracted by flocks of birds feeding on bait pushed up by tuna and other pelagic species, we focused on our initial goal – to find Batavia. We motored past big fish sounding on our Garmin and after almost two hours of travelling, land appeared in the distance. Batavia ahoy!
As we approached Morning Reef, the shipwreck icon appeared on the sounder and we scouted for the sand patch, easily spotting a bright blue break in the reef. The planets had aligned – it was calm. Ashley dropped me off in three metres of water, then took the boat out deeper to avoid the dangerous reef ahead.
I was greeted by a massive coral trout, schools of buffalo bream and huge King George whiting as I hunted for remains of the wreck. As I swam further toward the reef I saw an anchor, then a cannon and yet another anchor. It was incredible. There I was in just two metres of water, looking at history, which has been in a watery grave for almost 400 years.
I yelled to everyone that we had found it and Austin quickly donned his fins and mask to join me, full of adrenaline. He held my hand and squealed with excitement as the cannons and anchors came into sight. This was a great experience shared with my eight-year-old, who was courageous enough to jump into an unknown ocean, with breaking waves behind us, to discover history.
After so much hype and anticipation, this experience surpassed all our expectations.
Tired after hours in the boat, it was time to hit the beach so we made our way to East Wallabi Island and the squeaky white sands of spectacular Turtle Bay.
There was only one other boat on a mooring buoy, so we had the island to ourselves and the kids ran along the beach searching for shells. Lizards scurried along the tracks and a majestic white-bellied sea eagle lurched into full flight as the boys approached its perch on the viewing platform. I was pleasantly surprised to find a sun shelter, marked walking trails and numerous signs outlining the wildlife and history of the island. My only wish was that we could stay longer as our first day was nearly over.
After exploring the island, we motored to the public mooring, 100m offshore. Dinner and sleeping on the boat was cosy and cheerful and we were so excited about our day’s activities, we couldn’t wait for morning.
The visibility was amazing; some of the best I have seen. Coral trout were cruising between the fanshaped coral and bommies, 12m below the boat.
We could see fish following our soft plastics and the kids delighted in watching trout, emperor, cod and baldchin grouper take their lures.
With a wealth of fishing options, we headed for the deeper water and reef breaks for a bit of pelagic action. It didn’t take long for our deep diving lures to cause a stir, producing a good-sized Spanish mackerel.
But dinner was on the agenda so we changed direction again, this time targeting bottom-dwellers. Within minutes of dropping my bait, I hooked a lovely West Australian dhufish, my favourite eating fish. The crystal clear water was so inviting, it was time to pack away the rods and explore some of the closer reefs.
The water was so astonishingly calm and clear and the fish were indifferent to our presence. Coral trout poked their heads out to greet us and the kids swam over a two-to-three-metre shovel nosed shark, sleeping soundly beneath them.
We bobbed our heads under plate coral to see a large grouper, tropical fish swam past and stag horn coral and plate coral surrounded us, with about 30m of visibility in all directions.
It was a delight to be in this underwater wonderland, so spectacularly beautiful. As the sun approached the horizon, we stopped off for a quick exploration at Long Island, before mooring in Turtle Bay for our last night.
With no clear boat passage, it was difficult to know which way to access the forts on West Wallabi Island. I stood on the front of the boat, scouting coral bommies as we tried to find access from the eastern side. Fortunately, the presence of a sightseeing plane doing circuits around the island was a great clue as to the location of the forts.
We tracked further north with the water only 70cm deep and decided to drop anchor around 300m from shore and wade in.
I dragged the older boys on their inflatable boards and Bailey rode on Ashley’s shoulders as we headed for land. I envisaged the mutineers doing the same thing, but with their bare feet being torn to shreds on the jagged coral.
We clamoured up the sharp rocks to be met by a historic sign about the forts and how to look after the area. We couldn’t believe our luck; we had arrived in exactly the right location.
The boys ran ahead on the scrubby tracks, scaring the small wallabies in their haste to find the forts. We could hear excited yelling ahead; they had discovered a fort perched on the high point of the island.
Small enough to shelter 10 or so men, the handbuilt structure has survived intact for over 385 years, despite cyclones and the roughest of weather imaginable. The shallow wells, which kept the soldiers alive, were still visible and a local carpet python had even taken up residence in one.
While the snake distracted the kids, I made my way to the second fort and hid some replica pewter Batavia coins I had secretly purchased at the Perth Shipwreck Museum and waited for them to find the ‘treasure’. The excitement on their faces was like Christmas morning.
With a two-hour boat trip and a five-hour drive home ahead of us, it was time to leave the Wallabi Group and head for Geraldton. This trip was one of our best weekends ever, but with so much more to do and see, we all can’t wait to return.