Self-confessed reef addicts, Chris and Wade on Anui, have spent an extended time in the southernmost part of the Great Barrier Reef and declare “this is where Great begins” in more ways than one.
During a time with more heartache, health concerns and boat maintenance than is fair for one cruising couple to handle, being able to spend several weeks at the reefs of the Capricorn and Bunker Group is a godsend. These coral cays and reefs are the southernmost of the Great Barrier Reef. This really is where Great in the Great Barrier Reef begins and where we have felt contented at last. Situated some 30-55nm offshore and adjacent to the coastal towns of Bundaberg, Gladstone, 1770 and Yeppoon, these jewels are on a line running southeast to northwest, from Lady Elliott Island at the southern end, to North Island at the very northern end of the group.
There is an extraordinary amount to explore. The Capricorn and Bunker Group comprises 22 reefs with 16 permanent coral islands known as cays which are breeding sites for many seabirds and marine turtles. Although not all reefs and cays can be visited since some are reserved for scientific research, many are readily accessible and offer wondrous experiences. Between snorkeling, diving, birdwatching, kayaking and fishing (outside the green conservation zone of course), there is plenty to enjoy when the weather conditions are light.
The Southern Reefs are visited by many passing vessels cruising Queensland waters. They are particularly appealing because their distance from the mainland has served to protect them from human influence such as introduced pests, weeds and sedimentation, while being not so remote they are difficult to get to. They have to date been spared from coral bleaching and disease, the numbers of Crowns of Thorns Starfish are low and the fish life abundant, particularly in the reefs surrounded by Green Zones. The Southern Reefs may be teeming with life, but they have suffered though. There is no doubt that over the years we have seen some deterioration from bleaching, as well as increased storm intensity and frequency: upturned corals, rubble, algae smothering the coral in places. There was a bleaching event last year which affected some reefs more severely such as Fitzroy and Wistari. However overall we have found the Capricorn & Bunker Group in reasonably good condition.
Even on an overcast day, a lagoon is a favoured shelter.
Every reef and cay you go to is different, but as you spend time there you notice some common characteristics which impact their look and how as yachties you experience them. Reefs fall into three main categories:
1. Platform Reefs, including elongated ones, which are flat topped such as North West, Tryon, Masthead for example.
2. Lagoonal Platform Reefs which have a kind of basin with shallow water, such as Wistari, Heron, One Tree Reef.
3. Ring Reefs such as Lady Musgrave, Fitzroy, Boult, Fairfax or Hoskyn Reefs, where the reef wall encircles a lagoon of moderate depth, but not always with a navigable entrance.
The most popular reefs in the Capricorn and Bunker Group are undoubtedly Lady Musgrave and Fitzroy Reefs. Both are ring reefs with a small gap in the wall allowing navigable access to a stunning lagoon inside. For cruising yachts, they offer more protection from chop and current inside the lagoon, extensive sandy areas clear of scattered coral outcrops for anchoring, the ability to swing in different wind directions and a variety of areas to snorkel, dive, kayak and fish. Weather allowing, you can easily stay there for multiple days even if the wind picks up or changes direction. It might not be comfortable at above 25kts and you might be unable to get off the boat, but if these conditions only last for a day or two, it is possible to stay put safely inside. Of course, this also means you will rarely have the place to yourself. In fact it is not unusual to share these sites with over 30 boats.
The platform reefs or lagoonal platform reefs will always be less visited. You may see boats fishing during the day, even runabouts from the coast, but you will find very few anchored overnight. You will also be more limited with weather conditions because these reefs offer far less shelter than a lagoon. Most of the reefs have relative protection from one side at low tide – the northern end – but are exposed on the other and if the breeze switches you lose any shelter. There are also subject to swift current running alongside them.
Before taking you to a few different reefs you may never have visited, let us talk about some anchoring tricks.
The anchoring enemies at the reef are the bommies: the outcrops of coral, often resembling a column and which can be partially exposed at low tide. We therefore like to look for three elements: we prefer to anchor in less than 12m of water, over a clear patch of sand free of coral outcrops, with a full 3600 swing room in case the wind changes as it often does. We have learnt the hard way over the years and will now rarely anchor overnight at a reef if these three elements are not working with us. If the chain gets wrapped around bommies, and we cannot maneuver the boat around to clear it, the only option is to dive down. Once the water is deeper than 12-15m, it gets harder to clear the entanglement unless you can free dive or have scuba gear on board.
Anchoring inside a lagoon offers the least stressful option because our preferred conditions are often easily met there. The only challenge is entering the lagoon which is typically through a narrow passage funnelling a lot of current. The best time to go through is between 10am and 2pm when the sun is overhead or high behind you for best light, at low tide if there is enough depth so you can see exactly where the edges of the reef are, and polarised sunglasses are an essential piece of kit. If only one aspect can be met, choose the light. Both Lady Musgrave and Fitzroy Lagoons have a deep if narrow entrance.
Anchoring alongside a platform reef is different. Although the same preferred conditions apply, you have to be prepared to deal with strong current running alongside the reef. Your boat will lay with the current which at some stage could mean wind against tide conditions, creating choppy seas. The current may also lead to your anchor not laying in front of your boat but next to it or way back in between your hulls on a catamaran. It is rare to have a totally quiet night next to a platform reef. There is always some movement for a few hours.
Whether in a lagoon or next to a reef, as a rule, we always lay a track as we move to our anchoring spot. It makes it easier later to exit the way we came in, presumably through an area free of bommies. We ensure we have pulled back on the anchor to satisfy ourselves we are not dragging, and we set our anchor alarm. We definitely do not want to have to re-anchor in the dark! But if for some reason we move outside our safe circle, we want to be alerted immediately.
If you are lucky enough to have picked up a mooring, set your anchor alarm also. We have had the experience of a mooring rope failing in the middle of the night, but the anchor alarm meant we were able to react quickly.
Armed with The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority zoning map 18 for the Capricorn Bunker Group and Eye on the Reef, a free downloadable app also from the GBRMPA, you are all set. The beautiful turquoise water beckons! We will start our excursions with Lady Musgrave, because it is hard to beat this safest and easiest of reef locations. But then let’s play explorers and go to a few spots you may not have been to before. They are scenic, attractive and do give you a sense of adventure.
If you want to see breeding birds, if you enjoy snorkelling with a multitude of fish surrounding you, if you have a soft spot for sea turtles, if you wish to play castaway on a coral cay, Lady Musgrave is the place to be. It is a great location to start at because if you have never been to a reef before it is relatively easy to get inside following our previous suggestions, you will be protected and will be mesmerised by the marine life and brilliant colours of the lagoon. And if you have been there a few times, you will still find new discoveries to enjoy in a relaxed setting.
A typical reef – Lady Musgrave. Image courtesy Queensland.com
This is a busy spot though! Many yachts anchor there, as well as commercial tour boats. The Lady Musgrave Island and lagoon are 52nm from Bundaberg and typically the first or last stop along the Southern Reef yachts come to. Anchoring is straight forward, or you may be lucky to pick up one of eight public moorings. The beauty of being in such an extensive lagoon is that you can moor in the company of other boats or anchor far away from the crowds, you can dinghy and explore numerous bommies in the middle of the lagoon, snorkel along different parts of the reef wall, both inside and outside, and of course you have the option to stretch your legs and go ashore on the coral cay. Although we have been there multiple times, we have enjoyed an amazing variety of marine life. The highlight of our past winter trips was swimming with manta rays on the outside of the reef wall at slack water high several days in a row. Part of the lagoon is in a green zone, near the coral cay, but you can fish or spearfish at the other end of the lagoon, which means quite tasty meals!
Lady Musgrave without the crowds.
FAIRFAX REEF AND ISLANDS
If the breeze is light, allowing you to explore, you have the option of exiting the safety of Lady Musgrave and venture to nearby reefs for a few hours then return to the lagoon. Most people only see the Fairfax Islands from a distance. However, on a calm day these islands and their surrounding reef are worth a closer look. Anchoring the big boat happens on the north western side of the reef. It offers a day stop only in our view, but well worth the effort of throwing the pick in and getting the dinghy, paddle board or kayak out for an explore at high tide. If getting there at low tide, a beautiful snorkel on the outside edge of the reef is called for. The protected zoning is obviously working as we saw lots of fish, big turtles and a manta ray. There are two islands, one being a sand cay, the other a shingle cay. However, landing is not permitted. Unexploded ordnance could be one of the reasons! The Fairfax Islands were once used as a bombing range by the army and navy and for phosphate mining. But these access restrictions are also to protect turtle and seabird nesting populations.
Only a narrow strip of sand to anchor in at the Fairfax Reef but spectacular views.
HOSKYN REEF AND ISLANDS
Hoskyn Reef is another one of these attractions which people seldom stop at. Like Fairfax, it has two islands: a vegetated sand cay located on the leeside of the reef flat, the other a shingle cay located on the windward side. There is a beautiful shallow enclosed lagoon, and you will see the most amazing colours. You can anchor outside in 10-15m of water along the northwest side of this reef. We consider it as a day anchorage only because there are scattered corals which you need to approach with caution, and you have only a narrow strip of sand in clear water with insufficient swing room for an overnight stay. However, if throwing the pick there for just a few hours, a dinghy or kayak trip to explore the little lagoon if you get there at high tide, or snorkel on the outside edge of the reef at low tide is a spectacular experience. Be aware though that access above the highwater mark on the coral cays is not permitted and the surrounding waters are in a Green Zone, so no fishing, and no taking of any kind, except for photos!
Just the next reef on from Hoskyn Islands is the beautiful ring reef of Boult Reef with an enclosed lagoon but no navigable entrance. You get quite close as you sail to Boult Reef before you see it. The first hint of a reef being there are the breaking waves in the distance. Once next to it you see the characteristic layers of colour: dark ultramarine in the deep water, a line of white breaking waves, the brown of the reef wall, the stunning turquoise of the lagoon and then in the distance those same colours in reverse order. We would hate to have been wandering around these parts before the navigation gear is what it is now! You can see how easily ships could get into strife. Snorkelling there is impressive. We observed larger fish in big schools, quite a thrill as you swim along. There is plenty to catch with a spear gun too, and numerous kinds which are far too pretty or small to eat, like the Convict Surgeonfish, the more habitual Damselfish, Parrotfish, or Butterflyfish. You go up narrow gutters in the reef where all sorts of marine life congregate and it feels like you are swimming through a fish highway. But watch out for some of the ledges which can often harbour rather large carpet sharks … harmless if you do not annoy them, but impressive in size nevertheless!
A large lagoonal platform reef, Heron Reef has several areas which can be explored, offering very different snorkelling experiences. The reef has its own vegetated coral cay with a resort and research station. The facilities are out of bound to yachties but you can of course dive and snorkel. At the north east end, a small bay with a public mooring lets you get to the edge of the lagoon at low tide. The corals are a little hit and miss, but a variety of fish of all sizes patrol the gutters where the water pours out of the lagoon … great photo opportunities there and a chance to experiment with split shots with an underwater camera in the shallows. There is a fair amount of current as the water ebbs so be ready for a workout as you swim along. Also at Heron, but close to the island on the edge of the channel between the Heron and Wistari Reefs is another attraction: the wreck of HMS Protector. It was sunk there as a breakwater and is now an artificial reef. At mid tide there is enough water around the wreck to swim freely, whereas at low tide, you will need to be very streamlined and thin to fit through! Groups of stripey snappers and sweetlips shelter against the hull, unafraid of people and allow you to come quite close to them. You might also see some rays. You can anchor the big boat off the northern side of the Wistari Reef and dinghy over to the wreck, or you may be lucky to pick up the public mooring in the channel and dinghy from there. Either way, beware of the current in the channel which runs quite swiftly.
Split shots are fun to experiment with soft and hard corals in the shallows as the water rushes out of the lagoon.
At the northern end of the Capricorn Group, to the east of Northwest Island, Broomfield is a large roundish reef with a small sand cay that seems to appear only at low tide at the northern tip of the reef. Broomfield is a ring reef with a lagoon in the center, only accessible by dinghy at high tide. Anchoring of the big boat is along the western side of the reef in a SE. You want to go there in light conditions – say 10kts or less - as the current wraps around the reef and runs fast which in a stronger breeze will make the conditions quite choppy and uncomfortable. The good thing is that you will not see anyone! Broomfield Reef has its own unique identity. It is a great spot for fishing and the snorkeling is interesting. We have seen more Moorish Idols here than at any other reef. Spearfishing along the shallow edges can lead to rewarding catches too.
Located nearby North West Reef, Tryon is a platform reef with an attractive cay. There are a couple of patches of sand to throw the anchor in 10-12m of water on the southern side of the reef, but they are really small, and there is a lot of scattered coral heads. Although Tryon Reef is recognised as one of the best northwest anchorages of the Capricorn Group, in up to 30kts, you would not want to be there in those conditions! In fact, even in light conditions there is movement at anchor and as with all platform reefs, you must beware of the current running alongside the reef. This reef and its island are protected. It is in a green zone, so no fishing is allowed. The island has in the past been covered with dense vegetation, notably Pisonia trees, but suffered a scale insect infection which decimated 90% of its forest. Although the plant life is recovering, access is restricted at present to protect the vegetation as well as the nesting birds.
About 5nm off Tryon Island.
Our aims in writing about the reef, sharing experiences, taking underwater, seascape and aerial images are to capture the wonder of the marine life and special moments at sea that make people stop, look and care. We hope the great reefs of the Capricorn and Bunker Group entice you to connect and find something you love in a world many people could never imagine themselves entering. Because we protect what we love. We look after the things we learn about and understand better.