The highlight of our month at sea was undoubtedly our time at Lady Musgrave Island. Our plan was to anchor at Round Hill Creek until a suitable weather window arose, and it arrived sooner than we’d anticipated. Lady Musgrave is one of the southern-most islands in the Great Barrier Reef. It lies about 60km east of Round Hill Creek, straight out into the Pacific Ocean, and we didn’t really want to be caught out there in a storm, or even very windy, rough conditions.
What makes Lady Musgrave Island really special is that it is a coral cay (island) of about 20 hectares, surrounded by a huge circular reef of almost 3,000 hectares. Coincidentally (or not – maybe a blast in the past), there is a break in the reef just big enough to motor through, which allows one to anchor inside the beautiful turquoise lagoon.
The approach to the island is really deceptive – it felt like we were going past it, but eventually came upon the entrance beacons (which are critical). It was our first navigation through coral reefs, which are a little less forgiving than sandbars, so we were very cautious. Once through the entrance, however, there is ample space and the demarcated anchoring area is huge, so we were able to find a spot far away from other boats and coral heads.
We arrived in the mid-afternoon, and immediately jumped into the tender to go and explore the island. What a treasure awaited us! We stepped out of the tender onto a beach made up of millions of pieces of coral, all different shapes, sizes and textures. Large branches lay scattered on the beach, looking like giant pieces of driftwood that had been artistically arranged. Bordering the beach was a forest of trees with twisted white trunks and branches, and luminous bright green leaves. The air was filled with birdcalls – but wild, strange calls that I’d never heard before. And streaming in from the sea were hundreds and hundreds of black sea birds, squawking and diving and eventually finding their nest in the forest. It felt like we were in a David Attenborough documentary!
We learned that the birds are called “black noddies”, of the tern family. Lady Musgrave Island is one of their major breeding sites (no kidding). They are very tame and unafraid of humans, and we could walk right next to them without them feeling the least bit afraid. We walked right around the island before watching the sunset, and then returning to Noah’s Ark, feeling awed by the unspoiled beauty and raw nature we’d just experienced.
The next morning we were delighted to see turtles very near the boat – then more turtles, and more turtles. Turns out it’s a major breeding ground for Green Turtles too! At one stage, Marco called us to come and see the “biggest turtle he’d ever seen”. I had a look through the binoculars, and discovered that it was in fact 2 turtles getting cosy. Yip, we were there smack bang in the middle of mating season, and boy, do these guys keep busy. By the end of our stay it was almost not a novelty anymore. We also discovered that male turtles are extremely well-endowed. They have a long tail sticking out the back of their shell, and after doing some research, we learned that their “meneer” actually extends most of the way down to the end of the tail. Stand aside horses!
Anyway, this reproduction preoccupation meant that we were able to get very close to the turtles, which was an incredible experience. They really are gentle creatures. Josh, in particular, was very taken with them, and him and I spent a couple mornings on our SUPs paddling around the coral heads and watching them from close range.
One of our favourite activities was snorkelling on the reef. The boys hadn’t snorkelled since we were in Fiji about 4 years ago, and were so excited to experience it again. We were suitably rewarded! The coral is really beautiful, colourful and healthy. We saw so many interesting things – including giant clams with big purple furry “mouths”, lots of bright tropical fish, starfish, pipe fish, stingrays, and even an octopus. I caught sight of the octopus by chance as I swam over a section of the reef, and noticed how the “coral” moved under me. It was pretty freaky, as I stopped and stared right at it and couldn’t distinguish it from the reef. Eventually it moved again and I spotted an arm with purple suckers underneath. I gestured to Marco and the boys, and we all watched as it crawled over to a purple section of coral, and totally changed colour before our eyes! They really are well disguised!
Another eerie experience was spotting a huge stingray resting in the sand. I first saw his tail – it looked like a long curved piece of wood, which was rather odd in that environment. I went closer to investigate, traced the curve up and eventually made out the outline of his body. In my ignorance I thought he was dead – so went to call Marco to show him. He bluntly informed me that it was very much alive, and that they commonly rested in the sand, even partially covering themselves in sand as a disguise. Bit freaky knowing he was watching me the whole time!
That experience, though, was nothing compared to my shark encounter. That’s right, I snorkelled right into a SHARK – or just about. I was trying out our GoPro, filming some pretty corals and nice little fishies. Snorkelling goggles don’t provide much peripheral vision, and I was totally absorbed in the scene in front of me. I then turned the camera round and waved at it (as you do), switched it off, feeling happy with my cute footage, and turned 180 degrees … to see the profile of a big grey bulk of a shark right in front of me, about 2m away!!! It wasn’t a reef shark, it was big and fat and dark grey all over … not that I studied it for very long. I went hot all over, my heart raced, and I turned around and got the hell out of there – stopping every now and then to scream “shark!! get to the boat” to the boys. I know the theory – you’re supposed to remain calm and composed and just gently glide away, but that doesn’t work in practice! And yes, I know that 97% of sharks are harmless, but all I wanted to do was get away from it, and hope to God that he wasn’t chasing me!
Once we were all back in the tender, I described the shark to Marco. He was a little skeptical – we were only in about 5m of water, maybe it was a small reef shark, maybe my goggles magnified it, maybe it wasn’t even a shark … I started doubting myself too. Well, when I viewed my GoPro footage, I got a chill down my spine – and I think Marco did too. Only the tail is visible, but it definitely was a shark, and a pretty large one at that! I can’t believe how such a large creature could creep up behind me without me noticing, and me the bimbo filming myself and waving at the camera with a shark in the background! It’s actually ridiculous! Anyway, I know it’s a rare experience, and one is actually “lucky” to see a shark. All I know is that I didn’t want to get back into the water on that side of the island!
I did feel a little safer doing some exploring on the land. We spent some time exploring the inside of the island, walking through the forest of pisonia trees amongst all the nesting birds. It was really magical – felt a bit like being in an enchanted wood, or Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings. You’re basically walking on guano, and the soil looks very rich – no wonder the trees are so healthy! There is a small campsite on the one side of the island – easily found by following the noise of the generator that seems to run continuously. I can’t imagine coming to such a remote natural place and having to listen to a generator engine non-stop!
We spent a lot of time on the beach basking in the wonderfully hot sun. The boys enjoyed playing beach bats, and searching for interesting pieces of coral.
We spent the last couple days snorkelling off the other side of the island, and seemed to have found the turtle playground. It was such a treat – Josh and I counted 8 turtles just in one dive, and they were very tame (or rather, preoccupied). Josh even managed to touch the shell of one, which he was very excited about.
Noah and Marco got busy with some boat-improvement, building seats for the front of each bow. The boys love sitting there on our longer trips – it helps with any queasiness, and is also the best place to spot sealife. They now have custom built seats, to enhance their viewing pleasure.
Eventually we had to leave this paradise – I wanted to get back to Mooloolaba for my mom’s 70th, and the weather window we had enjoyed seemed to be coming to an end. We all felt totally refreshed and relaxed after an amazing couple days on this beautiful island. It really was a priviledge to be able to experience this incredible piece of creation.