Lizard Island and the Great Barrier Reef

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What a month! Lizard Island is a beautiful place to hole up until the northerlies allow us to sail back south. After leaving Port Douglas, we had an unremarkable stay at Cooktown, anchored for two days to avoid strong winds before continuing north. Leaving Cooktown behind, we had a great sail some 50nm north to Lizard Island. Blue Heeler was joined by a number of other yachts and catamarans also enjoying the steady 25 knot breeze to Lizard.

The first few days at Lizard Island we enjoyed light winds allowing us to swim and snorkel in the turquoise waters over the clam gardens and coral bommies around the anchorage. Over the following weeks we were to learn that calm days are not the norm at Lizard!

There are a few walks around Lizard Island – the difficult Cook’s Look track; another across to the Blue Lagoon on the south of the island, plus another track to the Research Station where there’s some spectacular snorkelling. I was delighted to see little Clown Fish on a snorkel over that way.

After a steep walk up to Cook’s Look we were rewarded with stunning views overlooking the anchorage, the exclusive resort, Palfrey Island to the south and the Great Barrier Reef and the edge of the continental shelf to the east. Just off the beach at the base of the walk is a camping area including a gas barbecue and drop toilets. There’s also a hand-water pump for fresh ground water, which is available for yachties as well. There are so many fish varieties at Lizard and I had fun chasing many of them. I swam after a large school of fish but a strange thing happened. They all turned and looked at me, stopping me in my tracks. That felt a little weird!

So that was to be the itinerary for most of our stay at Lizard. Up early, a bit of yoga on deck, followed by reading, napping, snorkelling and relaxing. The winds at Lizard blew from the south east every day – usually around 20/25 knots. This wasn’t a problem at the anchorage, but did thwart some of our attempts to motor around to other areas on the reef without getting soaked.

There’s no internet, TV or phones at Lizard Island, except we can briefly get 3G on Wayne’s iPad and if I walk on the ridge at the top of the Chinaman’s walk, I may get limited phone reception. Some people apparently got phone reception half way up the walk to Cook’s Look.

The yachties are very social and each night all get together for a sundowner. It’s a great way to share stories and learn from others. On a couple of occasions, one or two musical yachties would drag out a guitar or a mandolin to entertain the small crowd. Friday nights was spent at the Marlin Bar which is open to yachties from Wednesday to Sundays. A flotilla of dinghies would buzz around there around 6pm wearing footwear (usually thongs) for the first time in days. The food was okay and the drinks are reasonably priced. There’s also a skip to dump rubbish which is very handy. A barge arrives at Lizard every couple of weeks and I was told that yachties could order supplies through Coles and have them delivered for a small fee although we had enough supplies on board and didn’t need to use this service. The Lizard Island Research station can also handle outgoing and incoming mail deliveries which is very generous of them (and very handy for me).

We’ve met some great people at Lizard – They’re all fellow yachties seeking a lifestyle aboard a floating home. We’re all a little different though; some yachties are in their first year of cruising, like us, while others are more experienced. Some are live-aboards, while others are squeezing in a few months sailing before having to return home to work. A few are international visitors following in the steps of Captain Cook, and some are families with kids to home-school. Others have fancy boats; while others have just enough to keep them afloat! But regardless of how we all get around, we’re all just happy to be living on our boats.

It wasn’t all beer and skittles though! We did a little bit of work now and again. The leech on the genoa had blown its stitches so I set up the sewing machine on the foredeck and ran new stitches down the entire leech as it was likely the deteriorated thread would come apart elsewhere on that hem. The job took an hour or so of sitting in the hot sun so when that was over and the machine packed away, I had lunch then jumped in for a snorkel across to the reef, staying in the water for a couple of hours. Wayne managed to fix a few things and busied himself with regulators and electronics, while on another occasion I took apart the kitchen plumbing to identify and rectify a sickening stench!

The Lizard Island Research Station opens its doors to visitors on Monday’s at 11am. The tour was very informative and I found out that the slick we saw back at Green Island was not coral spawn. In fact it was some sort of algal bloom that looks very much like coral spawn. Apparently the coral spawn on a full moon in November – the same time each year – with the whole reef exploding into a spawning frenzy.

When we weren’t snorkelling at Lizard, we decided to go diving. We took our dive gear around to one of the two public moorings at Mermaid Bay on the northern side of Lizard where we’d snorkelling a few days earlier. The dive took us down to around 20m but wasn’t as pretty as I’d hoped. A few days later we hooked up to a mooring above a dive named Cobia Hole, just north east of the Watson’s Bay anchorage. It was a good dive and pretty enough – heaps of large fish and an easy dive to 25m. We followed the mooring line down to 15m where another line takes the diver across to a large coral pinnacle.

One day the weather eased (15/20 knots) so we took the opportunity to sail over to the outer reef to the famous Cod Hole – famous for its large friendly Potato Cods. We sailed Blue Heeler, following Leigh aboard the yacht Mi Querida sailing ahead of us. We reached the Cod Hole after a few hours of tacking. There are two public moorings available and a couple of commercial moorings too. We’d grabbed the public mooring on the eastern side and in no time, Wayne and I had our scuba gear on. The crew from the yacht Kool Sid had joined Mi Querida for the day and told us there was a strong current. I jumped in with my scuba gear on and they were quite correct. I was hanging onto a safety line on Blue Heeler and couldn’t let go without floating backwards. Wayne jumped in and somehow managed to get down 10m to the bottom of the mooring, but I struggled to make any headway. This was disconcerting as I knew that if we left the closeness of Blue Heeler, there was a good chance we’d float away and be unable to swim back against the strong current in full scuba gear.

Although Wayne was keen to go, I aborted the dive as I didn’t think it was safe to continue. Disappointingly we climbed back aboard and took off our gear, but soon cheered up when Leigh on Mi Querida invited us over to use his hooker and see the cod. The coral reef under our mooring was unremarkable, but once we floated over to where the others were, the coral and fish life were stunning. We floated above and watched the others on the hooker some 12m below us with cod swimming around them. Leigh invited Wayne to use the hooker first, then I went down afterwards. The potato cod are huge and very friendly and it’s a little intimidating having such a massive fish look you in the eye. Afterwards Wayne asked me if I’d seen the shark near me, which I didn’t, but he took a photo to show me! After our treat of swimming and playing with the huge cod, we then had to swim back to Blue Heeler, some 50m swim away. I used all my strength to pull through the strong current. If I used my legs only I went backwards so I swam hard until I reached our safety line drifting 25m at the back of Blue Heeler and dragged myself along it until I was on board. We tidied up our gear then sailed back to Watson’s Bay anchorage at Lizard. Now that was a great day!

After weeks of snorkelling, swimming and relaxing, the weather window opened and it was time to leave Lizard. Joining us on departure day were a flotilla of multi-hulls and monohulls keen to make it south before the cyclone season. Not long had we left the marine park surrounding Lizard Island that lines and lures were cast from the back of yachts eager to catch some fresh fish! Each yacht managed to haul in a feed of fresh fish and we were delighted with our catch. We caught our biggest catch to date – a 1.2m Spanish mackerel we estimated around 10-15 kilos! Using a 40lb line Wayne had a task to haul the line in with the hooked fish jumping around on the other end as we sailed along at 6 knots. While Wayne dragged in our dinner, I had to reduce speed to around 3 knots to help him out. Wayne gaffed the fish, hauled it aboard just as the 40lb line broke and quickly sorted it out (ie: gut, bleed, cut head off – yuk!) while I swabbed the deck with seawater to rid it of blood and guts. Now we had a minor problem – although our fridge was quite empty, I wrestled to get a 1.2m fish inside! I had to fold the tail and shove it in quite firmly until it snapped. Later that day once we were anchored, I dragged it back out of the fridge and filleted huge pieces from the catch – over 20 huge fillets of Spanish Mackerel! That fish fed us for a week!

Taking advantage of the calmer weather, we sailed south from Lizard onto the Ribbon Reef; each reef numbered 10 to 1 (descending south). We sailed to the top of Ribbon no. 9 to do a dive named “Pixie’s Pinnacle”. The dive didn’t disappoint. We moored close by then dinghied across to the top of the dive, descended to 26m then spent the subsequent 30 minutes spiralling upwards around the coral pinnacle. As we rounded onto the sunny face of the coral pinnacle, the coral lit up with bright colours contrasting against the deep blue depths of water. The fish were amazing – even saw a Lion Fish hiding in a cave. So many coloured fish of various shapes and sizes – a great dive!

The following day arising early and by 6am began motor-sailing south to anchor later that day at Ribbon No. 3 for another afternoon of snorkelling. Up again the next day we left the anchorage and motor sailed the 37nm distance to the anchorage at St Crispin Reef. The day started off fine with about 12 knots of wind behind us – we even decided to drag the big spinny out for a flutter, but the wind died a couple of hours into the trip so we had to motor the rest of the way. Our approach to St Crispin anchorage was straightforward and after dodging a few large bommies we anchored in 12m and swam a short way across to the coral ledge. Kool Sid with Tremain and Sue anchored nearby and three catamarans from Lizard Island were an hour or so after us and anchored much closer to the reef in around 4m.

Our final day on the reef was to be a little bumpier than we anticipated. A comfortable night on anchor, we were again up and leaving by 6am. We left the comfort of the inner reef and sailed outside the reef then down to the Trinity Opening. After an hour of motoring north then turning east outside the reef, the wind began to increase as we headed south. The next 12 hours we slogged into wind up to 28 knots trying to maintain enough speed so we could reach Michaelmas Cay anchorage before dark. The catamarans left St Crispin after us, but by the time we’d tacked around Opal Reef, they’d caught up and overtaken us. We ploughed through the waves at a measly 3 knots, until we decided to tack east across to Saxon Reef to benefit from smaller waves on that side of the channel. Our sail on that tack was much better than earlier, and by early afternoon, we tacked on our course of 210 degrees taking us right by Michaelmas Cay. The other yachts were no longer in sight, but obviously running parallel to us on the other side of the Trinity channel. We decided not to stay at Michaelmas Cay – there’s a lot of bommies at the entrance and we weren’t confident we could miss them all in that wind and the lateness of the day. We were zipping along at 7-8 knots so we made the decision to continue through to Cairns, some 28nm from Saxon Reef and fortunately on the same tack. Blue Heeler pounded through the waves as they crashed over the bow. Wayne, who helmed steadfastly through the day, often took a direct hit. We managed over 70nm that day and only had the engine on for the first part, and the final hour. We were happy with that effort!

We arrived at Cairns by 7pm and anchored in the same location we had a few weeks previously. With the anchor set and our bellies hungry, I whipped up a batch of – you guessed it – fish!

The next couple of days at Cairns were the usual routine – laundry, buy fresh groceries, meat and grog. Funnily enough my cousin’s wife, Sue, was in town working so we also caught up with her for dinner too.

We left Cairns last Wednesday and sailed around to Fitzroy Island for the night where we caught up with John and Alison from the yacht Liberty for a drink or two. The next day we were up early once more to motor-sail the 66nm to Dunk Island. We’re making the most of the weather and luckily we managed to get the sails out and ride the northerly winds south for a few hours.

It’s been a month since my last entry and after eight months of sailing, September has been the best month so far! As we continue south, we have plenty of thoughts and ideas about the next stage of our trip. We are aiming to be in the southern part of Queensland for summer to get some work done on Blue Heeler and plan next year’s sailing season. I’ve adapted to the sailing life better than I expected and can’t wait until next year!

About blueheelerhr39

Sailing the world aboard Blue Heeler
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2 Responses to Lizard Island and the Great Barrier Reef

  1. Anonymous says:

    What a fantastic update. I really ++ enjoy reading them . The photos are so clear , and beautiful!
    We have just returned from the first WISC race in 25 kts ++ the whole race and the biggest seas I have seen on Port Phillip bay , We did ;5 hours training yesterday so all the girls are pretty buggered !! but happy .
    My friend Dori Parkin ( from Bonnie Lass ) and I are flying to Tasmania for 5 days and will sail for a few days in the d’entrecasteux channel. hope the weather will be good !
    I am now on the General Committee and the Social Committee at the club so am just about living there now !
    Alan and Cats are all good.
    cheers Kathy

    • Hi Kathy

      Great to hear from you. Wow, seems like only a short time ago when I joined you for last year’s WISC.
      Your trip to Tassie will be great fun – it’s excellent sailing down in the d’x channel – watch out for the wind bullets though!

      We met some great yachties at Lizard Island and we’re riding the northerlies back down. Currently at the Whitsunday’s and we’ll probably go no further south than Brisbane. Our plans are to come back up next year on to Darwin – from there we’re still not decided whether we do the Indo rally or continue around to the Kimberley’s – so much choice!

      Congrats on your role on the committees – sounds like you’re very busy at the club.

      Please give our best to Alan (and the cats), and to Dori..

      Cheers
      Ally

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