|Coral Sea Safari - Part 2|
by Gordon Macdonald
Our Coral Sea Safari aboard Huntress II started from Brisbane four days ago and we are now well out into the Coral Sea. Whilst our first destination of Wreck Reef promised plenty of adventure and angling opportunity we are moving on after only one day to travel the next leg of our journey north-east to Kenn Reef. They say the grass is always greener but I couldn’t imagine the water being any bluer than it was at Wreck Reef. However, the incentive to journey forth is the promise of a few days of relaxation, fishing and spearing. We are all keen to sample the angling action around this extensive system and spend a little time simply kicking back to enjoy nature’s beauty and bounty.
Day five –Wednesday, November 3, 2010
As we neared Kenn Reef the sounder was again able to give us return and we counted up the depth as we approached yet another awesome and expansive reef system. The depths had shallowed from several thousands of metres to less than 200, within a very short distance. It is amazing the amount of life surrounding these systems. Another bellowing drag and scorching run signalled more pelagic mayhem. A sleek wahoo, slightly short of 20kg was soon dispatched, filleted, bagged and relegated to the back corner of the slowly filling freezer. The frame was kept to hang from the duckboard at our overnight anchorage. This would attract all manner of fish, rays and sharks to our immediate vicinity for some light tackle action. For now however, there were piscatorial possibilities all around us – the ocean seemed alive with activity. Birds patrolled the skies and periodical splashes of frightened baitfish signalled that hungry predators lurked beneath. After several hours of trolling over nearly barren water, every lure that went in the water was now getting eaten almost immediately. Jeromy took the next strike and the Tiagra’s drag was warming rapidly to the efforts of a solid fish. As Josh reached out to release the other line from the port outrigger clip, to retrieve the only unmolested lure, an aggressive and lit up wahoo speared from the water, barely missing Josh’s hand with his scalpel like dentures. Other five footers followed Jeromy’s hooked wahoo all the way to the boat. This scenario creates a perfect opportunity with the fly rod. I had never caught a wahoo on this angling discipline therefore I prepped the #16 weight fly rod in case I got a chance to cast at an overly aggressive fish. Soon after we reset the lures and recommenced trolling, another yellowfin was hooked but prematurely released. Wheeling birds patrolled the general area, occasionally dive bombing a hapless baitfish or opportunistically feasting on those pushed to the surface by the predators below. We could easily have scored a few more wahoo, yellowfin or perhaps even a marlin because the ocean was a pressure cooker of piscatorial action. However with most of the day behind us, an overnight anchorage was more important right now. Whilst the sun was still relatively high in the sky it would be reasonably easy to see the bommies scattered loosely throughout the sandy shallows as we picked our way across the terrain inside the reef. We chose a safe anchorage on the sheltered western side of a major sand cay, which ironically had the rusted anchor of a sunken relic on the unprotected side. This poked eerily from between the troughs in the waves, a historical reminder of the unfortunates who had come to grief in the early years of this nation’s settlement. We zig-zagged through the maze of niggerheads (bommies) which were just visible with the last of the sun’s rays. Josh wisely chose a spot where we could swing a full 360° on the anchor chain, after considering the increasing winds and forthcoming tidal change.
With the wahoo frame slung into the water, we threw out baited lines whilst we hosed the saltwater from the back deck. My rod bucked under the weight of a spirited fish almost immediately, however my 30lb braid was quickly severed off on the surrounding structure. It was my welcome to Kenn Reef and the first of many lost fish. A few turns of the drag knob on my Stradic 5000 applied more hurt to the next fish, which I managed to coerce from its reef sanctuary. A green jobfish of a few kilograms was hoisted aboard, dehooked and returned to the water, only to be snatched from the surface by an aggressive whaler shark. We fished for the next few hours, constantly getting bitten off by whaler sharks, which patrolled a short distance from the transom. The conservationists and greenies who insist that there is a shortage of sharks in Australian waters should come out here for a swim to see for themselves, instead of counting them from their office windows. I would even be happy to supply them with some of my environmentally friendly tuna oil based sunscreen to stop them getting burnt. We couldn’t get our baits past the sharks to the quality fish so rigged our lines with some wire leader to annoy them back. After a serious fight I finally coerced a 1.5m whaler to the back of the boat. In the next few hours we caught shark after shark, mostly whalers. Every one we hooked had several mates following him to the transom. If you fell overboard you would probably end up as shark poo in this environment. Josh dished up an awesome spread of wahoo cutlets, rice and salad and we wearily headed to bed a short time later. The wind was steadily increasing however conditions improved as the tide dropped. The waves now crashed onto the reef perimeter instead of rolling over it. We slept well but were eager to awaken the next morning to be greeted by the natural wonder that lay before us.
I was keen to find out a bit about our destination before departure so searched Wikipedia for the following information. Roughly boot shaped and with an area of around 40 km2, Kenn Reef is 15km by 8km with an islet on the southern part called Observatory Cay. The Kenn Reefs are 280nm north-east of Gladstone and are located on part of a submerged continental block called the Kenn Plateau. Believed to be volcanic in origin, this block drifted from Australia around 64-52 million years ago. Kenn Reef was discovered by Mr Alexander Kenn during passage from Sydney to Batavia, whilst he was master of the ship William Shand, constructed in 1818 in Sunderland, UK. There are eight known shipwrecks on Kenn (Bona Vista, Jenny Lind, Alfred Vittery, Hester, Doelwijk, Delta, Oliver van Noort and Rodney) and all have some interesting facts and history surrounding them. One of the most noted, the Jenny Lind, was wrecked after hitting an uncharted section of the reef on September 21, 1850 during passage from Melbourne to Singapore under the command of Joseph Taylor. All crew and passengers, 28 in total, managed to reach the sanctuary of a nearby sand cay in the two small rescue boats. Provisions, building materials, tools and anything else deemed worthwhile was retrieved from the stricken vessel including a copper boiler and some lead piping. The latter was used to make a contraption that turned salt water into fresh, saving all from perishing. Food rations, including half a pound of flour per day (which was made into a crude pudding with some sea water) sustained the entire shipwrecked party for 37 days. During this time, a new craft was being built from salvaged materials and tools. This craft was launched from the sand cay and then sailed on favourable winds to Brisbane in less than a week. All on board the Jenny Lind were rescued – a remarkable and inspiring feat I am sure you will agree.
There is a lot more detail to this story plus some great facts and tales from the other stricken vessels, which were laid to rest on the Kenn Reef system. You can find out more on Wikipedia and in the publications Australian Shipwrecks volumes 1-5 by Jack Kenneth Loney and Charles Bateson.
Day six – Thursday November 4, 2010
As we got closer we noticed a large sea turtle lying motionless on the sand, which we thought was deceased. Naturally we went to investigate further. Imagine the turtle’s surprise to awaken from a nap and see three weird creatures starring down at it. Must have been the last thing it expected, although it didn’t seem to have a real fear of humans. Maybe it had never come into contact with any before. This awesome creature casually turned around and returned to the pristine shallows. In fact, there were many of these large creatures in the shallows surrounding the cay and at times you could see five or more cruising close by. The ancient anchor in the surf could be seen clearly from this closer and more elevated position. With the main body of the ship (possibly the Jenny Lind) now smashed to oblivion, hand made copper nails, pieces of copper sheeting and other remnants can still be located in small rocky pools and amongst the sand, especially after bouts of bad weather. Hermit crabs are clustered around every piece of flotsam and whitened coral scattered across the cay. Several fresh track marks from nesting turtles are evidence of last night’s activities.
Josh and I cast poppers from several small rock groins without success and Jeromy decided on a snorkel in the shallows. The conditions are overcast and windy, hardly post card stuff, yet Kenn Reef remained an inspiring natural wonder, barely marked by mankind. On the way back to Huntress II we check the lay of the anchor chain to ensure it has not dragged. A plastic cast to a melee of some feeding birds, instantly gets inhaled and I soon land a small mack tuna – bait for the nightly fishing session. We craned the tender back onto the bow then partook of a hot shower and a tasty lunch. Conditions deteriorate even more during the afternoon making a trip in the tender too dangerous, even inside the sanctuary of the reef. We fired up the DVD and watched Gran Torino plus a few other videos to pass the time. With the luxury interior of Huntress II to sprawl out on, it was like sitting in your own lounge room.
Soon after throwing in lines from the stern late afternoon we are all into the action. A steady stream of small red-throat sweetlip and whaler sharks come aboard, amongst other species. Josh hooks up to a stubborn adversary that ends up being a colourful tiger shark of around 1.3m. Another two smaller tigers follow a short while later, all of which are released. Hope that decision doesn’t come back to haunt us some time in the future. Josh gets busy in the galley making us a roast lamb dinner. The rods had remained untouched for quite some time, however as I was finishing the last mouthful of this sumptuous feast, my small spinning rod bows over hard and the drag screams into action. At first I think it is just another whaler or tiger shark however a flash of silver 15 minutes later indicates otherwise. The fight is hard and several times the fish dives under the boat, the line going perilously close to the props. A giant trevally of around 8kg is released after a few happy snaps and I am a happy chap. We prepare ourselves for some pretty ordinary conditions that night due to predictions of winds to 33kts and rain squalls, however it was better than expected.
Day seven – Friday November 5, 2010
We decided to shift anchorage today as the wind had dropped considerably. We motored to the northern end of Kenn Reef where conditions were much better than expected. It was so good we decided to explore offshore and do some jigging on the drop-off. Out from the main reef the water deepens steadily to around 130m, before plummeting past the capabilities of most marine electronics. First drop produced a double header of 4kg rosy jobfish for Jeromy and myself with the Surecatch 300gm knife jigs being well received by the denizens of the deep. Next drop we hook another double-header of solid fish however both get sharked half way to the surface. Two metal jigs and two quality fish lost. We shifted position to get away from the sharks yet only hooked less desirables, including green jobfish and rainbow runners. Our jigs had not been molested by the dogtooth tuna we desired and we were now physically exhausted from jigging. It was time to go trolling again. We caught more rainbow runners, a great barracuda and a few other species. A solid run soon produced a nice dogtooth tuna of around 10kg, the first for the trip, which inhaled a Halco Laser Pro with barely the bib left protruding from it gob. We did a little more jigging and caught even more green jobfish, then the sharks again moved in and ate any jig or hooked fish. We headed back in behind the sanctuary of the reef shortly after lunch, stopping at some deep bommies along the edge of the main reef to spearfish. We saw a few coral trout but they were down really deep, too far for us amateurs. A few white-tip reef whalers followed our every move but overall this patch of reef was a little disappointing as far as variety was concerned. After we motored Huntress II to our new overnight anchorage, we craned the tender off the bow. Jeromy and I went to a nearby bommie for another spearfish. I was in awe as I entered the crystal clear water. The deep channel was absolutely full of large fish including red bass, tuskfish, painted morwong, trevally and several other reef species plus a decent sized (scary category) whaler shark. The current was exceptionally strong and making headway into it required heaps of effort. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one decent fish disappear under a coral outcrop. I thought it was a prized blue maori cod so as it came out the other side I fired, scoring a shoulder shot. My joy was shortlived as it was only the less desirable painted morwong, a decent fish of around 3kg yet not worthy of any accolades from the others. At least I had christened the new speargun with this shot. Painted morwong are not that palatable, yet we took it back to Huntress II for bait. Caught a few green jobfish to around 4kg from the back of the boat and then put the rods away as the wind picked up and the rain squalls started again. The wind increased a lot throughout the afternoon. By dinner it was blowing in excess of 25kts. We enjoyed some dogtooth tuna, rosy jobfish, chips and salad for dinner, expertly prepared by the culinary skills of Josh, our Chef de Coral Sea.
Day eight – Saturday, November 6, 2010
The wind was still around 15-20kts this morning making it too rough to head away from the sanctuary of the inner reef and go offshore to jig or troll. Decided to do a little spearfishing towards the northern end of the system therefore we shifted Huntress II so we could fish from the tender. It was still too rough to launch the Cross X Country tender when we anchored so fished from the back while we waited for the tide to drop. Caught a couple of small reef fish and a few white-tip whaler sharks but it was really quiet. We went for a snorkel yet did not see much of interest to a trio of trigger-happy spearos. Moved to the shallower inside edge of the main reef and found better numbers of fish, although the current was fairly strong. Jeromy managed to spear a nice coral trout of around 4kg. Moved to another spot that was shallower and had a lot more fish and some spectacular coral. Saw a large trout just after I got out of the boat but it was gone before I could load my gun. I speared three large tuskfish and a just legal coral trout. Saw two large nurse sharks resting in a sand gutter between two coral cays and plenty of other marine life including large spotted morwong, bluefin trevally, various wrasses, red bass, barracuda, white tip whalers, sea snakes, moray eels and much more. It was like going to Sea World, yet more interactive. Late in the afternoon we took the tender to the sand cay to shoot some images of the hermit crabs and have a short fish whilst we stretched our legs. Josh had a follow from a nice GT and I caught a small blue maori cod. Was a leisurely day inside the reef and was finished off with a great feed of coral trout fillets, a glass of wine and a few DVDs. The weather could have been kinder but we had thoroughly enjoyed our time at Kenn Reef.
Our trip so far had been awesome but we were already considering a move to Frederick Reef. With a gap in the weather pattern the following day this would probably be our best chance to make the journey. Whilst our time at Keen Reef was ending, more excitement and adventure awaited us. Next issue we travel to Frederick Reef to continue our Coral Sea Safari. Bigger fish, more awesome reef systems and plenty of fun await us. See you then.
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