The Great Barrier Reef safari you never knew existed
Imagine a deserted island where the beach is made up of eons of coral skeletons, fringing reef spreads out from the shore, and a family of goats share the four square-kilometres of land with one guy who has the enviable job of sweeping his small patch of sand in anticipation of a weekly visit from a cruise ship.
You’re on a boat with 15 others and the hue and clarity of the water is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. There’s not another human in sight, only the rugged landscape that rises from the Coral Sea, all granite boulders and melaleuca forest. You dive in and the underwater world unfolds around you.
There are no big tour groups here, no underwater viewing chambers, no frills and no fuss. And that’s one of the main draw cards for divers and snorkellers aboard Remote Area Dive’s weekly camp and dive safari to Pelorus Island.
Never heard of it? Pelorus is one of the Great Barrier Reef’s best-kept secrets. It’s the northernmost island of the Palm Islands group, sitting 800m from neighbour, Orpheus, and accessed via a 30-minute boat trip from the Lucinda Jetty (a two-hour drive north of Townsville).
“I love scuba diving and I feel like people are missing out [by not coming here],” our guide Fiona, a softly spoken Scot had said on the drive. She takes this trip most weekends and regales us with tales of coral formations that are so large and unusual in shape, that they wouldn’t look out of place in Star Wars, and sightings of Bertie the bullnose ray. “That’s what our job’s all about, showing people what it’s like down there,” she says.
It might take a little while to get here, but the complete isolation of this site is what makes it a veritable playground for divers and snorkellers.
Our skipper ‘Pops’ lets the anchor down beneath a cloudless sky. Completely bald, he has the tan of a man who never leaves the ocean and the assuring voice and calm demeanour of a Morgan Freeman narration (albeit with an Aussie twang).
With his foot up on the seat, he talks us through the first dive site – “this one’s called ‘Oopsies’ and you can see why,” he says, pointing to the remains of a small wooden craft impaled on the rocky shore.
He tells us to look out for the anemones hiding that ever-famous Nemo (aka clownfish) just off the bow of the boat and says they’ve been seeing a few turtles lately, too.
“Ok guys, the pool is now open,” he announces as the divers clip up their vests, do their final checks, and flip themselves over the side for their first dive of the day.
Most people onboard are combining an epic weekend away with the final tests for their Open Water or Advanced Open Water PADI scuba diving certifications. Fiona has spent the week teaching theory and underwater skills in the pool back in Townsville, and is now talking them through what they’ll need to do on this dive.
But since my friend and I are staying on the surface this weekend, we slip into our wetsuits, rub a squeeze of anti-fog solution into our masks, and dive right in for a snorkel.
Face down, an underwater metropolis buzzes with daily life before our eyes, fading out to small towns on the periphery. Clear (and completely harmless) moon jellyfish bob around near the surface here and there, as we float over bommie after bommie, watching colourful reef fish of all shapes and sizes.
The sound reverberates around my ears like Pop Rocks crackling on my tongue as we play voyeur to parrotfish munching away on the coral.
There are 1100 species of fish and 340 of the 350 known species of coral to be found within these dive sites off Pelorus and Orpheus islands. The colours and formations are like the houses of Italy’s Cinque Terre, clutching to the cliff-face – some sections are all pink punctuated by flat purple table coral, then there are flashes of neon green, and algae-looking soft coral flowing in the current. Giant patches of hard brain coral spread out over smooth boulders.
Buzzing from our first snorkel, we stop at a site called Moon Pools next, closer to Orpheus Island.
I hover over a giant bommie near the boat, captivated by the light show throwing up from the depths and bouncing off the coral, in the sun’s own Ibiza nightclub moment.
We spot sea cucumbers and beautiful parrot and angel fish. A boxfish stars up at us with its googly eyes, rotating in the circular swell as we move together in his fascinating reality, transfixed by us as we are by him.
But if what lies beneath is the star attraction here, Pelorus Island itself is the overshadowed Best Supporting Actor.
We don’t have to lift a finger. The camp is a total castaway setting, with tents placed discreetly between the trees and a camp toilet set-up behind a tarp further yonder.
Two tarps have been slung over ropes tied to the trees to create an open-air pavilion where the camp kitchen and ‘dining room’ is set up.
Ravenous in a way that seems amplified by being waterlogged, we eat a lunch of cold meats and salad, even though we’ve been kept sufficiently fuelled up onboard with fruit, biscuits and lamingtons.
I rock between consciousness and slumber in a hammock slung between two melaleucas – the rumble of the generator being used to refill the dive tanks blending in with nature’s trill thanks to the cicadas that surround us in the trees.
Later that afternoon after a shore dive, the sunset settling above Hinchinbrook’s hulking form is nothing short of spectacular, the sun’s rays amplified in a neon orange showdown, illuminating a few wispy clouds hanging about in an otherwise clear sky.
As the sun dips behind the land completely, the skyline warms and glows an even more vivid shade of red, and we sit in a row in our camp chairs and watch as the experienced divers make their way into the water for a night dive, their torches lighting up the dark depths.
We move to sit around the campfire – a novelty more than necessity since the air is still heavy with heat from the summer’s day, and this is North Queensland after all. After eating a hearty beef curry cooked up by Pops, we roast marshmallows on twigs in the fire.
Everyone is dived out, blissed out. Since the night is so clear, we roll our swags out on camping stretchers on the beach and stare at the starry sky. Once the generator clicks off and the lights are killed, the lap of the tide washing in over the coral shore and the crescent moon shadow dancing across the water sends me into an instant slumber.
In the morning, two of the resident goats totter up to the camp kitchen to check us out as we feast on pancakes with berries, bacon and Nutella.
We dive and snorkel two more sites – one called Scuba School, then back to Oopsies where I spot my first sea turtle of the weekend.
Mackerel and mullet are going crazy in the distance and the numbers of reef fish have multiplied overnight. I keep one eye on the deep blue while we snorkel, should a reef shark pop in to see what all all the fuss is about too.
Before they’re awarded their final certification, the Open Water students jump from the top of the boat’s roof in part initiation challenge, part celebration.
Back on land, we fuel up on barbecued hamburgers and drink ice-cold beer, sitting under the shade of palm trees before Fiona drives the sleepy group back to Townsville.