Five days in the Abrolhos Islands on the Eco Abrolhos boat

The Houtman Abrolhos Islands are a chain of 122 islands in the Indian Ocean about 60km west of Geraldton, Western Australia.   A combination of beautiful reefs, rich fauna, intriguing history and interesting recent fishing and pearling culture make the Abrolhos Islands a fascinating destination.  The best way to experience them is to take a 5 day cruise aboard the Eco Abrolhos – a small family owned vessel that takes you to the various points of interest while the owner (previously an Abrolhos Island cray fisherman) provides intimate insights into both the history and life on the island.

docked in geraldton
We traded our compact caravan home for an even smaller cabin on the Eco Abrolhos.  However it was great to have all meals prepared, no dust and no flies.

The Abrolhos Islands are an important seabird breeding site and after a rather rough 4 hour crossing from Geraldton we were pleased to pull into the sheltered lagoon of the southern most island group and go ashore on Pelsaert Island to view some of the birds that had recently started to turn up in their thousands to breed.

wedge tailed shearwater
A wedge-tailed shearwater weaves alongside the boat providing a foretaste of the rich bird life to come
boats on boat
The Eco Abrolhos carried 2 glass bottomed boats, 2 large surveyed tenders (one can be seen on the lower left) and an all purpose fishing/diving vessel was towed behind facilitating activities for the 30 odd guests on board.
bow shot
Arriving at Pelsaert Island, a 20km long sliver of land.
pelsaert island
A drone photo of Eco Abrolhos parked off Pelsaert Island on a calm day.
fancy tenders
Arriving ashore on Pelsaert Island. The island was named after the commander of the Dutch East India Company ship the Batavia which was initially believed to have been wrecked in this area until the early 1960’s when the wreck was found in the northern part of the archipelago.

One of the crew is also a professional photographer and provides guests with a record of the trip.  Here Paul is seen in action leaving Geraldton and one of his fantastic bird photos – a crested tern taking a bath at Pelsaert Island

pelsaert island sign
Pelsaert Island information sign installed by the Western Australia department of fisheries who managed the islands until national parks took over in July 2019.
bird viewing pelsaert island
A huddle of birdwatchers with common noddy wheeling overhead (photo by Paul Hogger).
fairy terns
Soon after stepping ashore I spotted a new bird for the list.  Fairy terns – the first of 5 new species I saw in the Abrolhos Islands.
crested and roseate
Soon after, number 2: roseate terns were spotted with their pink washed chests next to a much larger crested tern
noddies and turnies
However most of the nesting birds on Pelsaert Island are made up of an estimated 250,000 sooty terns (no 3) and common noddies.

Birds on Pelsaert Island: sooty tern; common noddy and roseate terns – photos by Paul Hogger

happy maddy in the shells
Although sunny and mild, the 35 knot southerly winds were a bit chilly.  A wind-proof jacket and occasionally sitting down in the shelter of the low heath helped Maddy stay warm.
abrolhos islands skink
Several skinks and dragons can be found on the Islands  (Photo by P Hogger)
pacific gull with lipstick
The large pacific gull applies lipstick whenever it ventures out in public.   The more common silver gull behind is not so particular.  (Photo by P Hogger)
hey seal
I gave this sheltering Australian sea-lion a bit of a fright when I stepped off the platform above it.   The Abrolhos Islands are one of the few places in the world where sea-lions and tropical coral reefs can be found together.
king diver sunset
The King-diver, a small fishing/diving launch, followed us around on a lead. Photo by P Hogger
lifejacket drill
No cruise would be complete without a life jacket drill
top deck drinks
At sundown drinks on the top deck.   The prevailing southerly winds and high latitude means it does get a bit chilly in the evenings so we traded the life jackets for more comfortable fleece and down.
morley island
On day 2 we explored another island in the the central “Easter Group” of islands called Morley Island
lesser noddy 2
The mangroves of Morley Island provide a breeding habitat for the vulnerable lesser noddy (4th new bird).  The only other place that this bird is known to breed is in the Seychelles
morley island lagoon
Morley Island’s central lagoon – home to thousands of lesser noddies and a sea-lion sheltering from the wind
sharp tailed sandpiper
A sharp-tailed sandpiper on Morley Island
seal n samphire
Hey, you woke me up!
bridled tern
Bridled tern
lesser noddy and chick
Lesser noddy and chick.  Photo by Paul Hogger
silver gull eating lesser noddy chick
A silver gull – normally known for stealing ones chips on the beach – took the opportunity to scavenge this poor noddy chick that must have fallen from its nest.  Photo by P Hogger
hayden and sea lion
Inquisitive sea-lion at Morley Island

The Abrolhos Islands are the centre of Western Australia’s biggest Western Rock Lobster Fishery.   It was Australia’s first fishery to be certified as sustainable and is closely managed through a quota system for commercial fishers and bag limits for recreational fishers.   Today rock lobster fishing is a $400m industry making it Australia’s most valuable single species fishery.   Since its establishment, rock lobster (or cray) fishers have set up camps on some of the islands where they base themselves during the fishing season.   The fisher’s camps certainly stick out on these low lying islands, however their bright colours lend a certain appeal.

big rat shacks
Some brightly coloured fisher’s huts on Big Rat Island.   While rats were accidentally introduced in the 1800s (hence the name), they have since been eradicated.
fish eye view of big rat
Gathering on the jetty to visit Big Rat Island
big rat island with terns
With the rats gone, sea birds have returned to breed in their thousands.
russell the cray fisherman from big rat island
The owner of the Eco Abrolhos was a friend of one of the fishermen, named Russell.  So we dropped by and he gave us an interesting account of his life on the island.

Scenes from the fishing camps on Big Rat Island

eco abrolhos on the mooring
On day 3 the wind dropped, so it was great to join the owner on a trip to retrieve that cray pots that he had set the previous day.
cray pot pulling
We got quite a haul.  From 6 pots we got 26 crayfish of legal size, many more small ones and some pregnant females that were all thrown back. Because we had a bag limit of 24, we also had to throw two legal size ones back too.  Here the two deckhands, Josh and Curtis, haul up a laden pot.
curtis and wobbegong
Some rather large wobbegongs managed to get into the pots too. Remarkable considering the size of the hole in the trap.  These were also thrown back – carefully to avoid loosing a finger.
dinner
Tonight’s dinner
half crays
Under preparation.
crayfish dinner
The final product
tender pulling
After pulling the crays, it was time to offload the tenders to visit Leo’s Island – named after Leo Seppala, a finish immigrant.
leos island drone
An aerial view of Leo’s Island (back right with the green lagoon) and others in the group (drone photo supplied by Eco Abrolhos)
jays story
On Leo’s Island listening to one of the Jay’s stories.  Jay is the Eco Abrolhos owner and grew up and spent much of his early life on the islands.  As a result he knows plenty of recent island history and gossip.
leos huts
The beautifully painted lone cottage on Leo’s island
surf abrolhos
Although the wind had dropped, the swell was still quite impressive – we were hoping that it would drop off as we were planning to snorkel on the Batavia wreck in 2 days time and it would have to be much smaller to do so.
estuarine cod feeding
Maddy feeding an Estuarine Cod that had been placed in the lagoon on Leo’s Island.  According to Jay there were previously some cod there that were perhaps washed in during heavy seas, however some thoughtless mainland fishermen got to hear about it once and killed them spear-fishing so some of the locals caught a couple of new ones to replace them that have since become rather tame.
shells on leos
Clam shells and urchins on the seaward shore of Leo’s Island
little shearwater chick
Shearwaters (aka. muttonbirds) also nest in their thousands on Houtmans Abrolhos.  The adults incubate their eggs and rear their eggs in burrows.  Here a little shearwater chick sits at the entrance to its burrow on Leo’s Island
fisheye tender
Heading back from Leo’s Island on a glass bottom boat to get changed to go snorkeling on a nearby bombora called anemone lump
anemone lump
A drone photo of the anemone lump on a much calmer day than we had (Leo’s Island in the distance).   While the wind had dropped, we were there during the year’s biggest tides, so the current was a bit too strong to explore the lump properly.  Instead we had to be content to swim at almost full pace just behind the boat to keep up.  However we did see a fair number of fish including spangled emperor like those below taken by Paul Hogger.  Unfortunately I accidentally deleted all my day 3 snorkeling photos which showed some of the amazingly coloured coral of the Abrolhos and a sandbar shark.  While there were fewer fish than I had seen further north in Ningaloo Reef, the coral colours and diversity made up for it.

spangled emporer

top deck sunset
Sunset on the top deck at the end of day 3.

The islands are the site of many shipwrecks including Dutch ships the Batavia (1629) and Zeewijk (1727).  The Batavia’s story is one of the most interesting shipwreck/mutiny stories ever. A Titanic and Bounty story all rolled into one that Maddy has described in a separate post.   So day 4, had us visit the island where the shipwreck survivors came ashore and where the horrific subsequent reign of terror followed while the Batavia’s captain and commander were away on the Batavia’s longboat to seek help.

beacon island with morning reef
Drone photo of Beacon Island (where the Batavia survivors initially camped) with Morning Reef (where the Batavia ran aground) behind.  Fortunately the swell had dropped off dramatically so we were eagerly anticipating being able to snorkel on the wreck the following morning.
restricted access sign
Permits are required to visit Beacon Island to protect the Batavia relics.
beacon island group
The Eco Abrolhos mob at the Batavia commemorative cairn

batavia plaque

beacon island sermon over the graves
Commander Jay giving a sermon at one of the archaeological dig sites.   Several graves and mass graves have been found where people were buried during the reign of terror that ensued before the rescue ship arrived.
bridal tern
A bridled tern looks on seemingly oblivious to the islands dark history.

Back on board we steamed north and anchored off East Wallabi Island – one of the largest islands in Houtman’s Abrolhos to visit a picturesque beach for some walking, snorkeling and final sunset drinks.

cliff side
The view from one of the highest points in Houtmans Abrolhos.
skink on wallabi
Being a bigger island it supported quite a variety of fauna including tamar wallabies.  Unfortunately we didn’t manage to find any wallabies, but we did see a few skinks and dragons.
turtle bay
Turtle bay beach
bearded dragon
An Abrolhos dwarf bearded dragon (photo by Paul Hogger)
dr howard gray
We had an historian on board (Dr Howard Gray – white jacket).  He has written several books on the Abrolhos Islands and their history and he provided much interesting background.
brain coral
Brain coral skeleton on East Wallabi Island
osprey
Many ospreys nest on the islands.  Here one has just launched itself from its nest.  Photo P Hogger
snorkel herd
Snorkeling off Turtle Bay – East Wallabi Island
abrolhos coral
It is amazing that such vibrant coral can survive in such a cold environment.   The water temperature seldom exceeds 22 degrees.
turtle bay sunset drinks
Final sunset drinks.  The young ones in the photo are crew members (apart from Maddy and I who are, of course, also young).  Even the Eco Abrolhos’ captain Bronson is still in his twenties (he is the one on the far right with the beard).   The captain is actually the owner’s son.  Jay the owner is not in this photo – he was back on board preparing his famous seafood chowder
turtle bay sunset
Sunset drinks – the shelter was build by a company that does fly-in day tours to the island.
jay and tara in the kitchen
Jay finessing his seafood chowder assisted by Tara.  For more details on how to prepare it, click here
dinner sign
Food on board was generally pretty good. Best of all, someone else cooked it.  However the menu above had us slightly concerned.

On the final day we awoke to calm conditions and a nearly flat sea – yes we were off to snorkel the Batavia wreck.  It was truly amazing how much there was to see – one of the best snorkels we have done.   While the West Australia Museum salvaged most of the wreck site and relics are now on display in museums in Geraldton and Fremantle, there are still many cannons and anchors scattered on the site as well as a deep sandy depression where the ship originally gouged out the coral on impact and subsequent settling as it pounded on the reef in the months after it ran aground.

batavia wreck site
A drone photo of the Batavia wreck site taken on the previous week’s trip.  The sandy depression on the left is where the wreck was located and the snorkelers are over the area where cannons and anchors remain.  Many of which were thrown overboard in an effort to refloat the ship.  We had similar calm conditions when we visited, although it was overcast.   Still, considering that conditions were suitable for snorkeling on only 3 out of this year’s 14 trips we were very fortunate.
batavia sand site
Maddy diving down into the wreck depression

Various cannons and anchors on the 390 year old wreck site.  The large fish in the last photo is a bald chinned grouper.

long island coral
The coral rubble beach on Long Island – our final shore excursion before heading back to Geraldton.

Long Island lies about 200m west of Beacon Island.   Some of the Batavia survivors were sent here by the psychopathic mutiny leader Cornelisz – initially on the pretense of reducing the demand on the limited food resources on Beacon Island – but in fact this was simply a divide and conquer strategy and he eventually had all of them murdered, except for one or two who managed to swim away to another island about 2km away where Cornelisz had cunningly sent all the soldiers who had been on board – without their weapons – on a pretense to search for water.    While he had hoped that the soldiers would not find water and would soon die, they did find water and plentiful food too.  When the swimmers alerted the soldiers of the massacres going on, they were able to prepare and defend themselves from subsequent attacks from Cornelisz’s henchmen and ultimately foil the mutiny.

long island coral beach
Although over 40 people were massacred on Long Island and several of the mutineers were ultimately hanged there too, all we were able to find were coral skeletons.
flotsam art
Long Island art: depicting the gallows, skulls and hangman’s ropes of the Batavia history.  Medium: wood, polystyrene, polyethylene, sea sponge.
spannish dancer
A spanish dancer.  A large hand sized nudibranch in the shallows off long island

sea star long island

daves corneliusz reenactment
A re-enactment of the hanging of Cornelisz, featuring Dave from the Eco Abrolhos amateur drama society.
ancient stone wall
Could this stone shelter be a remnant from the original survivors of the Batavia on Long Island.  While there is no known reason for anyone else to have built it, who knows for sure?

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Five days in the Abrolhos Islands on the Eco Abrolhos boat

  1. Wow 5 days cruising the Abrolhos islands on a super cruise boat with glass bottom boats nog al.
    Loved the sea lion, and fresh out the sea crayfish dinner,oh so jelly. I feel for you regarding deleting pics by accident, I have done the same. Magnificient pic of the dwarf bearded dragon. And five news birds to your list. love Glenda

    Like

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