Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Low Isles – Another high spot for cruisers despite the tourists.

22-24 September, 2016

After really enjoying spending time anchored at the popular Great Barrier Reef  tourist spots around Cairns of Fitzroy Island, Green Island and Michaelmas Cay, we decided we really should take a look at Low Isles off Port Douglas and see if its charms also outweigh they negatives of the large number of visitors that arrive there every day from the mainland.

Next stop on Our Dreamtime's exploration of tourist traps was Low Isles.
First though we needed to make a call into Port Doulas itself to pick up Karen’s brother, Russell and his wife, Tania who were going to join us on board for a couple of days. There was only a very weak four knot breeze blowing from astern so this trip was going to be another day of burning diesel unfortunately but such is life.

Multiple lines in play as we skirt the reefs looking to catch a good fish.
We plotted our course from Michaelmas Cay to skirt along the edge of any reef areas along the way hoping a fish may be enticed onto the lures we trailed behind Our Dreamtime. About four hours into our so far uneventful journey we were disappointedly discussing our recent lack of fishing success when  right on cue a good sized Spanish mackerel struck as we approached Wentworth Reef. A light misting rain began to fall as we hauled the 95 centimetre long specimen on board and pacified it with a little rum poured down its gills. Considering the rain and how close to Port Douglas we were, Rob suggested wrapping the fish up in a wet towel and waiting until we got in before slicing and dicing it but Karen decided she was already wet so what the hell.
A very happy skipper landing a 95cm Spanish Mackerel just before Port Douglas

Flat seas and drizzling rain as we approach the headland at Port Douglas.
She stripped off to her knickers to avoid getting blood and fish guts on her clothes and set about bleeding out and gutting our catch on the stern before cutting it up into enough lovely, large fillets to feed us for quite a while. Meanwhile Rob continued to helm the boat towards harbour. All was going well until Karen noticed we were passing close by Million Dollar houses on the headland of Port Douglas and demanded we turn back out to sea to preserve her modesty. Rob couldn’t understand what the all fuss was about but knew well enough to comply with orders to avoid being court marshalled with serious consequences. Our arrival in Port Douglas was duly delayed until the mackerel fillets bagged in the freezer and the Admiral back in uniform.

We had planned anchoring up the river to await Russell and Tania’s arrival but one look at the congestion upstream as we approached convinced us to take advantage of the vacant public pontoon just inside the entrance. We did a quick u-turn and tied up alongside much to the annoyance of the fishermen who appeared to consider the facility built for boaters their private angling domain.

Michaelmas Cay to Port Douglas - 32.5 Nautical Miles - 5 Hours 59 Minutes
Average Speed 5.4 Knots - Max Speed 6.7 Knots

We made good use of Port Douglas' public pontoon much to the annoyance of the fishermen.

We did have to deal with wash from the constant stream of tourist boats returning to harbour.
The sign indicated we could stay on the pontoon for an hour which sounded fine to us as our guests should arrive about then. Rob set about our usual post passage tidy up and square away while Karen enjoyed a quick shower on board, much relieved to wash away the fishwife smells. She then headed for the supermarket located less than 200 metres away in the main street. We never pass up an opportunity to top up our supplies of fresh fruit and vegies.

The only other boat to use the pontoon during our stay was this big cat picking up the bride and groom to deliver them to the yacht club's pontoon for their wedding reception. Very cool way to arrive.
Russell and Tania rang to let us know they were unfortunately delayed getting away from Cairns but as only one other boat had briefly used the pontoon since our arrival we hoped overstaying the one hour time limit wouldn’t be a problem. We sat, waited and watched the constant stream of tourist boats return to port from their various reef excursions. The sun had set by the time our temporary crew arrived. Not wanting to risk finding a safe anchorage in the dark we elected to be a little naughty and stay tied to the pontoon for the night and cast off for the nine nautical mile hop to Low Isles at first light.

We thought we were in for a wet time at Low Isles.
The weather certainly didn’t look promising as we made our way out of the channel from Port Douglas. Once again there was no wind, the sky was very overcast and we could see showers falling in the vicinity of our destination. Fortunately things turned around very quickly and by the time we approached the anchorage the sun was shining brightly making our approach around the fringing reefs much more pleasant.

Passing a motor cruiser anchored off Low Isle as we arrive in the sunshine.
Port Douglas to Low Isles - 9.1 Nautical Miles - I Hour 32 Minutes
Average Speed 6.0 Knots - Max Speed 6.6 Knots
Location of the mooring we picked up at Low Isles.
The anchorage is located between the two islands that make up the Low Islands group and is protected by a large reef that connects the two on their southern sides. The western most, Low Isle, is a coral cay of just 2.7 hectares in area surrounded in most parts by sand beach and features an attractive lighthouse built back in 1878. This is where the tourists land.

The much larger Woody Island is a mangrove Island of a type only found in the northern Great Barrier Reef area. Scientific research records show that the island has doubled in size since 1928 to its current 55 hectares. Nevertheless only the toughest species of mangrove can survive here exposed to constant wind and salt with little fresh water and few nutrients. From September to March Woody Island is also a nesting for 25,000 pairs of pied-imperial pigeons.

Leaving Port Douglas at first light saw us arrive ahead of all the tourist boats and it was nice to discover only two yachts and a motor boat in the anchorage. Things continued to look up when one of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Parks public moorings was available. We have always found all of these moorings well maintained and those here at Low Isles are rated for up to a 25 metre mono-hull in 25 knot winds so we have no concerns about their strength. We are quite happy to anchor but where secure moorings are available why not use them.

Russell found the bat fish at Low Isles tame enough to stroke.
We’d no sooner picked up the mooring and secured the boat than Our Dreamtime was surrounded by large batfish and a monster giant trevally. The water was particularly clear so Rob was keen to get some underwater pics. He got an unexpected bonus when three good sized reef sharks also arrived and began circling the boat. What a photo op! Low Isles were making an outstanding first impression on us.

Our welcoming committee at Low Isles included three black tip reef sharks with their accompanying remora sucker fish.

We then settled back for a casual cook up breakfast on the stern and watched the world invade paradise. A stream of boats of all shapes and sizes arrived carrying hundreds of tourists, most of whom were quickly out fitted in protective stinger suits, snorkelling gear and life jackets. They were then ferried into the beach in tenders which ran bow first up onto the sand to disgorge their human load. The drivers of these tenders then appeared determined to stir up as much muck off the shallow bottom near the shore as possible gunning the outboards to reverse off the  beach and thereby destroying the water clarity in their haste to pick up the next boat full of yellow backed snorkelers. We quickly decided to give the beach area a wide berth until the hordes had departed for the mainland and their waiting five star apartments, bars and overpriced  cocktails.

Karen, Tania and Russell settling in for breakfast on the stern.
Instead we had a very relaxed time on board catching up and enjoyed a couple of drinks with fresh pizzas done on the BBQ for lunch. Early in the afternoon the British flagged yacht Temptress of Down arrived and anchored behind us. We had heard them hailing Border Control over the radio as we passed them in the channel  at Cairns two weeks earlier when they arrived in Australia from Vanuatu and wished them a quick ‘Welcome to Australia’ over the VHF. Rob now took the opportunity to drop over in the dinghy to introduce himself and invite them to join us ashore for sundowners on the beach later.

As we’ve found at all the tourist traps we’ve visited on the reef, the commercial boats are all gone by about three o’clock and the cruisers are left alone in paradise. We very pleasantly had the beach to ourselves for our late afternoon sundowners. It turned out Kevin and Susie sailed away from the UK back in 2001 and after wandering the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Pacific were now on their way to Indonesia via Darwin so we had no problem finding things to chat about over a few cold drinks and nibbles.

Kevin and Susie from Temptress of Down with Karen enjoying an international sundowners session on Low Isle.
The clouds over the mainland spoilt the sunset but the scenery was still beautiful.
The last of the big tourist boats disappears on the horizon as we enjoy Low Island alone.

Bird life abounds at Low Isles.
After breakfast the following morning we went ashore again but this time to have a snorkel over the reefs near the beach before the tourists arrived. Much of the coral was bleached or dead although there were some nice colourful examples interspersed amongst it. The fish life was plentiful but mainly small. Unfortunately we hadn’t arisen as early as we should of and the first of the boats began churning up the water not long after we began. We could literally see the water clarity disappear in front of our eyes as the combination of outboard wash and tourist first time snorkelers walking across the bottom in swim fins stirred up clouds of sediment. We quickly gave up and enjoyed a nice exploratory walk around the islands paths instead.

Karen, Russell and Tania in the water just before the first tourists landed.
Within thirty minutes the scene looked like this.

And the underwater visibility turned to this.
The walks around the tiny Low Isle are beautifully maintained.

What we think was a Sea Eagle nest atop the light house.

The history.

A stark reminder of the harsh life experienced by the early lighthouse keepers.

The reef that connects the two islands dries at low tide.
We did say the tourist boats come in all shapes and sizes.
We then returned to the boat and lowered the kayak for Russell and Tania to explore around Woody Island. We also headed that way in the dinghy and found a patch of sand to drop its small anchor so we could see if the snorkelling was any better on this side of the anchorage away from the hordes.

Russell and Tania exploring Woody Island's reefs in our kayak.
What a difference! The visibility was much, much better and we soon discovered the marine life appeared to share our dislike of being surrounded by hundreds of yellow backed snorkelers flailing away on the surface of the water. The reef here was much healthier with good hard and soft corals and many giant clams. It was populated by good numbers of large fish of all reef species. We saw good sized spotted corral trout, masses of big  colourful parrot fish and sweetlip. You name it, it was there. They certainly seem to know they live in a conservation green zone because our presence didn’t seem to worry them much at all.

There is no shortage of fish to see on the reefs around Woody Island.
The difference in the water quality and vibrancy of the reef from one side of the anchorage to the other was remarkable.

Karen enjoying the underwater beauty of Low Isles.
The depth beside this coral head was about seven metres and we could see very clearly to the bottom.
Giant clam at Low Isles.
Black tip reef sharks patrolled around and Rob even had a close encounter with three large barracuda all over a metre long. He spotted them gliding by so swam after them to get some video only to have them reverse course and come straight at him in line before each turned away at the last moment. Barracuda have huge teeth and have been known to be aggressive but fortunately not on this occasion.

These Barracuda that got up close and personal with Rob at Low Isles were over a metre long.
We have lots of video but won't be able to post any until we get better wifi service in port.

Above the water, Low Isles is an extremely attractive spot with a good anchorage well protected in any winds other than from NW to NE. We were delighted to find that by exploring areas away from where the tourists are taken it was even more beautiful below the surface. We spent hours moving  over the shallows and amongst the coral heads in the deeper water discovering new wonders at every turn.

We would have loved to have stayed longer but Russell and Tania needed to return to Cairns that evening so it was back to Port Douglas in that late afternoon. However this time we’d booked a marina berth for a couple of nights so we could have a better look around the town but that’s all another story.

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