Monday 26 September 2016

Michaelmas Cay - Another tourist trap cruisers should not avoid.

18-21 September 2016

Michaelmas Cay lays 23 Nautical Miles or 41 Kilometres North East of Cairns and is another Great Barrier Reef tourist hot spot. Each day a three large commercial boats transport hundreds of visitors to the small sand cay to see up to 20,000 breeding pairs of birds that roost on the islet depending on the time of year. Michaelmas is also surrounded by pristine coral reef and prolific marine life as it is a fully protected conservation green zone. This makes it another prime snorkelling site which was the major attraction for us to visit. Once again we weren’t going to let a few hundred tourist scare us off.

Michaelmas Cay may be visited by thousands of tourists each month but that should not deter cruisers.
The waters around Michaelmas Cay are crystal clear and the snorkelling well worth experiencing.
It was just a very short five mile hop for us from Vlasoff Cay so we got underway with a leisurely 8.30am start which we thought would get us to the anchorage before the tourist boats began arriving from Cairns. We clearly under-estimated the pace of the high speed catamaran, Sea Star, which covered the distance from Cairns very quickly blasting past us as we made our approach to the anchorage on the cay’s northern side. Their arrival ahead of us did provide us the opportunity to see which way they went in through the many coral heads.

With Rob standing high on the pulpit of the bow with a good view of the bombies hiding under the clear water and Karen helming, we carefully followed their lead and picked our way through. Karen got very concerned at one stage as again the electronic Navionics chart in front of her did not agree with reality. There are two public moorings at Michaelmas. One is rated for a 10 metre monohull and the other up to 25 metre but both were occupied when we arrived so we anchored in seven metres of water over good clean sand with comfortable swing room clear of the nearby coral heads.

Take a look at our track below. According to Navionics we ran aground but in fact never saw less than 12 metres on the depth gauge as we passed over what is shown as a drying reef.

Vlasoff Cay to Michaelmas Cay – 5.0 Nautical Miles – 1 Hour 05 Minutes
Average Speed 4.9 Knots – Max Speed 5.5 Knots
Our track through the coral heads overlayed on Google Earth in Open CPN
Virtually as soon as our anchor way on the bottom, Our Dreamtime was surrounded by a welcoming party of large bat fish and a huge giant trevally. We were quick to lower the dinghy out of the way and put the swim platform down so we could get into the water to say high. Despite the national park regulations they must be in the habit of being fed by visitors as they showed no fear and got right up close and personal.  They became our constant companions for the net four days.
Karen about to get in the water with our pet giant trevally.
He was a very big boy.

The bat fish were also huge and stayed around the boat throughout our time at Michaelmas Cay

We didn’t venture far from the stern of our boat in the water though as we were not too impressed with the tenders off the tourist boats racing around at high speed ferrying patrons on and off the cay and to glass bottom boats etc. We didn’t fancy being run over by one of these cowboys. Instead we had a relaxing time onboard before heading ashore mid-afternoon as the commercial boats were leaving. By now the two yachts on the public moorings had also left and we had the whole anchorage and cay to ourselves, apart from a few thousand screeching birds of course.

Human acces to Michaelmas Cay is strictly controlled to protect the large numbers of nesting birds.

Karen being ignored by our feathered neighbours on Michaelmas Cay

The birds seemed totally unconcerned by our presence.
One of the many, many nesting birds standing over her eggs we were able to see.
People are only permitted onto a very small portion of the cay with the rest reserved for the nesting birdlife. The hours you can come ashore are also restricted to 9.30am to 3.00pm. As we stood at the rope which borders the visiting area well within touching distance of many birds they seemed totally nonplussed by our presence. When on the cay the noise can be wearing and the smell of tons of bird droppings is far from pleasant. It was enough to cut short our plans of a romantic interlude drinking a bottle of bubbles all alone on this tropical coral cay. Neither noise or small were an issue for us just a hundred and fifty metres away on the boat so that’s where we finished the bottle and enjoyed the sunset.

The bubbles on the beach sounded like a fine idea but it was a lot more peaceful back on the boat.
This is the result of a single booby bird roosting on our spreaders for the night.

We were well and truly ready for our morning swim by the time we cleaned up this mess.
Next day we enjoyed a cooling swim early before the tour boats arrived then put our kayak down and had a fantastic paddle all around the cay and over much of the surrounding reef while the hordes did their thing. Our friends, Matt and Deb on La Jorja arrived during the day and picked up the heavier of the moorings just in front of us.

Karen checking out another coral bombie from the kayak. Our Dreamtime is to the right.
La Jorja and a small mono on the two public moorings at Michaelmas Cay.
The last of the tourist boats slipping their mooring to head back to Cairns was our signal to go snorkelling in peace. While not quite up to the exceptional standards set by our underwater experiences at Green Island, Michaelmas Cay was still very good with plenty of colourful coral, giant clams and abundant marine life. Again the fish were far less inclined to dash away from us here than in non-green zone areas we dive. There was also a greater number of large fish to be seen. One massive giant trevally did become a bit of a pest though as it repeatedly tried to bite our swim fins. Not sure what that was about.

Colourful giant clams abound on the reefs around Michaelmas Cay
This beautiful plate coral was the size of a dining room table.

This giant trevally kept trying to nip our swim fins.

Matt keeping a close eye on the circling GT as it prepares for another attack on his fins.
Day three was a repeat of day two with more kayaking and snorkelling and a very social time on La Jorja for sundowners and tall tale telling. Matt and Deb left the next morning to put their cat in Bluewater Marina for a few days while they flew home to Brisbane for a quick visit home. No doubt our tracks will cross again before long.

We had another great time on Ja Jorja enjoying the company and stunning sunset.
The snorkelling at Michaelmas Cay was not quite Green Island standard but still very, very good

As we had been experiencing perfect reef weather and really enjoying all that this beautiful spot had to offer we stayed on for another day of early morning swimming, lazing about on the boat while the tourist invasion took place then more peaceful underwater times in the hours after they left.  
Michaelmas Cay is certainly another piece of paradise we would recommend to other cruisers despite it qualifying for the derogatory title of Tourist Trap. The invading masses are only at the cay for five hours a day leaving the other nineteen to be enjoyed. It’s simply a case of kicking back and biding your time.
Goodnight from Michaelmas Cay.

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Thursday 22 September 2016

Just a one night stand at Vlasoff Cay.

17 September 2016

After five fun filled days at Green Island it was time for some reef hopping as we made the short jump over to Vlasoff Cay, a short seven miles away. With very little wind blowing the trip was an uneventful couple of hours under motor.
Vlasoff Cay at low tide.

The passage through between Upolu Reef and the western end of Arlington Reef is shallow and a little tight but it is well marked with buoys all the way through so no real problem. We approached Vlasoff near high tide and were surprised how small the patch of sand was visible above the waves. We anchored in about eight metres over good sand with swing room to the coral heads all around us.  There was more swell rolling through the anchorage than we expected given the extensive horseshoe shape of Arlington Reef the raps around Vlasoff. It was enough to be mildly annoying and eased as the tide dropped.
Green Island to Vlasoff Cay - 7.2 Nautical Miles - 1 Hour 53 Minutes - Average Speed 3.9 Knots - Max Speed 7.2 Knots

The winding passage between Upolu Reef and the western end of Arlington Reef is well marked.

Vlasoff Reef and Cay sits inside the large horseshoe shaped Arlington Reef.

There are plenty of sand patches to choose from when anchoring at Vlasoff Cay.

Not much to see near high tide.

There was only one other boat anchored nearby so we expected a quiet time. Wrong!!!!! A constant stream of helicopters flew low overhead circling the reef and often landing on the sand of the cay for a touch and go. There was literally less time without a chopper overhead than with as we reluctantly became part of the show with cameras pointed at Our Dreamtime seemingly on every pass.
Sight seeing helicopter traffic over Vlasoff Cay was constant.
Helicopter skid tracks from where they descend, blow sand everywhere scaring the birdlife away, sit on the sand for 30 seconds, then take off again. We have no idea why.
After lowering the dinghy off the davits Rob jumped in the water to cool down and even the sight of his bare backside as he hung his board shorts out to dry on the aft deck wasn’t enough to dissuade the constant buzzing. Some Chinese tourists may find more than they bargained for when they look through their holiday snaps.

Vlasoff Cay grows significantly at low tide.

Rob on Vlasoff Cay
Our Dreamtime anchored off Vlasoff Cay
The full extent of the cay revealed itself as the tide dropped mid afternoon and we went ashore to explore. Much of the reef on the southern side was exposed on the low with a number of giant clams sitting well clear of the water.

Giant clams sitting out of the water at low tide on Vlasoff cay

After our walk around the sand we headed out to snorkel on some of the coral bombies that surrounded the boat. After the prolific fish life and vibrant coral we had spent the last four days marvelling at on Green Island, the snorkelling here was quite disappointing. The coral was largely bleached colourless or dead and fish of any size were few and far between.  That was enough to convince us that Vlasoff Cay would be a one night stay for us.

After spectacular Green Island the snorkelling at Vlasoff Cay was a little underwhelming.
Back on the boat we settled back to enjoy our sundowners while we plotted a course to skip over to our next tourist hot spot of Michaelmas Cay in the morning.

Good night from Vlasoff Cay - Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

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Tuesday 20 September 2016

Green Island - Tourist Trap or Cruising Nirvana

12-16 September 2016

Many cruisers we know give any place popular with tourists a wider berth than a category five cyclone in their quest for the quiet life on the water. Unfortunately in doing so they often deny themselves the opportunity to experience some truly remarkable places. Don’t  get us wrong. We love nothing better than the solitude of having a beautiful anchorage all to ourselves. However, we also take the view that if a location has enough going for it to attract people from all over the world it’s probably worth us having a look too.

At just  660 x 260 metres and up to 2,400 visitors per day Green Island has a high population density during daylight hours.
Green Island is such a place. It is only one of about 300 coral cays on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef but it is the only one vegetated by rain forest. Located just seventeen nautical miles (27k) off North Queensland’s major city of Cairns it is also the reef’s original island resort with the first thatched huts for visitors erected back in 1889. Now up to a permitted maximum of 2,400 people a day visit this tiny piece of paradise. Only 660 metres by 260 metres containing a 46 room resort and a crocodile park you could be forgiven for thinking as a cruising destination it would be about as peaceful as the London Underground at peak hour but nothing could be further from the truth.

Cairns to Green Island 16.7 Nautical Miles – 3 Hours 22 Minutes
Average Speed 4.9 Knots – Max Speed 7.0 Knots
We sailed from Trinity Inlet to the island into a 15 knot easterly breeze under overcast skies. We had read what little Alan Lucas’s cruising guide had to say about the island, studied the Navionics charts and Google Earth images to work out our approach and planned anchoring spot in the swing basin at the island’s western end. We followed the markers into the channel but promptly ran out of water about the end of the long jetty. With our depth gauge showing two metres we executed a very tight about turn and retreated back out the channel.

It turned out the wash off the props of the big tourist cats spinning onto and off the dock has created a sand bar all but blocking access beyond the jetty. Thanks to the advice of a local parasailing operator who saw our plight we made our way around to the north west corner where we found buoys marking the edge of the fringing reef and were able to pick our way through the coral heads to anchor about 500 metres from the beach in five metres of water over good holding sand. The large reef surrounding the island provided more than adequate protection from the easterly wind and swell while the water was nice and clear with our chain clearly visible stretching across the bottom.

Finding nothing but very shallow water a quick U-turn preceded us moving to Plan B of the anchoring play book.

Our track into finding good anchorage in five metres over clear sand on the island's northern side overlayed on Google Earth in Open CPN
A little over 500 metres of water provided good separation from the tourist hoards during the day.
The island may be well populated with tourists but the anchorage was nice and quiet. The resort is located near the centre of the island and is well hidden from the water by the thick vegetation providing a more peaceful outlook from the boat.

One of the many coral heads near our anchoring spot we snorkelled around.

We were one of only two private boats in the lagoon north of the island. As the other was the cat  La Jorja with our friends Matt and Deb on board a social evening  later on was assured. One tourist boat is licensed to operate in this part of Green Island. It’s about a 60 foot sailing boat that carries a maximum of 25 guests for snorkelling and diving day trips to the island. It arrives mid-morning, moors in the far corner and is gone by three so proved far from a problem for us. In fact, there were never any more than two other boats anywhere near us during our whole stay.

We took our dinghy into the beach to explore and had a pleasant time circumnavigating the island on foot. It’s only a 1.6 kilometre stroll so not exactly strenuous.
Our Dreamtime anchored offshore from Green Island's swimming beach
Once away from the swimming area we had most of the island's shoreline to ourselves.

Apart from the occasional tourists looking for the perfect holiday photo.

Looking towards Fitzroy Island across the extensive reef at low tide.

It's all a green zone so no fishing and nothing can be removed from the environment.
All the island's on water tourist activities like para-sailing were concentrated at the western end away from our anchorage.
There is a very good network of boardwalks through the rain forest national park areas with good information boards explaining the island’s geological history, flora and fauna including the fifty five breeds of birds regularly seen here.

One of the feathered locals
After our walk we took advantage of the fresh water pool available for day guests on the island to cool off before enjoying a nice refreshing ice-cream from the gelato shop. Bar, snack and restaurant facilities are also available should you wish to partake. There are definitely some advantages to having a resort handy when at anchor.

Not another boat in sight as we enjoy tropical sundowners anchored off Green Island.
The best part of our stay at Green Island though was found under the water. The entire area is a conservation green zone with no fishing of any kind permitted. We were very, very pleasantly surprised at the quality of the snorkelling here. The water quality was exceptional while the reefs are very healthy with an abundance of colourful soft and hard corals. Huge giant clams are found everywhere. The range of brilliant colours of their flesh is something we never tire off.
Karen floating over another of Green Island's reef areas.
There is no shortage of impressive plate corals on the reefs around Green Island.

These were friendly little blokes.

Colourful fish at every turn.
Brilliant blues and vibrant greens are common colours amongst the giant clams.


 Over four days we explored many areas and saw an incredible diversity of fish life of all colours, shapes and sizes. It was so good to swim amongst schools of BIG fish who seem totally unconcerned by our presence. Our biggest buzz however was spending about twenty minutes in the company of a curious turtle that seemed to enjoy swimming with us. At first we were careful to remain a respectful distance but then found it moving closer to us. We felt privileged indeed that this beautiful creature shared  its home with us for a brief period.
Having this guy swim around us for ages was the highlight of our time at Green Island.

We shot a lot of video as well which we'll upload when we have better internet service.

We found Nemo and his clown fish siblings.
There was no shortage of good sized fish amongst Green Island's coral.

Yes there may have been a couple of thousand people on the island during the day but, from our quiet anchorage a few hundred metres away, we would have never have known it. If we had avoided the place on the basis of it being a ‘tourist trap’ we would have missed this piece of paradise and our lives would have certainly been the poorer for it.  On the basis of the amazing few days we spent at Green Island we have now included two more tourist hotspots in the form of  Michaelmas Cay and Low Isles in our immediate plans. Let’s go!

Karen relaxing with a book in Our Dreamtime's hammock between snorkelling expeditions.
Our Dreamtime all on her own in the Green Island anchorage.
Goodnight from gorgeous Green Island on Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

We love to receive comments on our blog from readers. If you do leave a comment and you also have a blog, please leave a link as well. We'd like to click over for a visit and leave you a comment too.

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