Ashmore Reef: Mid-ocean respite

Date: July 20, 2016, 4 a.m. Position: 12 14.26 S, 122 59.02 E

July 20-22, 2016 Kelsey

Taz unknowingly did us a huge favor and slept the whole time as we somewhat tensely threaded our way through the entrance to the Ashmore Reef Marine Reserve, then affixed ourselves to a mooring buoy. He must have sensed that the motion had evened out a bit and woke up just as the important business of securing the boat had been tended to. Prepared to slip out of his berth on his backside rather than on his tummy, he declared, “Ready!” We promptly let down the lee cloth and he hit the floor running like a racehorse out of its stall, nostrils flaring.

When flat conditions allow, Taz gallops tirelessly to and fro between main and aft cabin. Wet curls form as his head becomes drenched with sweat. Lately he is keen to announce, “I’m coming!” as he paces back and forth, intermittently throwing his arms up and pausing to jump along the way. He is expert at exhibiting the freedom and joy of uninhibited movement! With a sudden change in current, the boat was soon being tossed about more inside the reef than in outside waters, so Taz was forced to time his transit a bit, lest he lose his footing and end up tossed onto the floor. He managed to continue along his predictable route without incidence as life afloat is getting to be old hat for him.

In these militarized waters it was no surprise to be paid a visit by the Australian Border Force, stationed in the outer reef during the dry (non-cyclone) season. Their tender arrived with a couple of friendly officers who boarded Privateer to have us fill out minimal paperwork and brief us on protocol at the reserve. At our request, the kind (and likely bored-out-of-their-gourd) officers used their tender to help us tie our stern line to a nearby mooring buoy. We were hoping this would ease the uncomfortable motion and, while it did a bit, our concerns turned to the real possibility of the stern line slipping under our rudder as the current shifted. In the end, we moved across the mooring field to a buoy clear of the current.

Four colorful wooden Indonesian fishing boats share the mooring field alongside Privateer, all boarded up. Our neighboring boat has the name “Cha” spray-painted near her bow and its puts a smile on our faces as we think of our friend of the same name. It is strange to have this absentee company but we are glad to be the only humans out here. The confiscated Indonesian boats are being held in limbo as their fate is decided in court for failure to comply with “fishing regulations.” Pete suspects that these boats may be those of asylum seekers from Timor, the presence of which was not uncommon here a few years back.

We note the tell-tale dorsal fin of a shark hunting its way along the nearby reef at low tide. Sea turtles are bountiful, floating close to the surface and occasionally bobbing their lime green heads above water to survey the scene. In all of our past South Pacific wanderings, we’ve seen only a few sea turtles while snorkeling. This reef is remarkable for its turtle population alone, clearly owing to its lack of a human population. Turtles are still a food source for many South Pacific islanders, though the practice of hunting is illegal in many countries now. On our first snorkel here, Pete encountered ten turtles! To see a sea turtle swimming is something special, a serene creature with the most graceful skill at underwater flight! Pete and I take turns snorkeling the bommie (coral head) not far off our bow. We’re glad to finally be dipping into friendlier tropical waters again, as we kept our limbs well within the confines of the boat all the way across northern Australia’s murky, croc infested waters.

Underwater, most fish are familiar but I notice one that seems new to me, with a gingham-like pattern from its head to mid-section, brownish purple tic-tac-toe marks over white skin. I’m lucky enough to glimpse the yellow fish that Pete mentioned-dramatic black circles dotting its face-as it darts out from underneath a ledge, then retreats. Most impressive ia the size of a fish akin to an angel fish, its muted colors and stripes lost on me in lieu of its enormity. It appears a gigantic pancake, a few feet in diameter, and slightly inflated like a hot water bladder.

This reef is a strange and wonderful place. Not far off the boat, we have our own private island (never mind the lurking military presence and the empty fishing boats). Two other scraps of land in the far distance are also cays that barely rise above sea level, lonely strips of sand to the faraway eye. While the lagoon offers us protection, the unobstructed view out onto the big blue tells another story-that we are vulnerably and incomprehensibly anchored in the middle of the ocean. And, in a way, we are. So it is that this place, like the coral atolls of the Tuamotus, plays with your senses.

West Island, the island closest to the boat and the only one where we are permitted to go ashore, begged a visit. We did weigh whether it was worth unpacking the dinghy for the sake of only an hour or two ashore, only to repack it later that night. If you are lucky enough to find yourself in a remote place like this, the answer is always a resounding, “Yes, it is worth it!” In the end we decided to row the dinghy instead of mounting the engine. At low tide, a finger of sand pointed far enough in our direction to make the cumbersome task of rowing an inflatable dinghy do-able.

A flock of vulture-size black birds greeted us ashore. These scant bits of land sustain massive bird populations. The expanse at low tide revealed a scalloped sandy landscape, the pattern of ridges and trenches carved by wavelets. Taz especially loved crouching in the trenches where a bit of water lingered. We were all quite giddy to have this break of passage, to work our toes into the soft, finely ground coral sand and to run about freely in this wide-open space. If only the island offered a speck of shade, we could have arranged to stay all day. From the boat, Taz had been quick to notice the one lone remaining “co-kee-nut palm” on the island, last man standing. A castaway would be remiss to find themselves on this particular tropical island with a sore lack of coconut hydration and sustenance!

The brutal sun not one to contend with, we’d planned a late afternoon visit in line with low tide. As such, the clock ticked as sunset approached and we made haste for a shipwreck in the sand ahead, a blackened wooden carcass that was the remains from an unfortunate story Pete recounted about a Timorian attempt on Australian soil. Up the beach, where sand met sporadic grass and green vegetation, we found gigantic pits with animal tracks clearly leading up to their edges. The use of the pits had us stumped for a bit until we realized the obvious-that sea turtles laid their eggs in these wells. Skirting the island’s edge, we combed the high tide line for treasures. Pete found enormous spiraling nautilus shells, the likes of which we’d never seen. There were thousands of pristine and fragile sand dollars, nearly weightless and appearing as though they’d been blown into little round shapes. Shark eggs, white pucks like flattened footballs that measured 4 or 5 inches, littered the beach.

The interior of the island was off limits to us, a sacred space that is home to Indonesian burial grounds. We did get a glimpse of her at sunset through an opening in the trees, a shockingly expansive savannah teeming with bird life. Even from the beach, we never would have guessed what lay just beyond the line of unassuming scrubby trees. We wished for more time to explore this magical place, an isolated and thriving ecosystem straddling the Timor Sea and Indian Ocean. As darkness descended, we literally had to run back to the dinghy, knowing that the moon would not cast her glow for another two hours.

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