Islands a real freak of nature | Ralph Lauren

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The Abrolhos is Australia’s Galapagos.

Just like the islands off South America, the Abrolhos Islands are freaks of geography, where tropical and temperate ocean species mix.

But, unlike the Galapagos, which would usually draw more than 270,000 visitors a year, few people will visit Western Australia’s newest national park this year. For the Houtman Abrolhos National Park was formed only 18 months ago — most of which have been “lost” for visitors, of course.

And here I’d better quickly address what will be going through the minds of many readers. No — the Abrolhos is not just a bunch of windswept, boring sandy islands with not much to see and do. The Abrolhos are a freak of geography and oceanography and a real treasure.

So it feels empty, new and exciting.

Australian sea lions with birds on Pelsaert Island in the Southern Group of the Abrolhos islands.
Camera IconAustralian sea lions with birds on Pelsaert Island in the Southern Group of the Abrolhos islands. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

WHERE SPECIES COLLIDE

The Abrolhos is not just a crossroads — it is a crossover zone.

To the east, between the islands and Geraldton, the water is shallow. A lot of the Geelvink Channel is 50m deep.

To the west, there’s the deep blue beyond the Continental Shelf, dropping to 3000m deep, with canyons up to 5000m.

From the north come warm tropic currents. Colder water pushes up from the south.

That freak of geography means these 122 islands off the Mid West coast are within the northern limit for many temperate species, and the southern limit of many tropical species. An overlap.

Like the Galapagos Islands, this is what scientists call a transitional zone between major marine biogeographic provinces.

Within one snorkel spot, I watch a crazy concoction, with pristine coral, colourful tropical fish and big-ocean fish all in the same turquoise aquarium.

The sight of Australian sea lions — which are found mostly lower down the WA coast and as far as South Australia and are one of the rarest pinnipeds on Earth — swimming over coral is outlandish.

In July 2019, the Abrolhos was made a national park, now coming under the WA Government’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions. It has the twin objectives of both preserving the islands’ outstanding environmental values and encouraging sustainable tourism.

It’s a significant shift in these prime crayfishing grounds. The 22 islands that have settlements and fishing camps, many multicoloured and with an equally colourful history, remain outside the new park.

They, and the waters of the Abrolhos, still come under Fisheries, and are managed by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development.

The West Coast Rock Lobster Fishery is a showpiece of sustainability, which in 2000 became the world’s first fishery to be certified as ecologically sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

There used to be rules controlling the number of lobster pots each licensee could use during a season of 31/2 months from March to June — but in 2009 the total commercial catch was limited to 6300 tonnes, with operators having quotas.

Building remnants from guano mining operations, Pelsaert Island.
Camera IconBuilding remnants from guano mining operations, Pelsaert Island. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

a fascinating HISTORY

Locals, and increasingly the wider world, call this “the Abrolhos” but the official name is the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, to distinguish the WA archipelago from the Abrolhos Islands off Brazil.

The Houtman Abrolhos Islands National Park’s official formation coincided with the 400th anniversary of Dutch navigator Frederik de Houtman’s spotting of these islands.

He was a good celestial navigator who came on the first Dutch expedition to the East Indies from 1595-97. They sailed from Europe, around the southern tip of Africa, and on to what is today’s Indonesia, seeking valuable spices.

He returned in 1619 on the ship Dordrecht, and called at the Abrolhos. Bear in mind that that was more than 400 years ago — long before James Cook’s voyages to the east coast of Australia in 1770, just over 250 years ago.

Many believe “Abrolhos” most likely is derived from “abre os olhos”, Portuguese for “open the eyes”, which was as sound advice for early European tall-ship navigators as it is for today’s skippers. While the East India ships had originally sailed round the Cape of Good Hope and then north-east, around Madagascar and then across the top of the Indian Ocean, they were often becalmed in the doldrums. It made the route slow and unreliable, and crews suffered scurvy and other diseases as they waited for wind.

It led to the pioneering of the more southern Brouwer Route — shooting straight across the Indian Ocean towards Australia in the Roaring Forties winds and then “chucking a leftie” to sail north, parallel to the WA coast, heading for Batavia — today’s Jakarta.

Without today’s grasp of longitude, some simply left the turn too late, putting them on a lee shore with reefs. The big number of wrecks in this area, including the Batavia, bear witness to that.

The Dutch East India Company was shipwrecked off Beacon Island in 1629, carrying the richest cargo ever to leave the Netherlands, heading for Batavia, with more than 300 crew, soldiers and passengers. During the horror which followed, it is believed that about 125 men, women and children were murdered in a mutineers’ reign of terror on the island.

Some of the $10 million the WA Government has committed for sustainable tourism developments in the Abrolhos will be used to build a landing dock on Beacon Island. Survivors of the Dutch ship Zeewijk, which wrecked on Half Moon Reef in the Pelsaert Group in 1727 camped on Gun Island for nine months before building a small boat to sail to Batavia.

Bridled tern, Beacon Island.
Camera IconBridled tern, Beacon Island. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

VIBRANT BIODIVERSITY

Locals talk about 122 islands, but the Parks and Wildlife Service recognises an archipelago of 210 and the Houtman Abrolhos Islands National Park includes 189 of these.

They range over more than 100km from north to south and are 60km off Geraldton.

They are basically limestone, but some are covered with sand, coral rubble or shingle. More than 100,000 years ago, coral started growing, layer upon layer, building this ancient limestone reef platform.

Coral is still growing, but today on top of that platform — the most southern coral reef system in either the Indian or Pacific oceans.

And the coral’s presence is due to the Leeuwin Current, which flows south from the tropical waters around Indonesia, making the water around the Abrolhos not only 3C warmer than along the coast, but also bringing nutrients and, importantly, coral larvae. Yet the islands are too far south to suffer cyclones, which can damage coral, so it grows up close to the surface, in shallow water, seeking light and warmth. The islands are also protected by reefs.

The Abrolhos is also washed by the edge of the currents of the Indian Ocean circulation system.

Sea levels have risen and fallen significantly over the Earth’s history, and it is only about 8000 years ago, when sea levels rose after the last ice age, that the islands were finally separated from the mainland.

Plants and animals were stranded on, and colonised, the islands and have evolved in isolation.

The islands are very important seabird breeding grounds — the DBCA reports that most of the islands have bird nesting and breeding sites and the Federal Government’s Department of Environment reports more than a million pairs of breeding seabirds.

They can breed very close to a deepwater food source.

There are vulnerable and endangered shorebirds and migratory waders, including several critically endangered species.

In Easter group (the middle group of the three), we land on Wooded Island. It is an important place — one of only two breeding places in the world of the non-migratory lesser noddy, the other being in the Seychelles.

And there in a protected grove of big mangrove trees are their nests — small, concreted with guano.

We walk the hard coral, past a big osprey nest on the ground — unusual, but there are no predators on the island.

There’s a healthy, crazy mix of birdlife — bobbies and plovers and terns. This is a demanding but robust environment. There is high biodiversity because of this isolation and “the crossover” on these feral-free islands. In this, the Abrolhos is rather like the Galapagos Islands, off South America.

Hard coral of Wooded Island, in the Easter (central) group of the Abrolhos Islands.
Camera IconHard coral of Wooded Island, in the Easter (central) group of the Abrolhos Islands. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

fact file

  • Read about our recent West Travel Club tour to the Abrolhos Islands here.
  • Expedition cruise ship Eco Abrolhos visits on short itineraries, calling at all three groups.
  • Coral Expeditions has just announced itineraries which include the Abrolhos Islands.
  • Abrolhos Adventures does day trips by catamaran.
  • Yachties from Perth turn up in April, May and June, when the wind drops.
  • There are day flights with Geraldton Air Charters and Shine Aviation.
  • A good place to start is by talking to the helpful staff at Geraldton Visitor Centre, on 9956 6670 and visitgeraldton.com.au.



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