Whitsundays

Our boat dropped us of at Tongue Beach for a brief hike over the hill, to Hill Lookout.  From there we were treated to the most gorgeous view of Whitehaven Beach.

Whitehaven Beach

As part of the Great Barrier Reef the Whitsunday National Park is also part of a UNESCO world heritage site.  This is a fantastic beach.  The color mix of the turquoise water with the white sand provides an amazing vista.

whitsunday_family_small

However, the sand itself is also great.  Unlike many beaches, this beach has 98% silica.  It reflects almost all heat energy meaning that even on a hot day, the sand will become cool.  Even though this area boasts six of the seven sea turtle species, none can nest on this beach, as the nest will not reach the proper temperature.  Our guide stated that the sand comes from the quartz of an extinct volcano just off the coast.  The quartz, thousands of years would rub together producing this high silica content sand.  Sadly, the quartz is exhausted and the sands of Whitehaven are not being replenished.  The sands are just a few storm systems away from being swept away entirely.   However, geologists state a slightly different story.  In effect, the Whitsundays are residuals from volcanism that broke up Gondwanaland, but the sand comes from somewhere else.  Most likely brought to this spot during the last glacial melt. (Click here to learn more).  Regardless where they came from, this beach and its sand are truly unforgettable.

We had lunch amongst the tiny crabs and fish.

Blue Soldier Crab Shore Crab eating oysters

Manta Ray Bay

Kylie Snorkeling

On the North side of Hook Island, this bay bore the brunt of cyclone Debbie.  As a consequence,  the reef and coral coverage in this bay dropped to 1% from 80+%.  Two years later, it was clear this area was still in distress.  The coral was small, and sparsely populated.

A lonely branching coral tries to make a recovery and is part of the 1% of coverage that remains.

Sara Perry the Environmental Manager at Ocean Rafting explained the environmental recovery efforts at Hook Island as well as the interplay between fish, coral, and algae:

Now without the coral or the structures there to keep the reef fish safe and provide a home, they will not survive in that area so they move on.  National Parks have put back some of the coral Bombora into the water for the fish to be protected as well as reef ecologic have started up new practices by coral farming.  By collecting broken bits of healthy coral from the area and attaching with cement and placed in a table till grown big enough and able to support itself.  Others tied to rope.  (See which works best) there will also be man made structures put in shortly to create an art piece for people in the mean time but also another hard structure for the new baby corals to attach to and grow.  Now if we had no fish there though we would just get algae growing over everything and take over.  So we have the grazing fish which come along and mow the lawn so to speak.  To make sure the algae does not overtake but is there to provide a good food source.  Then the coral can attach to the hard structures and grow.  Then of course because of those grazing fish being there they attract larger fish and so on.  Giving a range of species.  Also in the mix are crustaceans and sea dwellers like sea cucumbers which clean the sand.  So to make sure we keep some species of fish happy to attract all others we make sure there is a steady food supply that is natural and also not over fed.  That is why only few operators have permits to feed these fish and only a certain amount goes to them each day.  The Maori wrasse is actually very important to the reef as he is not only super cool for us to see but he eats the carnivores crown of thorns starfish.  Which eats coral, and if it’s population gets out of control (like up north) they will have up to 80,000 babies and destroy an area full of coral in just one day. – Sarah Perry

Also, part of the reef recovery effort has been installing human-made objects into the water to help provide habitat for coral and fish.  (Read about the plan here).  I tried to swim around and find some underwater art constructions, but I was unsuccessful in locating them.

The feeding attracted a variety of fish including the awesome Napoleon Wrasse which appears on the IUCN Red List as endangered.   The Napolean Wrasse can grow bigger than 230 cm (7.5 feet) and weighs in at 190 kg (419 lbs).  As Sarah mentioned above, the Napoleon Wrasse are crucial predators as they feed on the crown of thorns who devastate reefs.  The Great Trevally which gets up to 170 cm (over 5 feet) and weighs up to 80kg (176 lbs).

Napoleon Wrasse
Great Trevally

Swimming in feeding fish was a little intimidating, but it did provide a unique and incredible experience.

Butterfly cove

Just below the surface a coral wonderland awaited us

Unlike Manta Ray Bay here there was great quantity and diversity of fringing coral.

We did see some coral bleaching and signs of reef distress, but there was greater coral diversity here.  When comparing these pictures to the one above. you can see coral on top of coral abutting next to coral.  Manta Ray Bay did not have that.  Just a few coral here and there.  There were hard and soft coral.  Watching the coral sway with the current was mesmerizing.  We did see some green turtles in the distance and some fish.  Kylie was too cold to go in this time, but was just as happy spotting fish and turtles from the boat.  In all it was three hours of snorkeling and some amazing underwater vistas.    Sharleen and Alyssa liked this dive site better than the Lady Musgrave reef because of the fish activity and coral diversity.  I however enjoyed the Musgrave site better as it appeared to be a more healthy ecosystem with a more diverse group of fish.

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