Life & Death at the Abrolhos Islands

Life & Death at the Abrolhos Islands

The Houtman Abrolhos Islands are a place of contradictions. Stark and beautiful, desolate and vibrant, and despite a history of death and despair, brimming with irrepressible life.

I never imagined I’d feel obliged to entertain a baby sea lion. I had watched her from ankle-deep water, but she stared at me, unimpressed. She clearly wasn’t the passive type.

I slide into the water and start splashing and somersaulting.

To my delight, she twists and turns alongside me. She scrutinises me through my mask, quivering whiskers almost touching me, before torpedoing away and circling back.

I stop to rest, and she lies on the bottom, dejected puppy eyes imploring me to swim. I’m just about spent, but her life force seems inexhaustible.

My sea lion experience is one of many encounters with the pulsating life of the Houtman Abrolhos Islands. Locally known as just the Abrolhos, the islands lie 60 kilometres west of Geraldton, Western Australia. The 122 islands are clustered into three main groups and have exceptional natural and historic value. In 2019, 100 of the islands became a national park. The other 22 islands host colourful lobster fishing and aquaculture camps, only usable by the lease holders.

For those of us without our own fishing camp, it’s tricky to stay at the Abrolhos. There are no hotels and the best way to explore the islands is on the low-key cruise boat, Eco-Abrolhos.

The Eco-Abrolhos’ itinerary showcases all the unique offerings of the Abrolhos, including its wildlife, characters and history. It’s a boutique affair, with a relaxed and friendly vibe. While some cabins have king beds, I’m staying in a more budget-friendly lower-level bunk room. The crew is led by father and son, Jay and Bronson Cox, who are owner and skipper respectively, and whose sledging interaction means they double as a comedy duo.

The Abrolhos ecosystem is unique, and my sea lion experience is made even more remarkable by the latitude at which it occurs. Australian sea lions are traditionally found in cooler parts of the country, but here, in the northernmost part of their range, I’m watching them play in coral gardens. The coral reefs themselves are unusual, being the southernmost coral reefs in the Indian Ocean. Cooling currents from nearby deep waters have so far helped the reefs resist the worst of coral bleaching.

Sea birds also join the biological bonanza here. During nesting seasons, the islands are a riotous place, hosting millions of bird pairs. Species include white-faced storm petrels, little shearwaters, sooty terns and brown noddies. The overlap of temperate and tropical species and the sheer intensity of life here means these islands have sometimes been called Australia’s Galapagos.

Our trip commences as sunrise peers over the yachts in Geraldton harbour. Although the Abrolhos have a fearsome reputation for wind-induced seasickness, today is uncharacteristically smooth. As the boat chugs through its four-hour journey to the islands, I sit up front watching flying fish skim the glassy surface.

Eventually, a smudge on the horizon morphs into the islands known as the Southern Group. Only a few metres high and composed of rubble and shrubby vegetation, we wonder how anything survives here.

Underwater, life is as rich as the land is stark. Donning masks and snorkels, we slide into the sea at Coral Patches. Staghorn corals outstretch their fingers in beige, purple, cream and blue, sheltering butterflyfish and damselfish as schools of buffalo bream buzz by. Bumphead parrot fish casually graze on corals, shimmering in turquoise and purple. Peeking under tabletop corals, I find the spaces jam-packed with lobsters, their masses of antennae appearing tangled.

Next, we peek into the Abrolhos lifestyle by visiting tiny Basile Island. Jetties protrude from the island like bike spokes, and the ramshackle houses are mostly cobbled together from asbestos sheets. What they lack in architectural credentials, they make up for in bright colour schemes, and shacks here are resplendent in blue, purple, orange and yellow.

Our tender eases over the corals and turquoise shallows. Reaching the island, we’re warmly welcomed to the home of brothers, Peter and Nino Scarpuzza, second-generation lobster fishers.

“My father came out in ‘52 from Sicily,” says Peter, as he brews real Italian coffee for our group. Peter explains that previous rules restricted the fishing season to several months, prompting fishing families to relocate to the islands fulltime to maximise catches during this time. Since 2009 the fishery has been managed on an annual basis and there are now fewer people here at once. But Peter and Nino prefer to be here anyway. “Why would you want to go into town?” Peter says. “Too many people!”

All this talk of lobsters is making me hungry, so the next morning I join Jay and my fellow adventurers for a fishing tour from the large tender, King Diver. Skimming through a dusky pink dawn, we arrive at pots that Jay baited yesterday. I’m transfixed as our deckhand pulls up the pots, each one containing up to 10 of the prized crustaceans.

It’s an industry that Jay knows inside and out. He worked as a lobster fisher here until he started this business in 2003. The lobster fishery is strictly managed, but their abundance means we can easily, and legally, catch enough to keep us decadently scoffing lobsters, cooked every way possible, for lunch and dinner every day of the cruise.

Our next stop is Post Office Island, historically a drop-off point for mail for the surrounding islands. The limestone rubble island curves like a donut missing a bite, and encircles a milky, aqua lagoon.

Bizarrely, our first stop is a long-drop toilet. A now decommissioned relic of past disposal methods, it directly overhangs the ocean. Today, the pathway to this museum piece is marked by the rib bones of a long-deceased whale, and it’s surely one of the most photogenic toilets in the world.

The undisputed queen of this island is Jane Liddon. She was one of the first female lobster skippers, working alongside her dad and her pioneering aunt, Muriel Thomas, who was better known as Moo. These days Jane’s sons run the lobster business, while Jane herself cultivates black pearls.

Her home perches between the sea and lagoon and is delightfully eclectic. Incorporating corrugated iron and salvaged wood, it’s painted a cheery turquoise. In the courtyard, we sit among oceanic curios like dolphin vertebrae and sculptural chunks of coral. Jane passes around different pearl shells and describes the intricate process of pearl production, from seeding by Japanese technicians to harvest, five years later.

A visit to the jewellery ‘showroom’ (Jane’s kitchen and sunroom) always results in a few sales, thanks in part to that personal connection, she explains. “People can see the pearl farm, and they’re right here in my shack.” Sure enough, credit cards are brandished, and ears and necklines at dinner that night are decidedly more lustrous.

Despite the larger-than-life characters and the prolific wildlife, every visit to the Abrolhos involves confronting tales of death. Shipwrecks litter the reefs, and we hear stories about the Zeewijk and the Windsor. But the darkest shipwreck story of all is that of the Batavia.

The Batavia, the flagship of the Dutch East Indies fleet, sunk in the Wallabi Group in 1629. It was carrying untold riches and over 300 crew, soldiers and passengers. Around 200 survived the shipwreck, but as we learn, their living nightmare was just beginning, as they tried to avoid being murdered by brutal mutineers.

At West Wallabi Island, we hike with naturalist guide Paul Hogger to uncover part of the Batavia story. Here we see Australia’s oldest European buildings, two simple rock forts built by the loyal soldier Wiebbe Hayes and his comrades as they repelled the mutineers. West Wallabi and neighbouring East Wallabi were named by the Dutch for their population of tammar wallabies, although today, they successfully elude me.

As I step ashore on nearby Beacon Island, it appears no different to any other island here. But almost four hundred years ago, on this speck of inhospitable rubble, around 120 Batavia survivors were murdered.

Jay leads us to one of the chilling archaeological dig sites where four bodies were found. It’s a goosebumps moment as we gaze across to Long Island, where the worst mutineers were finally hanged. From here, traumatised survivors would have clearly seen their suspended bodies, left to swing in the fierce Abrolhos winds.

Jay says one of the archaeologists told him of an astonishing find. “In the chest cavity of one of the bodies, was a white-faced storm petrel, nesting,” he says. I raise a sceptical eyebrow, but he assures me it’s true. This place is alive, even in the face of death.

On our final day, we’ll be leaving the Abrolhos by light aircraft, picked up from the dusty East Wallabi airstrip by an assortment of tiny planes. But before then, there’s time for one last snorkel.

The reef here is thriving, and while I watch a Finding Nemo-like fish the size of my fingernail dancing in his anemone, I almost bump into a squad of tiny squid. Suddenly, I’m swimming through cloudy water surrounded by miniature spheres, dots suspended in the water like red-coloured snow.

I’m puzzled, but then it dawns on me. It’s coral spawn, released on last night’s tide. Most of these baby corals will die, but the sheer volume of eggs means enough will survive to sustain these reefs.

The life force of the Abrolhos seems irrepressible.

Get there

Geraldton is a 4.5-hour drive north of Perth. Qantas and REX currently fly between the two cities from AU$192 per person.

Get Informed

Trips are available from February to April and September to November each year. The Abrolhos can be windy at any time of the year. While seas are calm between the islands, the crossing from Geraldton can get bumpy. Bring seasickness tablets if you are at all susceptible.

Tour There

The Eco-Abrolhos hosts a five-day cruise departing from Geraldton, the only one of its kind. It takes a maximum of 32 passengers in a variety of room types, all with ensuites. The cruise is all-inclusive, aside from alcoholic beverages and barista-made coffee. Some departures also incorporate the option of flying one way.
From AU$2,795 per person.

Words Carolyn Beasley

Photos Carolyn Beasley and Bronson Cox

Tags: western australia

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