Saturday, 24 December 2016

Ashmore Reef 01

Each year George Swann [Kimberley Bird Watching] runs the annual pelagic trip to Ashmore Reef from Broome in October/November. This year we left Broome on Wednesday 02 November and returned via Browse Island on Thursday 10 November. George, Rohan Clarke and Mike Carter were the guides. Rohan placed a post on the Australian Twitchers Facebook page way back in March-ish and I booked straight away. This gave me time to do a few mainland pelagic voyages [Kiama and Port Fairy] to see how I got on seasickness-wise and, perhaps, tailor a dose of anti-seasickness medication for me. Reports on those trips are here and here.

The car journey to Broome and return will be blogged later. I arrived in Broome on the Saturday prior to embarkation and stayed at the Broome Bird Observatory managed by Nigel Jackett and his wife Jaimie. Neither was present with Jaimie being in Sydney and Nigel returning from there and immediately going on the Champagne Division of the National Twitchathon the next day, Sunday, which meant a 3am start to drive to their nominated starting point at 5am, twelve hours of twitch ending at 5pm at Derby and a two hour drive back to Broome. Man. His team, the Roebuck Ruffians, won their division. Well done Nigel.

On Sunday, Cathy Mahoney arrived via the weekly direct flight from Melbourne. She lives near Sale and is a relatively new birder, a member of Birdlife Australia and a keen participant on the Monday outings of the BA East Gippsland branch. She had booked her place on the cruise entirely independently to me.

The pelagic was on board the Reef Prince, chartered from Kimberley Expeditions. It is a 38metre catamaran. Each of the 14 passengers had a room and en-suite to themselves. The crew of 6 included a chef with in his industrial strength kitchen and a purser.

MV Reef Prince
Right from the word go it was exciting as we boarded via the Reef Prince's tender, the Pig, being picked up off the beach, dodging the waves, luggage and all. A fishing charter was doing the same thing but their method of embarkation involved dry feet.

That is the way to have dry feet.
Soon it was "anchors away" and steaming [a Captain's term] at full cruising speed north towards Ashmore Reef. It took 2 and a bit days to get there. We initially headed northwest reaching pelagic water [essentially the open sea with a depth greater than about 200metres]. This is where true pelagic birds live. At one stage we had 1,400 metres of sea below us. One lady came on the trip to see one bird, Matsudaira's Storm-Petrel, which migrates from breeding grounds in the Pacific Ocean south of Japan to the northern Indian Ocean. We didn't see one.

The drill for the trip was to occupy the chairs on the foredeck and spend the entire time [bar meals and breaks] from dawn [5am] to dusk [6pm] searching the oceans for anything.

We saw flying fish, dolphins, whales, boys, terns, boobies, storm-petrels although it was a quiet voyage so the regulars said. I became a tad unwell on the afternoon of Day 01 so missed several species of birds that would have been life ticks. Day 02 was good and we arrived on Day 03, about noon. Birds I took photos of included ...

Brown Booby
Here are some Brown Boobys aboard a FAD
 -- Fish Attracting Device -- essentially a buoy which fish
congregate at. You need a permit to fish at these devices,
unless you are a native Indonesian. I think you can only
fish with a single line.
Sooty Tern
Eventually we were able to see the "lens" above Ashmore Reef. This is a pale, sky-blue, colour in the clouds above the reef which is a reflection of the sun from the shallow water and sand.

As we got closer, we could make out the single palm tree on West Island, then the second dead palm tree trunk, then the Australian Border Force vessel and three fishing boats anchored in the lagoon. We slowly entered the lagoon, tied up at a very large buoy, the ABF vessel came over, they checked out the paperwork, and we were free to go. As a member of the public, you are allowed to enter the lagoon, land on west Island and collect water but that is all. The rest of the area is accessible by permit only, which had been arranged for our party.

Ashmore Reef is about 600km north of Broome and less than 200km south of Indonesia slightly north of the latitude of Darwin. The proximity to Indonesia means any decent low pressure trough blows bird to Ashmore Reef and hence can be added to your Australian Bird List.

We visited Browse Island on the way back.
Browse is part of WA and hence a bird seen there
can go on your WA list!
This shows the prohibited access area where our permits
allowed us to go. We were anchored in the lagoon just to
the east of West Island. The two islets are high enough
to be out of water at all times barring a cyclone.

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