An Island Chain Reaction
It’s a well-kept secret, the Houtman Abrolhos Islands. The people here – mostly cray fishermen – have kept it very, very quiet and for good reason, it is paradise.
The catamaran MV Great Escape steams smoothly into the Houtman Abrolhos Islands just after dawn. Having travelled through the night from Perth, we wake to a landscape vastly different to the bobbing masts, shipping yards and more crowded coastline of Fremantle’s Fishing Boat Harbour. Here, in the middle of the islands, there’s nothing but translucent turquoise water, expanses of deserted shoreline and swathes of shimmering fish.
We’re moored in a sheltered bay off Morley Island in the Abrolhos’ Easter Group. The Abrolhos (as the islands are more commonly known) mark the most northern native habitat for Australian sea lions. On the isolated beach, two sea lions bask in the sun and solitude, seemingly unperturbed by the dinghy, which is inching closer over the delicate coral reef. Craning their inquisitive canine-like faces they watch curiously as we approach along the beach. “They can be known to nip,” cautions our skipper, Jeremy ‘Jezza’ Tucker, but then ignores his own warning by wading closer. Delighted, the sea lions respond by raising their whiskered noses to his outstretched camera.
Later, as we snorkel on the other side of the islet, two more appear, twisting alongside us like corkscrews, their mischievous eyes twinkling as we swim over swathes of staghorn coral in shades of brilliant blue and purple.
Comprising 122 low-lying coral-fringed islands, the Abrolhos stretches across 100km of Indian Ocean, lies 60km west of Geraldton on WA’s mid-west coast and are clustered into three groups – Pelsaert, Easter and Wallabi – with the larger North Island crowning the chain at the top.
Pulling anchor, we head for the Wallabi Group and moor with West Wallabi Island to the right and a couple of the Abrolhos’ iconic fishing shack settlements to the left.
Called Big Pigeon, the largest settlement is home to a transient population of around 50 cray fishermen who live in the mish-mash of shanties. Like the tide, this salty seafaring community comes and goes, but has inhabited these islands for decades. Here, they live according to their own unwritten set of laws, a code that values mateship, respect, and hard work above all else.
West Wallabi is ingrained in Western Australian folklore as the scene of the final showdown between Webbie Hayes and Jeronimus Cornelisz, survivors of the infamous Batavia shipwreck, a nearly 400-year-old story that has more drama, suspense, murder and mystery than any Hollywood blockbuster.
Steaming from around to East Wallabi Island, we drop anchor off the most spectacular beach yet – the postcard-perfect Turtle Bay. The only island in the group with an air strip, East Wallabi welcomes charter flights from Geraldton and Kalbarri affording those without water transport a passage to the picturesque island.
Recreational anglers are the others who’ve kept the allure of the Abrolhos to themselves. Fewer visitors have meant the islands have remained a relatively untouched, natural environment, abundant in revered fish species. Dropping a line over the side of the dinghy we snare baldchin groper and coral trout, which is then turned into gourmet meals by the catamaran’s on-board chef.
Charters from the mainland are also on offer for those who wish to enjoy days, even weeks, in one of Western Australia’s most extraordinary natural aquatic environments.