Relaxing and yet So much to See in Exmouth

Shothole Canyon and the Gulf

We had loved our time in Denham, but were looking forward to moving up the coast to Coral Bay; another overnight run. Dodging the prawn trawlers the first night was certainly exciting, but as it turned out the passage was really pleasant.  We were feeling pretty good when we approached Coral Bay and were discussing whether to do a double overnighter and keep going to Exmouth

Peter was very happy

While we were pondering this decision, we were distracted by a Skipjack Tuna committing suicide on one of the lures Peter had out the back.

We decided we would just keep going.

I let Wendy (Denham Volunteer Marine Rescue) know that we were continuing on, and mentioned how wonderful it was that we were passing so many whales.  Wendy was just worried we might hit one during the night.  On that note, we are working on the assumption/hope that as we are big and slower than the whales, they should be able to see us and have time to take evasive action at night when we can’t see them.  During the day we move around to avoid them which is just sensible, but it is also a legal requirement of boating in these waters.  Even though we weren’t in her area any longer, the lovely Wendy would send a screen shot every few hours to show us where we were (and these agreed with where I thought we were, so all very reassuring there). 

There is not actually a great deal to do when on shift at night; watching the RADAR for boat-like blobs (and blobs that could be hard things not yet charted) and scanning outside for the lights of other boats that don’t use AIS, and listening for unusual noises.  I love the AIS system; it shows what other boats are doing and lets them know that we are here, but not everyone uses it.  Watching the plotter as we cruised along the coast it occurred to me that the underwater contours looked like the scalloped edge at the top of a curtain.  There must have been some impressive forces creating this coastline, as using the curtain analogy, the pinch pleats represented a change of 300m in vertical distance – lots of underwater-waterfalls all along the coast.  It would have made a great modelling exercise for my students (to show that the closer the lines of contour the steeper the terrain).

The wildlife we saw on this section was a highlight, with schools of tuna breaking the surface and whales everywhere. When we were travelling to Shark Bay all the whales had been heading North, but now they were all heading South. They are truly spectacular and we never tired of watching them breaching and having a general ‘whale of a time’.  I counted 20 off Port Edgar, which ironically was the location of a Norwegian whaling station, until the bans on whaling.

Opal Lady is middle right

Due to a very strong current pushing us along, we had to back the revs right off so that we approached Exmouth after daybreak (apparently, I was still grumping about the dark approach to Geraldton).  The sight of the radio towers off to our right in the dawn as we rounded the Cape was most impressive in a ‘War of the Worlds’ kind of way.  We pulled into the Exmouth Marina at 6:30am with Peter managing to back us in first attempt. The marina was lovely and clearly built for cyclones and high tides (the photo shows how much further the floating pontoon walkways can go up and no need for the ladder here).  The toilet/shower block looked very industrial on first impressions (it too being built for cyclones) but proved quite adequate, and the staff were very personable checking that we had everything sorted for our stay.  We were really looking forward to spending some time in Exmouth, as this was our last main port before Darwin.  We are not sure about Broome yet, as the tides make it problematic, even if we can get a mooring.  So pretty much from here on up the coast we will be anchoring all the way.

No ventilation back here

After brekky, Peter headed off to fillet that lovely tuna (the freezer and I had been keeping it in an ice slurry) and I washed down the boat and then wiped down every inside surface (the salt air leaves everything with a sticky feel). I did consider vacuuming the cat, as the heat has him shedding everywhere, but he didn’t like that idea.  Our first day was spent sorting some minor maintenance issues; the washing machine had stopped working (mid cycle of course) and the hydraulic hoses still had to be replaced on the stabilizers.  As Peter was riding into town, hoping to find a newspaper, he passed an electrician’s ute and had a word, and the washing machine was soon up and running again (but no newspapers as they don’t come in until 2:00).  There was a broken wire in the oddest of places, right inside the controller unit.  Liberating the machine from under the pilot house console required me to climb into the cupboards under the steering wheel and around the corner to unscrew the blocking pieces.  Peter was unfortunately too big to fit; he was very sad about that…not.  The photo shows me having survived back there for the hours (it seemed) that it took Peter and Dave (electrician from the ute) to find and fix the problem.  Peter was very proud that his electrical crimping kit came in handy.  Charles from a local engineering company had the stabilizer hoses sorted in the next few days.  Again, service from the local businesses was excellent

Next item on the list was a ride into the Visitor Centre to book some tours. The marina is an easy 3km ride from town, so Peter was going in at least once a day and me most days to visit the bakery, when we weren’t doing something touristy. The Visitor Centre is a fantastic asset for Exmouth and we ended up having lunch there as it took quite some time to get through all the displays (we take our information centres and museums etc. very seriously).  It was a bit of a walk down memory lane for Peter, as they had lots of photos from the era around when he and his family used to live here (back in the 70s). The history section alone covered such a range of events; the US base (obviously) complete with an original bus for touring the town (on a video at your seat), a section on some really sneaky WWII missions that involved single person submarine type boats, the oil exploration of the 50s and the wonderful story about some shipwrecked boys who were saved by the aboriginal people back in the 1870s.

The thing I found the most interesting was the technical display about the transmission towers.  The US built the base to send Very Low Frequency messages to their submarines (VLF waves can penetrate 40m below water – who knew?).  There are 13 towers over 380m high that were constructed in the US, dismantled and shipped to Exmouth (hence the building of an impressive pier that we shall talk about later).  Even more interesting is the elegant engineering solution for the problem of building the machinery for tuning the tower signals (called a variometer) within the huge magnetic field generated by the system – metal wouldn’t work. So the solution was that everything other than the coil wire (for the actual tuner) is made of wood – even the nuts and bolts… too cute for words.  Our photo shows a model of the variometer at the Visitor Centre, photos of the real thing show people climbing up it on ladders – it was big (and all made of wood)

Wooden bolt and nut

Our first tour was to the Shothole Canyon and Charles Knife Gorge with Robbie.  It felt good to get off the boat and do some walking.  Robbie quite liked that we didn’t mind the bush, so took us for some impressive walking along a rapidly reducing ridge line (great view from the top though).

Unfortunately, the Whaleshark season was over so we booked what was called an Ecotour – Snorkeling with Turtles, on ‘Latitude 22’.  This proved to be a memorable day with more whales than you can poke a stick at, plenty of snorkeling around the Cape, with turtles and manta rays, as well as lots of coral and fish. We had to stop the boat at one point to allow a young calf whale (and Mum) to get clear.  The calf was about a week old and was working really hard at practicing his rolling.  But he looked hilarious, as he hadn’t quite the hang of all his fins and was wobbling all over the place (rather like a human baby discovering that he has arms).  The crew for this tour was all female including the captain which was a nice change. The only downside was I managed to get sunburned and scraped my shin down a ladder getting into the water for snorkeling; but well worth it.

After a quiet weekend, a trip down the west side of the Cape was the go for Monday. Bonny took us for a great day out with highlights being snorkeling at the Oyster Stacks and going up Pilgonoman Gorge to see the Black Flanked Rock Wallabies. What is so exciting about rock wallabies I hear you say?  It turns out these are really, really tiny (just a bit bigger than Neon) and again so cute. (Maybe everything in Exmouth is cute).

During a talk with Bonnie (probably while waiting for me to catch up on the walking) Peter mentioned that he had wanted to dive the Exmouth Navy Pier (it is one of the top dives in the world), but read that it had been closed for a while and also our dive tickets had not been refreshed for a few years.  Bonnie announced that she also worked for Ningaloo Diving who manage the diving at the Exmouth Navy Pier, and she was a PADI dive master and could do our refresher in the pool the day before the Pier dive. The refresher course brought it all back fortunately, and we were ready for our dives at the pier. Just the logistics for the dive was impressive; there is a tide window of only 2 hours, the pier is part of an operating base so we all had to have our photo id. ready for the AFP to check, and then the bus drives along the jetty to the pier at the end.  Then there are a goodly number of steps to walk down to get to the water …. and then there is one of the highest drops into the water I think you are ever likely to come across. But this dive is truly spectacular.  I had my doubts about how good this experience would be as there is a most decent current through the structure, it is a relatively small area and visibility is quite short.  But you don’t actually need to move around much at all, the whole spectacular show comes to you.  In fact, I think you could probably just sit on the bottom chilling with the White Tipped Reef Sharks and everything would just pass by you.

The towers are in the background

As it was, we were swimming among walls of fish of varieties too numerous to mention.  My favourites were the Wobbegong Sharks (70s paisley complete with the fringing), the Nudibranches (frilly sea snails) and the huge Painted Crayfish that just sat and waved their antennae mockingly at us (they know they’re in a Marine Reserve). Peter loved the BFG (massive Big Friendly Grouper, with no concept of personal space) and the large Grey Nurse Shark, that we could get within a metre of (everything here is well fed).  In all, this was an amazing experience. [No photos of the marine life as we decided to just concentrate on the diving this time].

After the full moon, the prawn trawlers headed back out and we took the opportunity to take Opal Lady across to the fuel jetty to top up the tanks, as our next refuel would not be until Darwin.  She took 1500l (diesel).  Opal Lady is quite miserly on fuel and we had only used 30% of our capacity to get from Perth to Exmouth, but you should never let a chance go by.  For the technically inclined; the tanks hold 4500l in total and at our cruising speed of 6.5 knots we use about 8.0l/hr.  Theoretically, without considering currents or adjusting engine speed, we have a range of around 4,000km.

Exmouth is a small town of around 2,000 people, which swells to 6,000 at the height of the tourist season. What we noticed most throughout our stay, was how much the locals like living here and the number of people who had come for a holiday ended up staying (including all the people mentioned in this article). It is a very relaxed, calm town.  I think we were the only ones wearing helmets and locking our bikes. We really enjoyed Exmouth. A number of nights after a day of tourist-ing, we wandered down to the Game fishing club at the marina and had a meal (good pub grub) while watching the sun go down and all the boats coming back into harbour; a very pleasant way to end the day. But all good things come to an end and with the weather looking fine it was time to head to the MonteBellos.

Pilgonoman Gorge Eagle

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