East Coast Odyssey

August 20, 2013 — September 7, 2013

The nature tourism, scientific research and conservation project, East Coast Odyssey, is the first expedition of its kind to tackle insidious micro-plastics in Australian waters.

Captain David Nash, one of the project founders, said the East Coast Odyssey was an historic opportunity to take a low-impact holiday, feel the amazing sensation of a wooden ship under sail at sea and contribute to vital research.

The mission, under the supervision of Monash University’s Jennifer Lavers is to collect data on the millions of multi-coloured plastic remnants killing marine wildlife at an alarming rate off Australia’s spectacular east coast.

This is the story of that voyage. 

 Day of departure  Any port in a storm

It took me a while to adjust to the motion of the waves, so I was a bit ginger this morning, but fortunately as the day progressed I improved dramatically.  We had passed Tasman Island during the night and were making our way to the Freycinet Peninsula.  We had some special birds on the way, with our first Buller’s Albatross and Wandering Albatross of the trip, and our first Providence and Great-winged Petrels also. These are all beautiful seabirds and though I have seen them many times before it was like greeting old friends.  Buller’s Albatross particularly is a really strikingly beautiful bird and one I am always glad to see. During the day the weather forecasts became progressively worse, until it was decided we would have to seek shelter for the evening to ride out the unpleasant conditions.  We ended up in the late evening sailing into a spectacular rocky area that opened up into a bay with a pure white sandy beach.  This little gem of a safe anchorage was called Brian’s Corner, and we were very happy to be able to spend the night in such a beautiful place.

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 Back on track

We woke this morning to an improved forecast, and instead of our planned rubbish collection and swim we decided to make an immediate departure and try to make Flinders Island on schedule.  The weather was getting increasingly challenging, but the strong winds made for great speed with the sails, and also for great seabirding.  Great-winged Petrels and Cape Petrels were near-constant companions during the daylight hours, and nine species of Albatross with a major highlight being a single distant pass from a Sooty Albatross.  This stunning dusky coloured albatross breeds in the southern Indian and Atlantic Oceans, and has a massive journey to reach the eastern coast of Australia, which it does only occasionally.  While they are seen more regularly in the Great Australian Bight and off the south-west coast of Western Australia, they are a much sought-after species by birdwatchers in Australian waters.

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 An elephant at sea

The strong westerly winds that were helping us get back on schedule and hoping to still make Flinders Island continued today and if anything increased in strength.  This was great speed-wise, but presented a similar problem to the northerly winds in that Flinders Island lies due west of where we are sailing.  In the end, despite a valiant attempt, we had to abandon our plans of reaching the island and instead made use of the favourable winds to start our Bass Strait crossing.  With our sails rigged, and motor off, we were making around seven knots, flying along in the wind.  Seabirding continued to be excellent, with great numbers of petrels and albatross around the boat.  This was the first of only two days of this whole voyage that would be spent completely out of sight of land, and for those of us who were not experienced sailors it was a slightly eerie feeling.  Towards sunset we had one of the most magical experiences of the trip.  Towards sunset bird activity was picking up, with about 30 Great-winged Petrels swirling around the boat, playing in the wind turbulence created by our sails.  I spotted a strange but large object floating in the water less than a hundred metres off to port.  Calling it out to the others on deck thinking it could be a small whale, I was disappointed to see it just floating and not moving.  We nearly decided it was just a large piece of rubbish in the water until it suddenly resolved into a seal-like shape.  Indeed, as it came closer it became obvious it was an enormous seal.  Seriously enormous.  Through the binoculars I could see enough in the dying light to make out large puffy snout atop the huge head of a Southern Elephant Seal.  While these massive creatures (made famous by David Attenborough and also the movie Happy Feet) are now found mostly in the sub-Antarctic and Antarctic waters, they are recorded very occasionally in Tasmania and Victoria.  Apparently a long time ago they were known to breed in the Bass Strait, so perhaps that is why they occasionally return to the area.  He kept his head raised high out of the water for nearly a minute, unmoving, until finally he decided he’d had enough and slipped gently beneath the waves.  The sun fell and between scudding clouds the stars came out over a wide expanse of ocean as we sailed across the strait.

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 Straight across the strait

The wind picked up again overnight, to nearly 30 knots, which was starting to tire both us and the birds.  At times we had 20-30 birds gliding in the lee of the boat, and even landing on the water for a brief respite.  The excellent numbers of seabirds continued all day, and we had some special moments, with a Soft-plumaged Petrel and a White-headed Petrel making distant passes around the ship.  Towards the end of the day we entered a patch of highly productive water, and suddenly we were surrounded by hundreds of seabirds of many species.  Along with a swirling mass of Great-winged and Cape Petrels, we also had a large flock of Grey-backed Storm-petrels dancing across the water, and Fairy Prions shearing around.  A small flock of Flesh-footed Shearwaters foraging were also our first shearwaters of the trip.  This amazing flock of birds lasted til sunset, when it got too dark to see anymore.  Later in the evening we finally sighted the lighthouses on the southern coast of Victoria near Mallacoota.  By morning we would finally see land again!

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 Having a whale of a time

Overnight the wind and swell finally abated, and dawn saw us within sight of land near Mallacoota on the NSW/Victoria border.  This part of the coast lacks the amazing geology of Tasmania’s east coast or the sandstone cliffs of Sydney, but makes up for it with its picturesque hills and deep blue ocean.  With wind low we were always going to struggle to see many birds, but being closer to shore still managed to add Fluttering Shearwaters and a Brown Skua to our list of species seen.  The heroes today were the cetaceans.  While looking for a place to trawl for plastics we regularly came across Common Dolphins who were only too happy to play in our bow-wave.  In all we must have had nearly a hundred dolphins visit our boat during the course of the day.  As well as tagging along with the boat we observed them hunting fish by charging together into bait-balls, splashing wildly and sending fish flying.  The stars of the day however were the Humpback Whales.  We had several groups over the course of the afternoon, but none better than a group that came over to the boat to check us out.  We had seen them come up for breath a few hundred metres away and then suddenly they were underneath us.  The next half an hour was a magical experience, with up to three Humpbacks surfacing right by the boat, spyhopping next to us to look us in the eyes, and even going upside down underneath the boat to show us their underbelly.  We couldn’t believe our eyes, and everyone came away touched by the majesty of these wonderful animals.  Our day finished sailing gently into the sunset over Twofold Bay at Eden, a soft breeze blowing and a feeling of accomplishment at having successfully crossed the Bass Straight in a sailing boat.

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 Just another day in paradise

For four days we have been cruising Twofold Bay doing half-day trips for people from the region.  We had people from Eden, Merimbula, Pambula, Bega and even Bermagui.  There were also people from Sydney on holidays, and hopefully we'll see them again when we arrive in Sydney Harbour in two weeks.

Each day on Twofold Bay was quite different, with some days being better for sailing, others with great birds, and still others with wonderful dolphin experiences.  Highlights included a large pod of more than 50 Common Dolphins in a feeding frenzy mixed in with Gannets, Gulls, Terns and even a few New-Zealand Fur Seals; beautiful smooth seas and just enough wind to keep the sails full; Humpback Whales between us and Eden, right in Twofold Bay; and of course chatting with our guests!

In terms of wildlife there was usually something around to keep people interested.  We had Shy Albatross most days, and a Yellow-nosed and Buller's Albatross made a brief but distant appearance on one day.  We had a Brown Skua as part of the feeding frenzy of dolpins, a regular but scarce visitor to Australian shores in winter.  On the final day it was so calm that we could see dozens of Common Diving Petrels swimming and diving under the water, something that is usually not possible when the wind is rippling the water.  We also had a single Wedge-tailed Shearwater, unusual as it must be overwintering in the area, and is a species that is rarely solitary.

Some of our visitors were people from the Sapphire Coast Marine Discovery Centre http://www.sapphirecoastdiscovery.com.au/, and we had others from the Eden Killer Whale Museum http://www.killerwhalemuseum.com.au/, both of which are definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.

In terms of trawls for plastic, they were surprisingly clear of plastic, but even in such a pristine environment there were a few pieces in every trawl.  On top of that, we observed pieces of plastic floating in the bay, including a bristle from a scrubbing brush and even a square of cling film that was mimicking a jellyfish.

In all Eden was a great port to visit, with lots of friendly people and some great wildlife.

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 East of Eden

We’re back under sail!  It felt good to cast off from Eden, despite how wonderful the town has been.  Last night we welcomed Melodee on board from Mildura in Victoria.  She was tired from her long drive but keen to go sailing. Pointing our bowsprit north towards Ulladulla we headed out off the shelf.  Humpback Whales were our constant companions, with over 30 seen during the afternoon, including some really nice breaching, tail slapping and fin slapping behaviour.  Fairy Prions and Albatross were quite common once we reached about 100m depth, and the swell was minimal for most of the day.  The wind died off during the mid-afternoon and we reluctantly turned on the motor to cover some distance.  This meant we were now doing enough speed for some Common Dolphins to ride our bow wave!  Possibly the best thing we saw this day was after the sun had set, on a change of watch, a small pod of dolphins were tagging along with the boat.  The bioluminescence in the water was particularly pronounced tonight and the dolphins looks like sparkling pillars of glowing water trailing alongside the boat or streaking ahead of the bow.

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 Heaps of Humpbacks

Dawn saw us well off the shelf, but sadly not a huge amount of bird activity.  Fortunately before too long things started to happen.  Providence Petrels were regular if only in small numbers, and White-faced Storm-petrels started dancing on the waves in the lines of current.  Providence Petrels breed on Lord Howe Island and on Phillip Island near Norfolk.  They used to also breed on Norfolk itself, and their name “Providence” comes from sailors shipwrecked on Norfolk who killed and ate the birds.  Storm-petrels of all kinds have an interesting habit where they flutter slowly with wings out just above the water and paddle their feet on the surface.  It looks just like they are dancing.  We saw this behaviour for most of the day.  A handful of Fluttering Shearwaters and a few different species of Albatross were also quite nice.  Humpback Whales continued to keep us company, with sporadic sightings all day, and two separate groups coming to investigate the boat during the day.  The morning was a near-mugging, with two whales at the stern coming quite close, while in the afternoon a Humpback breached twice near the boat, putting on quite a show for those on deck.  We finished the day sailing into Wreck Bay, part of Booderee National Park.  Two huge navy ships were in the area, a reminder that this little section of land belongs to the Australian Capital Territory and has a military base alongside the national park.

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 Shearwaters galore

We awoke this morning after a foggy but clear night to a stunning landscape.  The bright blue skies and crystal clear water of Wreck Bay are just as good from on the water as they are on the land in Booderee National Park.  A White-bellied Sea-Eagle was standing watch over the boat while we were at anchor, sitting proudly on a nearby headland.  Hauling anchor we headed to Jervis Bay to spend the day.  On the way large flocks of Hutton’s Shearwaters streamed past the boat, and a few albatross kept us company.  A single Fairy Prion flew off the water at one stage, unusual so close to land.  We headed into Jervis Bay only to find the Australian Navy were doing training exercises, including live fire near the anchorage we were planning to use!  So we moved on to a safer place and settled in for a beautiful starry evening.

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 There she blows!

Today was our first half-day trip in Ulladulla, and in terms of wildlife it was a great day.  We had nine passengers on board, which is as full as the boat has been on this trip!  The sail started very auspiciously, with a Humpback doing a full breach near the boat.  This turned out to be a mother and calf, who cruised past between us and the harbour.  That was the high point of the morning, but that doesn't mean we didn't see other things that were great.  We had lots of Wedge-tailed and Hutton's Shearwaters making close passes by the boat, and a number of Prions as well.  On several occasions we passed big groups of shearwaters feeding on bait balls, showing off their amazing flying prowess.  We had an interesting Tern at one point that was only seen from a distance, but was probably a White-fronted Tern.  Hopefully we will catch up with this species again soon.  We also had a number of Shy and Black-browed Albatross flying past, and a few seals lounging around in the water.  In all it was a great morning, even though the sailing wasn't as great as it has been on other days.

In the evening we gave a series of talks at the local youth centre, about the Yukon, wildlife, plastic art, and plastic pollution.  Our talks were really well received, and hopefully we convinced a few people to come sailling with us tomorrow or the next day!

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 Gannets galore

The weather this morning for our half day trip was stunning.  A thick fog blanketed the land as we sailed out in low swell and moderate wind.  Sadly the wind did die off for much of the trip, but we did get some nice sailing in towards the end.  Wildlife was erratic, but we had some great sightings, with many Common Dolphins feeding in fish schools that were dotted around the ocean surface, and lots of shearwaters and gannets in the area.  Today was actually the first time we've had Australasian Gannets at close quarters diving for fish, which is a pretty awesome spectacle.  They fly up to about 20-30 metres above the surface of the water, and then suddenly turn over their shoulder and dive at an angle towards the water.  As they build up speed they stretch out their neck and fold their wings so they look like a strange arrow heading into the water.  The splash they make as they enter the water puts our olympic divers to shame!  Above the surface the performance is elegant, but the really cool stuff happens below the water.  Having entered at speed, and reduced their resistance to a minumum, they cut straight into the water and dive quite a way down.  They can even at this point open their wings and give a few more underwater flaps to propel them towards their fish prey.  They can actually go several metres under the water while doing this.  Eventually the pop up to the surface and sit there for a brief moment before taking to the skies to repeat the manuever.  We did have a brief Humpback sighting, but overall whales were pretty quiet today.  In terms of plastic we picked up some polystyrene a number of kilometres out to see, and saw a white shopping bag floating in the water also.  The highlight for one of our young passengers was the chance to steer the boat back into harbour, under the careful guidance of our captain of course!  In all a great day for everyone involved.

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Wildlife

Whales, Dolphins & Seals 5 species
Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) 16
Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis) 4
Southern Elephant Seal (Mirounga leonina) 1
New Zealand Fur-seal (Arctocephalus forsteri) 1
Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) 1
Seabirds 30 species
Shy Albatross (Thalassarche cauta) 6
Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophris) 4
Wedge-tailed Shearwater (Puffinus pacificus) 4
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross (Thalassarche carteri) 3
Fairy Prion (Pachyptila turtur) 3
Pacific Gull (Larus pacificus) 2
Brown Skua (Stercorarius antarcticus) 2
Hutton's Shearwater (Puffinus huttoni) 2
Grey-backed Storm Petrel (Garrodia nereis) 2
Soft-plumaged Petrel (Pterodroma mollis) 2
Australasian Darter (Anhinga novaehollandiae) 1
Greater Crested Tern (Thalasseus bergii) 1
Northern Giant Petrel (Macronectes halli) 1
Common Diving Petrel (Pelecanoides urinatrix) 1
Buller's Albatross (Thalassarche bulleri) 1
Southern Royal Albatross (Diomedea epomophora) 1
Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) 1
Northern Royal Albatross (Diomedea sanfordi) 1
Australasian Gannet (Morus serrator) 1
Black-faced Cormorant (Phalacrocorax fuscescens) 1
Providence Petrel (Pterodroma solandri) 1
Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) 1
White-headed Petrel (Pterodroma lessonii) 1
Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae) 1
Sooty Albatross (Phoebetria fusca) 1
Fluttering Shearwater (Puffinus gavia) 1
Little Pied Cormorant (Microcarbo melanoleucos) 1
Great-winged Petrel (Pterodroma macroptera) 1
Cape Petrel (Daption capense) 1
Flesh-footed Shearwater (Puffinus carneipes) 1

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Written by

Chris


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