The Houtman Abrolhos Islands are a group of 122 coral cays off the Western Australian coast near Geraldton. The islands are a blip on the horizon evident only by a line of white wash as the sea crests the reef. There are three groupings, Pelsaert, Easter and Wallbi and some support a collection of cray fishing families. They were our first destination on our trip to the Abrolhos Islands and the Coral Coast on the Coral Geographer.
The islands have been the scene of 18 shipwrecks, the most famous being the Dutch East Indies (VOC) owned Batavia in 1629 with over 340 people and a wealth of silver coins on board. Unable to measure longitude at that time, the Batavia had drifted 400 nautical miles further east than estimated and struck the Morning Reef between Pelsaert and Beacon islands, throwing its passengers into the shark infested waters and sinking the treasure.
Our first landing was on Post Office Island where we were greeted by Jesse Liddon, a local crayfisher and his son Leo. Jesse’s grandfather emigrated from England and several generations have leased the island since 1950’s. Immigrant cray fishing families from countries as diverse as Italy, Finland and England settled these islands in the 1950’s and we had read about some in Emily Brugman’s 2022 novel ‘The Islands’, another reason to visit. Jesse’s mother Jane runs a cultured pearl business and both she and his wife Mikaela are artists. Their jewellery was exquisite and belied the harsh nature of their lifestyle. Fortunately they took credit card transactions!
The next day we were treated to a wildlife experience on Little Sandy Island where we met a family of Australian Sea Lions and experienced our first snorkelling experience off Turtle Bay on East Wallabi Island. This island is the only one in the group which supports native wild life and a variety of flora. It famously supported some of the soldiers who captured mutineer Cornelisz from the Batavia in 1629.
We returned to Turtle Bay at sunset for drinks on the beach. By this time we were accustomed to getting in and out of our snorkel gear and doing beach entries and scuba like entries off the Explorers. Even being stung by blue bottles across my mouth, while clad in a full stinger suit did not put me off!
Our next destination was Beacon Island where the survivors of the Batavia shipwreck managed to reach and survive for 3 months. It is a grisly tale as 123 were massacred by mutineer and VOC second in command Cornelisz, after VOC Commander Pelsaert and skipper Jacobsz went to Batavia (Jakarta) for rescue.
Cornelisz was finally captured on Beacon Island, his hands cut off before he was hanged. The remaining survivors less than a third of the original passengers finally reached the Dutch East Indies. It was only in 1970’s that local cray fishermen discovered human bones dated to 1629, which were repatriated and the site of Batavia wreck recovered – a grisly tale indeed!
We finished our journey to the Abrolhos with more snorkelling off Long Island, marvelling at the beauty of the pristine environment and the fragile native wildlife.