West is the opposite of east. This phrase is not just applicable to navigational direction, but also to coral reefs found on the extreme sides of Australia. While the eastern coast is popular for ecotourism which is best represented by the Great Barrier Reef, the western reefs of Australia offers an equally fun-filled nature adventure but on a peaceful, tranquil and nature-preserved state.
Located 60 kilometers (37 miles) off the mid-west coast of Geraldton is a network of 122 islands called Abrolhos Islands that covers a 100-kilometer (62 miles) stretch from north to south. Unlike the reefs of the east coast that are mostly classified as deep barrier reefs, Abrolhos islands are formed from fringing reefs that are usually shallow and filled with a diversity of marine life.
Geographic Clustering of Abrolhos Islands
Since Abrolhos islands is like an archipelago comprising over a hundred islands, clustering them is a great way to give you a good geographical bearing.
Location: Northernmost island in Abrolhos
Unlike other areas in Abrolhos that forms a cluster, the North Island is a stand-alone solitary island that is situated on the northernmost tip of this Western Australian Archipelago.
This diamond-shaped island is relatively huge having an area of 180 hectares (444 acres). It supports a big fishing industry for lobsters where the island houses a temporary shelter for seasonal fishermen.
Wallabi Group of Islands
Location: just beneath North Island
Major Islands: East Wallabi, West Wallabi, Beacon and Long Island
No matter how we try to exclude and forget the historic massacre and mutiny that occurred in the Wallabi Group of Islands in 1629 during the early days of colonization, it always comes back when you start to go wreck diving where you can explore the remnants of a famous Dutch Merchant Ship. The islands also host several seabird species and has been declared an important breeding habitat.
Easter Group of Islands
Location: islands comprising the central portion of Abrolhos islands
Major Islands: Rat, Wooded, Morley, Suomi and Alexander Island
The Easter Group of Islands was discovered in 1840 when one of the British Royal Navy Ship was searching for a safe anchorage which eventually led them to take refuge in the central islands of Abrolhos. Similar to the northern islands of Wallabi, the Easter Group of islands is also an important breeding habitat for seabirds where some are already considered to be a globally threatened species.
Pelsaert Group of Islands
Location: islands comprising the southern portion of Abrolhos islands
Major Islands: Gun, Middle and Pelsaert Island
Aside from being a haven for seabird lovers, the Pelsaert Group of Islands is also a paradise for scuba divers where it houses the greatest concentration of corals that are mostly composed of species coming from the Indian Ocean. Wreck divers will also go nuts in this southern portion of Abrolhos where several remnants of aged-old wrecks can be explored.
History of Abrolhos Islands: Accidental or Intentional Discovery?
Formally named as the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, it came out to the world map in 1619 when a Dutch Expedition led by Commander Frederik de Houtman arrived in this Western Offshore Australian island.
While trading for spice, livestock, sugarcane and shipbuilding materials is one of the primary objectives of the Dutch Merchant Ship Houtman has commanded, Abrolhos islands back then possess most of this commodities. This is on top of the fact that Abrolhos islands offers safe anchorage and haven while resupplying stocks for a long voyage.
Based on records, among the many ships under the Voc East India Company, the MV Batavia was the first to arrive in Abrolhos islands. Tailing further behind this Dutch Merchant Ship were a fleet of big trading vessels. Since the tailing fleet are relatively tall and could not sail windward, it took the long route around the Indian Ocean following the track of the trade winds which eventually led them to meet with MV Batavia. Unfortunately, as they sail closer to uncharted waters back then, it was too late for them to realize that the winds are stronger, waves are bigger and navigating in shallow waters in this Western part of Australia is much more difficult than they expected. This resulted to the wrecking of most Dutch Merchant Ships in Abrolhos, including MV Batavia.
Have you ever wondered where the name “Abrolhos” came from? The name came out from the experience of Commander Houtman when he entered the shallow fringing reefs. Abrolhos is a Portuguese expression that means “Open Your Eyes“. Yes, the same with Houtman’s experience hundreds of years ago, you need to be on constant lookout for spiky coral or rocky protrusions that may potentially damage the hull of your ship.
Present State of Abrolhos Islands
Regardless if it was thought to be accidentally or intentionally discovered, people nowadays wants to have their own discovery experience on this remote western Australian island, may it be for leisure or livelihood.
If there is one obvious livelihood that can be promoted in Abrolhos islands, then it would be marine fisheries. Despite having a low nutrient content as compared to the waters coming from the Pacific Ocean, Abrolhos islands still support a vast diversity of marine life. This can be primarily correlated to the absence of land-based human industries like agricultural run-off and the like. Fishing is major industry in Abrolhos islands where lobsters are considered to be its most economically important species.
Caution: Do not confuse lobsters with crayfish. If you go to Abrolhos islands and be able to talk to one of the fishermen, they will always mention “crays” which is a shortcut for crayfish. But when you read the articles, lobsters are the thriving species and not crayfish. Take note that crayfish grows in a freshwater environment while lobsters are marine species which is the habitat describing that of Abrolhos islands. Crays is just a slang used to describe lobsters which has a close resemblance to a crayfish.
The common fishing method employed in Abrolhos islands is direct catching or extraction which can possibly exploit existing stocks. However, the good news is: fishing is a seasonal event in Abrolhos islands and not a year-round livelihood. Aside from fishing boats flocking the waters of this Western Australian Island, one manifestation of the seasonality of fishing is the uninhabited fishing villages where fishermen only congregate the island during peak season.
While it is a known fact that direct harvesting of fish stocks will naturally deplete its resources, the government is now introducing fish farm technology in Abrolhos islands using new-age aquaculture techniques. The aquaculture zone is located somewhere in between the Easter and Pelsaert Group of islands. Using floating cages that are permanently anchored in the seabed, the aquaculture initiative promotes the cultivation of not just lobsters, but finfish as well like the Yellowtail Kingfish (Seriola lalandi). While many conceived that aquaculture is better than direct extraction from the wild, management plan should be made and enforced as growing fish in pens requires artificial feeds that contains ingredients that may harm or alter the natural ecosystem.
For more information about Aquaculture Zoning Plan in Abrolhos, please refer to this link: http://www.fish.wa.gov.au/Fishing-and-Aquaculture/Aquaculture/Aquaculture%20Zones/Pages/Mid-West-Aquaculture-Zone.aspx
Another form of aquaculture in Abrolhos islands is pearl farming. Hatchery-reared oysters coming from the black-lipped species are set out at sea using longlines. Most of these pearl farms are located in Easter and Pelsaert Group of islands.
The 122 islands of Abrolhos offers a perfect getaway for marine-geeks, snorkelers, scuba divers and sports fishermen.
Regardless of what Abrolhos group of islands you choose, every sports fishermen will not come back home empty handed. This 3 to 5-day chartered trip gives each guest a comfortable stay onboard while out at sea fishing.
While for most, especially for non-fishermen, the usual 3 to 4 hours trip from Geraldton port to Abrolhos islands may sound boring, this feeling of monotony will suddenly changed once you start fishing and your lines will start to dance and stretched out where medium to large-sized fish is waiting to be reeled in back to your boat. Common species of fish that are regularly caught include spanish mackerel, yellowfin tuna, pink snapper, groupers and emperors.
What will happen if waters from the deep ocean comes in contact with the shallow structures of the reef? Waves. Yes, with winds picking up from the east, you can expect a good swell and many surfers have already made some good rides.
Just be aware in advance that the shallow reef area can be hazardous to surfers. Aside from sharp coral protrusions, the presence of marine animals may eventually jeopardize your future rides as this may potentially harm you. A perfect and common example of this scenario is when surfers accidentally get in touch with sea urchins.
The 122 islands of this Western Australian Archipelago that is filled with fringing reefs and teeming with marine life only means one thing: Abrolhos is a paradise for scuba divers.
The fringing reefs of Abrolhos are generally flat where some of them may get exposed to the surface during low tide. Some of the smaller islands interlock which forms lagoons, or in the case of two islands in between, a channel. Wall diving is virtually non-existent in Abrolhos island. If there are, instead of being exposed to a vertical wall like a reef ledge, you will be limited to cruising along a gentle slope that leads to the deeper portions of the sea. This is on top of the fact that the visibility on each dive is always clear easily reaching over 30 meters (100 feet).
Regardless of certification level, all these factors are favored by scuba divers. Despite its remoteness to mainland Australia, diving is pretty much established in Abrolhos island. In fact, there are several dive sites that features a dive trail. You can start the dive by plunging on an entry point and follow an easy track that may cover up to several hundred meters before surfacing up back to your boat.
If there is one thing about diving in Abrolhos that really stands out, then nothing beats wreck diving in century-old shipwrecks. Going back to the history of Abrolhos islands, the attraction this Western Australian island offers to foreign colonial vessel for trading and anchorage is irresistible. That is the reason why lots of merchant ships enter the island, and to their dismay, find it difficult to navigate which led most of the ships wrecked down. But take note that this only applicable to old-school navigation as today’s cartographic guide and sophisticated navigation equipment will ease your way in navigating one island to another.
For more information, please read our related about Diving in Abrolhos Islands.
Sustainable Management Measures
If we leave the islands of Abrolhos to the public, irregardless if you are into business or leisure, then you could expect that its resources will collapse in just a few years leaving us all empty handed.
Fortunately, the Government of Western Australia through the Department of Fisheries has formulated guidelines ensuring the protection and conservation of this nation’s natural bounty.
Here are some management measures enforced in Abrolhos islands:
– Fishing license is needed to catch any lobster species
– Always observe fishing seasons and times
– Always observe MINIMUM legal carapace length per species of lobster.
– Always observe catch limits
– Always observe specification for fish pots and other fishing gears
– Release all berried or gravid female lobster back to its natural environment
(b) Sportfishing and Scuba Diving
– if possible, anchor only at mooring buoys
– Observe a “No Take Policy” in all Marine Parks and Marine Management Areas
– Respect Private properties
– No dumping of garbage
For more information, please read our related article about The Do’s and Dont’s while at Abrolhos Islands.
How to get to Abrolhos Islands
Let us make Perth, the capital city of western Australia, our reference point. From Perth, you will then travel 414 kilometers (257 miles) to the north in the coastal city of Geraldton. There are two ways to get from Perth to Geraldton. You can either book for a domestic flight or take the road by bus or car via State Route 60 in a span of 4 hours and 30 minutes.
Once you arrived in Geraldton, you then have again two options to get to Abrolhos islands. First option is to book for a flight on a small plane that will take you to one of the airstrips in Abrolhos. However, we highly recommend the second option to go for chartered boats. Each chartered boat in Geraldton is designed to cater for a specific sport, like sportfishing, surfing and scuba diving. So, pick one that suits your interest.
Visit Geraldton: www.visitgeraldton.com.au
Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development – Government of Western Australia: www.fish.wa.gov.au
Department of Fisheries – Government of Western Australia: www.fish.wa.gov.au
Wanna Surf: www.wannasurf.com
Video courtesy from VACAYMOOD