Living on a yacht pretty much forces you to go at the same pace as the wildlife. Very slow and cruisey with the occasional burst of flurried activity on which your very survival may depend.
A lot of people struggle with the mostly slow pace of life aboard but not me. Some people might even say I have always gone at a slow pace. Whatever.
My relaxed pace gives me the time to have many close encounters with wildlife I would otherwise miss. While it is hard to miss a huge whale breaching, it’s easy to miss some of the small stuff if you are rushing around. You need to slow down for a good close look at the environment you’re living in.
If I stay somewhere long enough HQ actually becomes a mini ecosystem of her own. It does not have to be that long either.
A small school of tiny baitfish can turn up very smartly and start to use HQ as protection from birds. The number of these fish can increase dramatically over a few days until HQ can be surrounded.
After a while, if I dive in through the baitfish and check my hull bottoms, I can see lots of wildlife that have made HQ home. Particularly if there is a bit of growth on the bottoms. At times HQ can resemble a coral reef with tiny tropical fish of several different types cruising around. Some will give me a look over but mostly they just carry on like they own the place.
I have also noticed tiny prawn-type creatures only a few millimetres long hanging off the growth. They are not the only crustaceans that can be living on HQ. She gets crabs too.
Tiny little ones usually, but I have also seen them get quite big. Sometimes they will sit on the bottom step and scuttle back under the stern if I approach.
When I eventually get moving again the little schools of fish have to find a new home but the crabs hang on for grim death and go for a ride. If we do not go too far and it does not get too rough, some of them sometimes make it. I wonder what the crabs think about their little adventure. Specially the ones that do not make it.
I have not had any encounters of any kind whatsoever with crocodiles and I am happy with that.
All the reptiles I have encountered have been much nicer than any crocodile’s ever likely to be. While not as dangerous as crocodiles some other reptiles can be just as deadly. That is, if they even are reptiles.
They breathe air so they are not fish, but they give birth to live babies so they may not be reptiles either. I do not know what they are but I know they are scary.
This is largely due to the fact that a bite will almost certainly lead to a quick death. They are extremely poisonous which tempers my relationship with these seemingly nice and friendly creatures.
They are not aggressive but I do not like to push my luck. At least, not in the case of multiple sea snakes.
I was surfing Red Bluff with two great mates, Stomper and Shorey, when we started to see a few. We were not too worried until a strange current, just outside the break and moving towards us, got close enough for us to realise it was actually thousands of sea snakes, probably in a mating frenzy.
The next wave that came saw all three of us paddling for it in a frenzy of our own. We bellied it in to the keyhole in the reef and all went up on a surge together. I still clearly remember getting to dry land and safety and having a huge shudder go through my entire body. I had obviously been quite scared and I do not blame me.
I had seen a few turtles before I got HQ. The odd one here and the odd one there, but in my first year on HQ I saw them in great numbers. When I got to the Muiron Islands with my great mate Camel it was mating time and there were so many it blew our minds.
I took HQ south along the east side of South Muiron only a few metres off the shore. There was a strip of sand I was following but there were a lot of rocks I had to go around. Then I realised a lot of the rocks were moving out of the way. I eventually found my way around the few rocks and lots of turtles and we anchored HQ.
HQ draws less than a metre, which is lucky because it was only a metre deep at low tide. I decided to go ashore with my video camera and did not bother with the dinghy. I simply walked to shore. On shore I got some great footage of turtles mating which looks much like one turtle trying to drown another turtle.
On the walk back to HQ I was very closely checked out by a very curious fella who then followed me all the way back.
This remains my closest encounter with a turtle. Not HQs though. She has hit a few unfortunately. At the Montebelos Islands they can be so thick it is impossible to miss them all. Most make a crash dive for the bottom just in time to avoid scratching the duco.
The biggest turtle impact HQ has endured was, funnily enough, going into Turtle Bay on Dirk Hartog Island. I was coming into the bay from the north-east hard on port tack in a southerly wind. There was still plenty of water when there was a very noticable jolt. I reckon the port daggerboard hit a big one.
They can get very big too. I have seen some absolute monsters. One of the biggest, funnily enough again, was at Turtle Bay. Heading back out after laying her eggs on the beach the old girl came alongside HQ and looked me in the eye. I felt incredibly honoured that she had spared me a tiny little bit of her very long time on the planet.
HQ was anchored off Low Point on Dirk Hartog Island. This is as far west as Australia goes and the water is very lively to say the least. I was surfing with Camel, who has won the biggest paddle-in wave award twice and keeping him company had got me into serious trouble.
The waves were massive and Camel was riding his nine foot surfboard that was designed specifically for catching waves this size. I was riding my biggest board, a paltry seven foot seven inches, and could not paddle down the wave face against all the water rushing up the face.
To catch a wave I was forced to paddle inside for the smaller waves. I got a few beauties but then I paddled for one and could not catch it. I turned around to see a giant wave about to mow me down. When it was finished with me I popped up way inside with rocky cliffs behind me and wave after wave trying to wash me into them.
My only option was to keep paddling and ducking waves but there was no respite. I was also getting swept north and, by the time I eventually got clear of the breakers, I was a long way from HQ. Despite being greatly fatigued by this ordeal I could not rest. I had to keep paddling against the rip as I was scared of being swept away. And I mean very scared.
I was still a good five hundred metres of hard paddling from HQ when there was a big surge to my left. I did not even turn my head to look and remember thinking it is probably a huge shark but so what. I was already as scared as I could get. There was nothing I could do about it anyway. I just kept paddling.
With my neck and shoulders burning and my arms feeling like jelly rubber I kept throwing one arm forward followed by the other arm and sucking in as much air as I could. After a continuous effort and in a world of hurt I eventually made it to HQ. With my very last bit of strength I clambered onto the bottom step.
I sat there with my board hanging out the back still attached to my ankle by the legrope. I was nauseous from the extreme effort and was not in a good way. Suddenly a humpback whale surfaced less than a metre from my surfboard with her calf. I knew then what had caused the surge and why I had not been eaten. I am sure she had sensed my distress. I’m also sure she had circled behind me and put herself and her baby in position to prevent me being swept away to a horrible death. I really believe she knew exactly what was going on. Mammals seem to have a real affinity with us humans and I for one am very glad they do.
I do not think they have the same affinity for boats though.
Many boats, including HQ, have been hit and damaged by whales and quite a few have been sunk. There will be plenty more as the whale population continues to increase.
The Vikings called the ocean the ‘whale road’. Sometimes, off the Western Australian coast, it could better be described as the whale multi-laned freeway.
With all that traffic it is no surprise that accidents sometimes happen I guess. But, barring my one incident, which I am pretty sure was accidental, my encounters with whales have all been an incredible buzz.
But I have had a couple of incidents that seemed nothing other than an incredible buzz at the time but in retrospect may have been less inocuous.
One was a humpback that breached only ten metres ahead of HQ. By the time it crashed back into the water it was only a couple of metres from the starboard bow. At the time I thought this whale knew exactly what it was doing and that it was simply marvellous. Now I think it was quite probably just plain good luck HQ did not have her starboard bow smashed off.
The other incident happened near Cape Cuvier when I was sailing south in company with a large pod of humpbacks. I was on autopilot and our courses were slowly converging until they came close enough for me to get some video footage. I was on deck filming when two whales peeled from the pack and headed directly for HQ.
I filmed them as they came extremely close before diving under HQ and surfacing on the other side. I thought this was friendly behaviour and it could have been. But on checking the footage later it looked very much like two bull humpbacks charging HQ in the style of Moby Dick.
While the whales might have looked aggressive, this could also have been two whales having a laugh. Maybe they were playing ‘chicken’ with me; which I won by the way, but only because I had no idea we were playing.
I reckon whales have a sense of humour. Like the one that started singing loudly right under HQ one night startling me and Bert. That would have been very funny to me if I was a whale.
Not all whales are hilariously funny but most whales that come close emit a friendly vibe. Like my friend and her baby at Low Point, I think they connect with us fellow mammals in a nice and caring way. They are incredible and I defy anyone not to be awestruck by the sight of a big whale launching into the air and doing a full breach. Or even a small whale for that matter.
While I have had many close encounters with big whales the most amazing was with a little one. Well, little as whales go anyway.
My great mate Rook and I were on a night sail from the Abrolhos Islands to the Murchison River and were plodding along at three or four knots. The wind was light but we just had the jib out so we would not arrive before the sun.
I was on watch and Rook was sleeping on his bunk down in the port hull. I heard a strange noise coming from the port hull and tried to identify it. It was not anything loose and flapping on the inside of the port hull and it wasn’t Rook. I worked out it must be something outside so went on deck for a look.
I stood at the rail right over Rooks bunk looking out into the darkness but failed to see a whale that was tucked in tight alongside HQ. When it suddenly exhaled loudly I screamed like a girl. Rook woke up and yelled “what’s wrong”. I said, “it’s a whale right alongside”, so Rook stood on his bunk with his upper body out of a hatch.
He could almost touch the whale it was so close and it was matching our speed exactly. It was a couple of metres short of HQs ten and a half metres but I am not entirely sure what type. One of those little ones.
Rook came on deck and I grabbed a torch. I am sure it had been trying to get our attention with some polite knocking on the hull and was pleased to see us.
After a while it moved forward and rode the bow wave like a giant dolphin for a while with us hanging over the side looking at it in the torch light. Then it picked up speed and moved ahead. I stood in the port bow and Rook in the starboard bow as I tried to follow it with the torch.
It dived and I continued shining the light ahead in the hope of picking it up again. Suddenly it burst from the water right into the beam of the torch light doing a full breach only a few metres ahead of HQ. Rook and I both whooped with delight at this incredible sight.
Of all our combined whale encounters this one, for both of us, was the best ever.
I have not seen many killer whales but I saw some off the west end of Wajemup that were unforgettable. I was there to surf Cathedrals with pro surfers Banno, Noodles and former world surfing champion Mark Occhilupo who, incidentally, has done a Sydney to Hobart yacht race.
Rather than trying to compete for waves with the pros I sat on the hill with some other mates, Whitey and Murf, to watch. After a while we noticed some dolphins just offshore herding a school of salmon into a tight pack.
Just as they had done this they bolted, which we found rather odd. Then, about twenty metres outside the surfers, a killer whale did a full breach. Then a few more breached.
This explained the dolphins sudden departure and caused the sudden departure of the surfers from the water as well. We all watched as a small pod of killers hoed into the salmon. There were bits of salmon in the water and a full on oil slick soon formed. It was awesome to watch as they continued to feed until there were not many, if any, whole salmon left.
An interesting aside to this story is that Occy mentioned it in his biography. He obviously found the encounter as unforgettable as I did.
An even more interesting aside to the story is that another former world surfing champion in Wayne ‘Rabbit’ Bartholomew mentioned seeing the killer whales in his biography. I am not entirely sure why Rabbit found it unforgettable. He wasn’t there.
Anyone who has been on a boat for more than five minutes has probably seen dolphins surfing the bow wave of said boat. I can still remember my brother, Sharky and I laying on the foredeck of the old mans Endeavour 24, Little Tiger, with our heads hanging over either side of the bow. We were watching dolphins surfing the bow wave and we were ecstatic.
I could not possibly hazard a guess at how many I have seen now, but the great magic of the dolphin is they can still get me ecstatic. Just north of Two Rocks I have seen two that were quite likely released from the Atlantis Marine Park when it closed. They had co-ordinated tricks and really blew me away.
Off the Abrolhos Islands I have had a baby dolphin introduced to the joys of surfing on HQs bow waves. There is nothing quite as cute as a baby dolphin except, perhaps, a baby dolphin experiencing the thrill of surfing for the first time. Its exuberance was contagious and I found myself getting quite exuberant as I watched and filmed it.
It stuck very close to mum’s side, following her every turn. Eventually they got in close under the bow, I got some great footage and you can see the youngster almost bursting with happiness.
Just south of Dorre Island I even saw a just-born baby dolphin take its first breath of air. I filmed that as well. These events rate right up there as far as generating feelings of well being goes.
I have even caught a couple surfing HQ’s bow waves at night. During a random walk of the deck I heard some wooshes and there they were in the navigation lights. I wondered how many times dolphins have night surfs at boat bows and are never seen by humans. I know they surf for the feeling and not to impress us, but they certainly do seem to like showing off.
This is specially true when it comes to surfing waves. Most surf breaks have a resident population of surfing dolphins and they do not mind dropping-in on you and showing you how it should be done. At some places it is nothing for surfers to be paddling out and see up to twenty dolphins launching out of a wave face towards us.
I remember surfing a wave up north and having a dolphin launch from a wave heading straight at me. I sat up on my board and made eye contact with it as it flew past only inches from my face.
I sensed some surprise on its part, which surprised me. I had always assumed their sonar gave them absolute awareness of everything around them.
It was a few years after this that I realised it may well have been very surprised. This was when one landed on my great mate Kerbs and broke his leg. It damaged his board too and there were bits of dolphin flesh in the cracks. From that time on when I see dolphins surfing towards me I sit up on my board and yell at them to try and make sure they know I am there.
Then there is Squeaky. This dolphin is a Lancelin legend and I am always stoked to get a visit from this very friendly mammal. Not as stoked as Gail the Gidgie Queen, a Scottish backpacker cruising with me one time. She was suitably impressed when Squeaky stood on her tail and squeaked to her ... in Scottish.
Like sea going puppy dogs with gorgeous big eyes, how can anyone not love them? But, like dogs, they can give a nasty bite so some caution should be exercised.
My great mates the Connors: Pete, Jo, Ellie and Pippi, came to visit me at Lancelin. I left Pete on HQ guarding the beer and took the girls to the island in the dinghy to see some seals close up.
They got a very close up look as some seals came up to the dinghy and put on a bit of a show. One even rested its head on the side of the dinghy and, before I could stop her, Ellie reached out and gave it a pat. The friendly seal did not seem to mind and she got away with it, though I would not recommend the practice.
Aparently the females are curious and friendly, while the males are more aloof and can be aggresive. Apart from that I do not know how you can tell a female from a male.
A female with a pup can also get aggressive if you venture too close. They certainly are not as happy to see us on land as they are in the water. But if you imagine yourself sunbaking on a beach and someone coming up and gawking at you; it is easy to see why.
They can be very cheeky. I was fishing one day hoping for a baldy but hooked a kingfish instead. These are big, powerful fish and I had a battle on my hands. It made a run and I moved forward to get some line back. Then, on the starboard bow, I heard a rush of water behind me.
I looked back but saw nothing and turned forward again just in time to see a big seal grab my kingy. It lay on its back with the fish between its flippers, looked at me and took a bite. As it chomped the fish it kept looking at me until it had eaten the last bit. Cheeky bugger.
In certain places I quite often get seals coming up to the back of HQ. They are always friendly and I like to think that is its only motivation for visiting me but, chances are, they are keen for a fishy handout and have probably been fed from other boats. It is actually pretty hard not to give them a fish if you have one handy. I think it is those eyes.
There is a theory going round that dugongs are responsible for the mermaid myth. I have spent quite a bit of time at sea away from the pleasure of female company but it obviously was not long enough for me to find a dugong attractive.
Having said that I am not some shallow bloke who thinks it is all about looks.
They seem to have a lovely personality and that is what truly counts. There are heaps of them in Shark Bay, but I have seen them further north inside the Ningaloo Reef and even at the Montebellos Islands.
They are not as friendly as seals. They are very aloof in fact and do not seem to desire any human contact.
I do not know if this is because of the relations with old time sailors who thought they were mermaids. Probably more to do with the fact they eat weed and are not interested in a fishy handout.
I still get a feeling of well being when I see a dugong though, even if it does ignore me entirely.
They are mammals and some can definitely be looked upon as being wildlife.
I worked on crayboats in my younger days and I could tell many stories from those days that would curl your hair. It really was the wild west in most crayfishing towns, but now it is not as wild as it once was. The actual fishing can still get pretty wild though.
It must be over ten years ago now since I first sailed HQ to Hector Island to see Rook who works his crayboat, Meridian Star, from there. Rook can sometimes be very hard to distinguish from the wildlife. He grew up on the island and being on a boat, a surfboard or being in or under the sea is not second nature to him: it is first nature.
After Rook finished work we would go surfing and one day the swell was pretty small. We surfed a wave on the outer reef where it picks up the swell and on the bigger set waves we had to surf around some craypot floats. I thought whoever has to pull these pots tomorrow will have a bit of fun doing it.
Next morning another great mate, Razer, who happens to be Rook’s uncle, came up to HQ in his jet boat Metonic Cycle and asked if I would like to spend the morning with him and his deckhand Bulldog pulling pots. While I have spent some time crayfishing and pulled a lot of pots, it was never on a jet boat in the shallows, so I jumped at the chance.
I did not actually have to jump. Razer handles Metonic Cycle like it is an extension of him. With great skill he brought her aluminium hull within a couple of inches of HQ so I just had to step aboard.
In the shallows I quickly worked out why Razer is widely regarded as the gun fisherman out here. The pots were not just dropped with hope. They were positioned with surgeon-like precision.
To be working with the gorgeous coral reefs only inches below the surface was certainly a great experience for me and I was enjoying myself immensely. Then we went outside the reef system to pull some more pots.
Working the breakers
This is when I found out who owned the pots that Rook and I had been surfing around the previous day. You guessed it. They were Razer’s and I was about to learn all about what these maniacs casually call working the breakers.
I was up on the flybridge as we went in and Bulldog grappled the line between the floats. Then, right on queue, a set of big waves approached. Bulldog threw the floats back in the water as Razer pushed the throttle forward and charged out towards the first wave. I held on very tight as we punched through the pitching lip of a wave over four metres up the face. After we landed Razer yelled, are you OK and I yelled back, still here mate. Then we charged over the next wave.
After the set had passed we went back in to get the pots. These guys working the breakers can certainly seem crazy by normal standards and Razer has had a couple of new deckhands quit on the spot in similar wave punching circumstances. I loved it and found the experience nothing but exhilarating.
My lack of any fear was due to a complete faith in Razer’s abilities rather than a lack of awareness of possible consequences. Just how dangerous this sort of thing is for mere mortals has just been perfectly illustrated by some fisheries blokes. They totalled a very expensive fisheries boat not far from Hector Island getting caught by breakers.
Apparently they were pulling some pro pots to check them when a big set came and nailed them. The thing is the pros, like Razer and Rook, grew up out here and know it intimately. They are trained from birth to work the breakers and no one else should even think about it.
The fisheries blokes were lucky they only sustained relatively minor injuries. The taxpayers’ boat was not so lucky.
Back at Razer’s shack on Hector Island I step over a couple of lizards wandering around the kitchen and see a snake behind the sink. Like myself Razer has a real affinity with wildlife and they are free to wander around as they please. He has even rescued several injured ospreys, taken them to rehab in town and returned them to the island when they recovered.
Sometimes I think Razer might see me as being like another injured osprey to be looked after. He certainly seems to like to feed me. Which is great because he cooks like a master chef. Some of my best-ever feeds have been at his kitchen table with lizards scuttling around my feet.
Perhaps the strangest of all the strange things I have seen from HQ was a kangaroo swimming past. That is right, a kangaroo.
HQ was anchored up the Murchison River and I guess it thought the grass was greener on the other side of the river.
This encounter was strange for a couple of reasons. Firstly, kangaroos are not great swimmers, they need to work on their frog kick and I reckon they would be great. Secondly, a few hundred metres upstream it could have just about hopped across.
I do not know why it thought crossing a wide part of the river was a good idea. It got very fatigued and started to swim in circles. After a while it really started to struggle.
Lucky for this poor little roo, my mate Max came along in his dinghy. I pointed it out to Max and he assisted it to shore.
The Roo was rooted. It just sat on the river bank too tired to move. Then I realised it was looking longingly across the river. Bugger, Max had taken it to the wrong side.
The greatest show on earth
In my first few years on HQ, if I was somewhere that had reception, I would watch TV.
Then, something happened and I had an epiphany. I can not remember exactly what it was but it made me realise that every moment I was watching the TV was a moment I was not looking out my back window.
Out my back window could be the greatest show on earth. What wildlife antics was I missing as I watched ‘The bold and the restless’?
I have not turned it on since and I miss it not one little bit. Well, maybe ‘Southpark’.
The trouble is scheduling. I never know when my backdoor show will start. Or finish for that matter.
That is what makes encounters with wildlife so exciting I guess. Its random nature. It can happen at any time and the greatest show on earth is a once-only improvised performance. Miss it and I have missed it forever.
I know I still miss more than I see but at least I do not miss something because I was watching a serial cereal ad on TV.
Having a close encounter with wildlife is truly a great privilege I find impossible to take for granted. I may not be wildlife myself but I have certainly had a wild life thanks to all the wildlife that have shared some of their wild life with my wild life, as if I am just another bit of wildlife.
It has been wild. ≈