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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Cruise Weekly: Romance on the Reef

Wally comes by for a visit. (c) Vanessa Marshall

Location Thetford Reef; 16 deg 48.2S, 146 deg 10.3E

"Where's Wally?" That was the question on everybody's lips. Wally, in case you were wondering, is the 100kg Giant Hump-Headed Maori Wrasse who inhabits Thetford Reef, Coral Princess II's first stop out of Cairns on her southward exploration of the Great Barrier Reef. "He looks nasty," says Vanessa, our ebullient marine biologist guide, "but he's really a big sook. Right now it's mating season and he's almost certainly off chasing lady Wrasses."

Coral Princess Cruises, established in 1984 by Tony and Vicki Briggs, are certainly the longest operating Australian adventure cruise company and, according to Tony, the first. They've come a long way since their first vessel, a Fairmile-class former submarine chaser, first began overnight reef safaris for adventurous guests. It was a bold move, but one that certainly paid off. CPCs now operate three vessels within a territory that includes Papua New Guinea, the Kimberley, Melanesia and New Zealand. Their flagship, the 72-pax 65m Oceanic Discoverer, was launched in 2005, just in time to join True North II and Orion in the exploding local expedition cruise scene.

Our itinerary, 3 nights to Townsville, is a leisurely exploration of the outer reefs with plenty of snorkelling and scuba diving for beginners and certified divers alike. Vanessa, literally overflowing with information, crams as much biological information as we can handle. Our wonderful reef is a mind-boggling organism, 2400 kms long, stretching from Bundaberg to PNG. The variety and complexity of vivid and colourful life is beyond the comprehension of most, including me. While some believe our reef is dying in the warming planet others, like Vanessa, are more optimistic.

The itinerary is broken with a resort stop at Dunk Island and a beach BBQ at Pelorus, CPC's private island just north of Townsville. This cruise is carrying thirty passengers from as far afield as the UK, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, France and the USA indicating there is more interest in a our reef from overseas than locally. Our vessel, Coral Princess II, is a 25-y-o, 48 pax catarmaran now exclusively operating the the two GBR itineraries. She is joined by Coral Princess over summer, when not on Kimberley duty with Oceanic Discoverer. CPCs offer three GBR itineraries; 3 nights to Townsville, 4 nights Cairns to Cairns via Lizard Island and Cooktown and 7 nights with the two butted together. My personal choice is the 4 night, northern sector for variety and a little extra land-based activity.

While lusty Wally remains elusive, there are plenty of other exciting discoveries like the two massive Coral Trout in the throws of passion, a fish feeding frenzy with giant trevally, a spectacular but solitary Lion Fish, serene turtles, elegant rays and chipper little Nemos (anemonefish). If love is an indicator, then our reef is alive and well.

Fares begin at A$1496 (twin share) for the 3-night cruise. Coral Princess Cruises: 1800 079 545

Monday, October 5, 2009

Truly Getting Up Close And Personal On True North

TWO adventure cruises to the famed Kimberley wilderness region in July and August next year aboard the boutique True North, will feature activities as diverse as barramundi fishing, swimming in remote billabongs, seeing indigenous cave art with onboard naturalists, nudging underneath a vast waterfall, and a coral reef that “rises from the ocean.”

True North will sail these two 7-night cruises from Broome to the Hunter River on July 31 and August 28 2010, carrying just 36-guests served by 20-crew.

Highlights include witnessing the region’s vast tidal movements including “riding the tide” on the ebbing Sale River aboard True North’s expedition boats, and seeing the Montgomery Reef “rising from the ocean” – a phenomenon created when the fast-receding tide drains from the 350 square kilometre reef to expose myriad turtles, dugong, rays and other sea creatures.

True North also explores numerous rivers and one of the Kimberley’s most scenic waterways Prince Frederick Harbour, while shore excursions include the famous Wandjina rock paintings at Raft Point and the boab tree inscribed with HMC Mermaid 1820 by Captain Phillip Parker King 189 years ago.

A helicopter is carried aboard for optional-cost sightseeing flights, a picnic at an otherwise inaccessible billabong and a “Champagne Sunrise.”

Prices start from $7799pp twin-share including all gourmet onboard dining, use of six expedition boats for shore excursions and a light aircraft transfer from the Hunter River to Kununurra; air fares are additional. For full details phone 1300 369 848 or visit