October 1996 - Ashmore Reef

In October, I participated in a 6 day pelagic trip from Broome to Ashmore Reef and back aboard the 72ft vessel Jodi Anne II.  There were 10 participants and 3 crew.  The trip was organised by Tony Palliser (who runs the Sydney pelagic trips) to coincide with the expected migration of seabirds from the NW Pacific to the Indian Ocean via the seas between Australia and Indonesia, and to see species rarely recorded in Australian waters such as Matsudaira's Storm-Petrel and Bulwer's Petrel in particular.  The other participants included Mike Carter who organises the Victorian pelagic trips and Peter Milburn who now organises the Wollongong trips.

We left Broome port at 9am on October 10th.  The weather was fine and hot for the whole trip, but there was a strong land/sea breeze which made the conditions slightly uncomfortable when near the coast between Broome and the Lacepede Islands.  We saw our first pelagic species (a Wilson's Storm-Petrel) while Cable Beach was still in sight.  The first day was spent in comparatively shallow water up to 50 metres.  The water depth was to prove a very important factor.  We had excellent views of 3 Humpback Whales that were migrating south after calving off the Kimberley coast, and sea snakes were quite common on the surface. Wilson's Storm-Petrels were fairly common and in the early afternoon one was accompanied by a Leach's Storm-Petrel (larger than Wilson's with a forked tail).  This was our first major rarity (I believe that there have only been 5 or 6 previous Australian records).  The wind was strong enough that we could turn off the engines and sail, and we passed west of the Lacepede Islands at about 8pm and continued all night towards our first destination of Scott Reef.

We awoke at first light shortly after 5am well out to sea in much calmer conditions which continued to improve.  Apart from small numbers of a variety of terns (Common, Sooty, Bridled, Roseate, Little, Crested, Lesser Crested and White-winged Black) birds were mostly few and far between, sometimes with only 3 or 4 in an hour.  A Long-tailed Jaeger was the first of 5 that we saw for the trip, but attention was taken by our first sighting of a Matsudaira's Storm-Petrel (a large all dark storm-petrel except for paler upper inner coverts with a forked tail that could only sometimes be seen).  I missed it while looking at the jaeger, but they were to prove common later in the trip.  Two large mainly dark birds were first thought to be Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, but later opinion leaned strongly towards the possibility of Herald Petrels, but identification was never confirmed.  The next highlight was a Tahiti Petrel (a large, distinctive and very attractive petrel that is rarely recorded in WA waters).  We saw 3 or 4 more during the day and about 20 for the trip.  The water depth was generally 100 to 300 metres, and in the deeper waters we saw our first Bulwer's Petrels (a similar length to Matsudaira's but pointed tail and wider wing span).  A bird believed to be a Jouanin's Petrel (which would be the first Australian record of this NW Indian Ocean species which is slightly larger than Bulwer's and darker coverts) was seen, but confirmation will need to wait until a submission is made to the RAOU Records Appraisal Committee.  We approached Scott Reef in the mid afternoon.  The light played tricks in the heat.  We could see Scott Reef from a distance as if it was above the horizon, but it disappeared as we got closer until we got close enough to see it directly.  What first appeared to be oil rigs from a distance proved to be Indonesian fishing boats who are permitted to fish and collect along the reef.  The main reef is long and covered at high tide, plus there is a small sandy island with a small structure.  As we got close there were small numbers of terns and Common Noddies which included at least 2 Black Noddies (clearly smaller and darker with whiter caps).  The reef forms an excellent sheltered area to anchor and we stayed overnight.

We left early on day 3. The aim was to spend the day in deep water over 2000 metres in places, before heading for Ashmore Reef.  We passed the sand island where an Eastern Reef Egret and a Ruddy Turnstone were seen along with the tracks up the beach of turtles that use the island to lay their eggs.  It wasn't long before we saw more Matsudaira's Storm-Petrels in waters up to 300 metres.  In the deeper water they were replaced by Bulwer's Petrels.  They were mainly individuals and we saw between 2 and about 15 per hour and many more than 50 for the day.  We stopped the boat on a few occasions to try to attract them close to the boat to obtain photographs, but they were not interested.  Some Red-tailed Tropicbirds sitting on the surface were good to see, plus we saw a few more Tahiti Petrels and Long-tailed Jaegers.  There were not many terns, but a group of 3 terns that were clearly different proved to be Black-naped (which is only the second WA record).  We also stopped for a Nautilus floating on the surface but it was only an old shell which contained a miniscule baby octopus.  In the late afternoon we stopped the engine and set a slow course towards Ashmore aiming to arrive early in the morning.

We approached Ashmore early the next morning.  We saw a few more Bulwer's Petrels before the depth of the water decreased quickly.  The numbers of Brown Boobies and Common Noddies flying from the direction of Ashmore increased.  One flight of Brown Boobies included a Red-footed Booby.  A Tahiti Petrel within sight of Ashmore was unusual.  As we got close the feeding flocks of Common Noddies included at least 5 more Black Noddies.  We contacted the 'caretaker' at Ashmore Reef who was very helpful until he asked if we were a charter boat.  Apparently as a private vessel we could snorkel and land on the main island with very few restrictions, but as a charter vessel we were not permitted to do anything without a permit from ANCA obtained from Darwin (or possibly Broome) for a fee of $2000 per vessel.  Private vessels and the Indonesian fishing boats that were present have no such requirement.  My opinion is that there should be one rule for everyone.  There are 3 main islands, 2 of which are seabird breeding islands and no access is allowed.  The third island has a good covering of low trees or bushes which we would have liked to check for rare migrants to Australia such as Arctic Warbler.  We would have only been ashore for 1 hour or 2 hours at the most.  As we left we saw a mating pair of Flatback Turtles.  We headed for Cartier Island which is a small atoll south east of Ashmore.  Cetaceans were common and we saw Bottle-nosed Dolphin, Rough-toothed Dolphin and 2 Melon-headed Whales.  While we were looking at one group of dolphins, 2 Barn Swallows flew past low to the water.  We arrived at Cartier Island at about 3:30pm.  One Indonesian vessel was present.  This is a small sand atoll surrounded by coral reef.  A few of us went ashore while the others snorkelled.  We saw a flock of 400 Crested Terns in fresh plumage, but there was no other sign of breeding except for one juvenile.  The other birds seen were 10 Ruddy Turnstone, 2 Common Greenshank, 2 Lesser Frigatebird and 1 Sacred Kingfisher.  We left shortly after 5pm for the long trip back to Broome and sailed all night.  The plan was to return further to the east in shallower water generally along the 100 fathom mark.

The next morning was a highlight of the trip.  We awoke at first light and the sea was almost glassy with very little breeze.  We very soon saw a group of 14 Matsudaira's Storm-Petrels on the surface, but we could not get close without them flying.  Several Tahiti Petrels were seen and then we saw 2 more Leach's Storm-Petrels.  We decided to stop the boat and lay down a small slick of fish oil.  At first it appeared to be a waste of time, and after 20 minutes we had restarted the engine but not yet moved when a couple of Matsudaira's approached.  We stayed for 2 hours during which several Matsudaira's were always present plus at least 2 Leach's Storm-Petrels (possibly the 2 seen earlier) came in also.  They came tantalisingly close to the vessel but not at the right time and place to allow good photographs.  Other birds seen included a few more Tahiti Petrels, 10 Whimbrels migrating almost on the surface and 5 Fork-tailed Swifts also flew quite low close by.  We continued shortly after 8am.  The birds were generally scarce except for regular sightings of Matsudaira's (at least 50 for the day), one more Long-tailed Jaeger and 2 more Bulwer's Petrels.  It became more interesting later in the afternoon when we were very roughly about 80km west of Adele Island.  We started to see more Brown Boobies including 1 Masked Booby, and an increase again in the number of terns.  One mixed feeding flock included a few Streaked Shearwaters although they were a fair distance from the boat, and another included a Hutton's Shearwater.  A couple of Wilson's Storm-Petrels provided some interest before the excitement of the sighting of a bird thought to be a Swinhoe's Storm-Petrel (roughly a smaller version of Matsudaira's) but this would be the first Australian record of this species that is known to occur in the NW Pacific and the northern Indian Ocean but believed to migrate much further to the west than where we were.  This requires a submission to the RAOU committee before it can be confirmed.  Cetaceans were another highlight of the day with sightings of Spinner, Bottle-nosed and Rough-toothed Dolphins and 2 probable Bryde's Whales, and sea snakes were again quite common along with many flying fish.  We again travelled throughout the night.

The last day began north west of the Lacepede Islands.  The land/sea breeze had returned and conditions were again very choppy.  The day started slowly with many Brown Boobies, Common Noddies and terns.  We passed well west of the Lacepede Islands over a sand bank as shallow as 6 metres. Wilson's Storm-Petrel was again quite common (about 20 for the day), and 3 more Black-naped Terns were seen.  As the water deepened to 35 metres we saw another 3 Humpback Whales.  We started to see good sized flocks of terns and Brown Booby with Hutton's Shearwaters mixed in.  The Hutton's Shearwater breeds in New Zealand and a lot still needs to be learned about its migration and whether perhaps some young birds remain in this area for their first couple of years.  We saw at least 100 during the morning.  We saw a feeding flock of about 1,000 Roseate Terns in the distance roughly west of James Price Point.  We arrived back at the Broome port at 6pm.  The moving sensation of the rolling boat stayed with me for the rest of the night.

Special thanks go to the captain and crew of the Jodi Anne II.  The food was sensational.  Special thanks also go to Tony Palliser for organising the trip, and to the other participants from who I learnt a lot more about seabirds, seabirding and running pelagic trips.  I would highly recommend a similar trip provided there is someone experienced enough to identify the species seen.  A similar trip in April to monitor the return migration would result in more information being learnt about this area, but the risk of cyclones at this time could be a problem.

Copyright Frank O'Connor 1997-2002 Visits Last Modified 31st January 2002