Approaching the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, wind-swept swirls of marbly turquoise sea reveal the most southerly coral reef in the Indian Ocean, easily visible from the air.
Within eight minutes of take-off we see humpback whales breaching, while keeping a lookout for sharks, dolphins and manta rays. Oddly shaped islands housing fishermen’s huts, pearl farms and long, skinny piers are fascinating sights below, along with remnants of various shipwrecks.
Geraldton Air Charter’s full-day tour starts with a scenic lap around the Pelsaert, Easter and Wallabi groups of this island chain, about 60 kilometres off Western Australia’s Coral Coast. Only a 20-minute flight from the mainland, the Abrolhos can be appreciated from the air by small plane, underwater from the beach and on the ground with a guided nature walk.
The GippsAero GA8 Airvan lands on East Wallabi for an active afternoon on the white sand of Turtle Bay where we enjoy swimming, snorkelling and spotting native tammar wallabies, lizards, birds and tall, messy osprey nests. Abrolhos dwarf bearded dragons, barking geckos, marble-faced delma lizards, carpet pythons and spiny-palmed snake-eyed skinks are also found in this isolated archipelago.
As one of the main migratory bird nesting sites in Australia, Pelsaert Island attracts thousands of breeding sea birds as well as the larger osprey and white-bellied sea-eagle. A small ground-dwelling bird, the Abrolhos painted button-quail, exists on seven of the islands and has a high probability of extinction within the next 20 years. Another of the world’s rarest birds, the Australian lesser noddy, is also known to breed only in the Abrolhos Islands.
Our pilot, Polo Or, describes the destination as a “magic spot”. “This is the southernmost location in the Southern Hemisphere to see giant coral reef systems and the northernmost habitat to see Australian sea lions,” he says. “When we get to the beach, even on a cold day, the sun is always shining and it feels 10 degrees warmer.”
The return flight is via Hutt Lagoon, the largest pink lake in Australia, at Port Gregory on the mainland. Stretching 14 kilometres long and 2 kilometres wide, the lake’s colour changes from bubblegum pink to lilac to reddish-orange, depending on the time of day, season and cloud cover. Our still, sunny day presents a perfectly pretty pink pool.
The hue is created by algae that produces betacarotene, which is commonly used as food colouring. The lagoon also incorporates the world’s largest algae farm, whose red and brown rectangular sections create a striking contrast to the adjacent pink lake, blue ocean and scrubby sand dunes.
Geraldton Air Charter’s managing director, Wendy Mann, a pilot for more than 40 years, says the combination of these destinations was an easy choice to share with travellers.
“We do tours of the Abrolhos because it is rich in history and natural beauty. We go to East Wallabi Island because of the beautiful beach and the lovely coral reef in close proximity to the shore.
“With Hutt Lagoon, my marketing guru recognised that the pink lake was quite unique and considered romantic by the Chinese. She marketed it in China and it became a status symbol to have seen it. We flew 8000 Chinese travellers on aerial tours of the pink lake in 2019.”
These days, it’s Aussies visiting this part of the world. Some are drawn by the horrific history of shipwrecks that plagued the islands over four centuries. The most infamous involved the Dutch East India Company’s flagship, Batavia, which struck a reef near Beacon Island in 1629. An estimated 40 passengers died, but even more were killed on land when a mutiny, led by the commander’s deputy, saw 126 men, women and children massacred.
In 1727, the Zeewijk ran aground, leaving the crew marooned for 10 months. Living off the ship’s salvaged provisions and a diet of local animals, they built an 18-metre boat – the first ocean-going vessel made in Australia – and successfully sailed to present-day Jakarta.
Despite its reputation for dangerous navigation, the region can also be explored on a cruise (although it’s recommended to fly to the ship, rather than do the crossing by sea). Eco Abrolhos, with 19 air-conditioned ensuite cabins, visits up to 15 islands on its five-day expeditions specialising in crayfishing, snorkelling and birdwatching. You can visit the significant locations of the Batavia mutiny and snorkel the site of the wreck, or swim with the playful sea lions.
Each morning a fishing tender returns with a bounty of seafood, particularly prized local crayfish (western rock lobster), for the boat’s chef to cook a fresh feast. Glass-bottomed boats are also carried onboard for coral viewing and excursions to pearl farms, where you can buy black pearl jewellery.
Jay Cox, owner of Eco Abrolhos Cruises, says the experience is growing in popularity to the point that he is considering running a year-round operation instead of relocating to the Kimberley every winter.
“Earlier in the year it’s warmer, but after the winter rains, it’s green and the wildflowers are out, the whales are here and the migratory birds come back to the same nests and partners every year. Twitchers come from all over the world, the foodies love the crayfish and crab and scallops and WA wines, and everyone learns about the history from our maritime historians,” he says.
“Snorkelling at the Abrolhos is as good as it gets, with crystal-clear waters, colourful corals and a variety of fish. The Abrolhos is where tropical and temperate waters mix, which gives a greater range of fish, seaweeds and corals from north and south. This mix of waters gives way for endemic species only found at the Abrolhos Islands.”
Evenings are plenty of fun with the 38 passengers and local crew enjoying sunset drinks on the top deck or the saloon bar.
“Bait fish, squid, dolphins, school sharks and sea lions often gather at the stern of the ship at night, making for good entertainment,” says Mr Cox. Colourful stories of the Abrolhos Islands’ crayfishing history are often told at the bar.
Although there is only one cruise vessel and a few scenic flight operators, tourism is set to increase in the area. The Houtman Abrolhos Islands National Park was established in 2019, with a $10 million investment in new jetties, toilets, shade shelters and walk trails on East Wallabi and Beacon islands.
Floating barge accommodation is expected to soon launch in the next couple of months. Book now to beat the rush and enjoy this paradise before it’s re-opened to the rest of the world.
Take me there
Fly: The Abrolhos Islands are a 20-minute flight from Geraldton, 400 kilometres north of Perth.
Air tours: Geraldton Air Charter’s Shipwreck Special day tour is priced from $390 per person; an islands flyover is $295.
Cruise: Five-day expeditions on Eco Abrolhos start at $2600 per person.
Stay: Gerald Apartment Hotel in Geraldton has rooms from $230 per night, including complimentary minibar.
Explore more: australiascoralcoast.com