Dugong sight makes passage worth fright
SOMETIMES THE ocean makes me work for my rewards. Last week, it produced an animal I'd been seeking out for months. The creature popped its head from the surface for only a second and then dived down, showing a distinguishing tail. But that was enough. I had my moment.
The event happened just after I'd sweated my way across Solway Passage, a channel between two of Australia's Whitsunday Islands, a group in the Great Barrier Reef National Park.
The cruising guides warn boaters about Solway. Its currents run up to 4 knots either way, depending on the ebb and flow of the tide, and its back eddies can be so strong they can turn motoring boats 90 degrees, even with a firm hand on the wheel.
This might just be a wild ride except rocks and reefs pepper the place. If you can, the authors advise, go through Solway at slack tide.
I couldn't. That day, a late afternoon wind shift had exposed my anchorage, making it unsafe for the night. I decided to make a run for a better spot while I still had light. That, however, meant going through the notorious passage against the tide.
Most of my channel adventures this summer have been in atolls. Those passages were narrow, with no doubt about where to go: down the middle. But Solway Passage was so wide and wild I couldn't read the water. I drove smack into the eddies I was warned about.
Those currents yanked the rudder so hard I feared I'd hit something. But no. The chart showed no obstructions there. I opened the throttle, hung on for dear life and pushed on. It seemed to take forever but we made it through.
The new anchorage was fine but crowded, and the next morning, I decided to move to a bigger one. Unfortunately, this was on the other side of Solway Passage. More clawing currents attacked the boat, and again I white-knuckled through them.
"Look," Kirsten said as we crabbed along. "Whirlpools."
I turned, and in that second a head peeped from the water. Sailors of old imagined a mermaid in that face and body, and to me the sight was just as fantastic. It was a dugong.
Dugongs are manatee relatives that live in some coastal waters of the Pacific and Indian oceans. (Manatees live in the Atlantic and Caribbean.)
These gentle, plant-eating mammals reproduce slowly, having only one offspring at a time, with sometimes seven years between births. Add to this habitat destruction, fishing nets, boat propellers and hunting (indigenous Australians kill about 3,000 dugongs a year), and the animals are in trouble.
Here in the Great Barrier Reef National Park, dugongs are protected, and some rivers are set aside specifically for dugongs. About a month ago, I motored up one of these rivers and searched my eyes dry for a glimpse of one. No luck.
Then, when I'm concentrating like mad on something else entirely, one of the darlings shows up. Solway challenged me and, in return, considerately coughed up a dugong.
It was a grand moment. And I earned it.