Sunday, September 20, 2009

Ashmore Reef---sea snake capital of the world

Sailing from Darwin to Bali via Ashmore Reef requires motoring!

Others had warned us to plan on motoring all the way from Darwin to Ashmore Reef, and then probably being able to sail most of the way from the reef to Bali. Hope they were right about the second part of that advice; they were certainly right about the first part. We departed Darwin at 1100 Wednesday morning and arrived at Ashmore Reef at 1100 Sunday morning -- having motored 91% of the 503 mile trip.

Before leaving Darwin we had attempted to obtain the coordinates of a reported oil rig leak. No one seemed to have precise coordinates for either the blown well or of the resulting oil slick. The best we could find were news media reports of the general location of the oil slick. Every day since leaving Darwin the Australian Coast Watch Customs plane has flown over and talked with us, and each day we have asked about this blown oil well and slick; but they had no information on it. Our planned course was more than 30 miles clear of the news media reported location of the oil slick. Imagine our surprise just after sunrise yesterday morning to find that we were within 8 miles of a leaking gas well! And our course would have taken us within 2 miles downwind and down-current of this dangerous leaking well! As the sun rose we could see a vapor cloud emitting from what looked like an oil rig off in the distance. Our AIS receiver indicated 2 ships hovering near the leaking rig. Bill hailed one of the ships and learned that this was indeed the blown well. It was a gas well and did have some oil disbursement into the sea that was not yet contained. There supposedly was an exclusion zone and we were well within that exclusion zone. Would have been nice if someone had told us that little fact!

The control ship requested that we turn immediately away from the leaking gas well and remain outside a 20 mile radius of it. Kind of hard to do when we were already only 8 miles from it. We turned south and remained at least 8 miles from the well. Once we were upwind and up-current from the well, we again turned back west and continued on our way. Basically we made 3/4 of a circle around this leaking gas well. Never saw any evidence of an oil slick.

(UPDATE added 6 Nov 2009:

That gas well continued to leak and finally caught fire. Glad it waited until we were well past before the fire started. Thank goodness no one was injured during the resulting explosion and fire. Oil and gas both continue to leak. This has been going on since July and is leaking approximately only 400 barrels of oil per day into the sea. Where is Red Adair when you need him? I think Australia needs to contact Texas and get the experts out here and put out this fire and contain the leaks.)

Ashmore Reef is owned by Australia and is a "natural nature reserve" (per their brochure, although that sounds redundant to me). Visitors are allowed only in the lagoon on the northwest side of the reef, just east of tiny West Island. Access to all other areas is forbidden. There is a Customs boat assigned to duty here. Man, I bet those guys get bored because they are 500 miles from anywhere. Later we saw just how bored they must be when 6 of them went around in a tender to take the GPS locations of the moorings. Six people to do a simple task that really required only one person. I guess doing anything is better than staying on the same little Customs boat all the time. There are dugong, sea turtles, sea snakes, all kinds of marine life, and thousands of birds around this reef. I was looking forward to swimming for the first time in well over a year -- that is, until I read the brochure about Ashmore Reef that we obtained from Customs in Darwin.

There are 17 different species of sea snakes native to Ashmore Reef. There are more sea snakes here than any other place on earth. Well, okay. Guess I won't be swimming after all. Shortly after we were tied to our mooring I saw 2 sea snakes beside our boat. These were white with black bands, just like the one that swam by our boat in Tonga. Hopefully we will see other varieties during our stay here. We plan to stay here for a few days before sailing the last 500 miles to Bali. Hopefully some wind will materialize at some point to enable actual sailing instead of listening to the rumble of the engine for another 4 days.

When we arrived this morning there was a large Australian Customs supply ship delivering supplies to the 2 smaller Customs ships stationed here: the Ashmore Guardian and the Corio Bay. There was also an Australian warship off-loading supplies. Several tenders were zooming about between the 4 ships as we made our way into the mooring field. The Corio Bay provided us with entry instructions via VHF radio and even sent a guy out to help us thread our hawser through the eye of the mooring. How very nice of them!

BTW, Bill wants a guide for Australian phonics. We still cannot understand how they arrive at some of these pronunciations. Corio Bay is a good example. Australians pronounce it as if it rhymes with pariah, or Mariah (as in the singer Mariah Carey). We would never have gotten that one.

The Ashmore Guardian ship went out one day and seized this Indonesian boat. Apparently they were on their way to Australia for illegal entry. Or maybe they had drugs. We don't know. But they seized the little boat and brought it back to Ashmore Reef to await the next arrival of the ship to transfer the illegal immigrants back to Indonesia. Sound familiar? Just like home, isn't it?

Ashmore Reef marks a big point in our circumnavigation -- we are now exactly half-way around the world from our starting point! That is a big deal to us. And we don't even have a bottle of bubbly aboard to celebrate properly. I'm thinking gin and pomegranate juice on the rocks will be an acceptable substitute on this very hot day.

And, speaking of our circumnavigation, we have decided on a major change of plans. Instead of following the South African route, we have decided to go up the Red Sea and sail the Mediterranean. Bill decided that there are many more interesting things to see in the Med than on the South African route, and the total miles back to the Caribbean are about the same following either route. So, yeah, we are going to brave the Somali pirates and hope for the best. Since we are flying home for Christmas holidays this year, that means we will not be able to transit the Red Sea during the proper weather time during early 2010. So we will be spending almost a year in the Malaysia/Thailand/Andaman Islands areas and doing some land travel in SE Asia. Then through the Red Sea in first quarter of 2011.

So, friends and family, start making your vacation plans now if you want to visit us somewhere in the Mediterranean during the summer of 2011. Heck, maybe one or both of the age-appropriate grandkids will be able to spend the summer with us seeing a few of the countries of the Med.

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