Atoll’s abundant wildlife, towering trees worth a visit

Published July 13, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

Lady Musgrave Atoll, Great Barrier Reef, Australia >> Last week Craig and I sailed to this atoll, 50 miles offshore from Bundaberg. Even though the trades were still blowing at 25 knots, bringing with them the usual waves and rain, residents assured us that the anchorage inside the atoll was safe. As good as the wildlife was in the marina, I wanted coral, and we set sail.

The trip was not what I expected.

After entering the narrow channel into the atoll, we dodged a leaping manta ray and multiple coral heads and dropped anchor. But even though the water was relatively calm inside the circular reef, we had a problem. Honu’s anchor chain had so rusted in our absence that we couldn’t trust it to hold the boat.

An hour later we had a second anchor off the bow and a safety line tied to the first. With the boat triple-leashed to the bottom, we launched the dinghy to visit the atoll’s famous island, a circle of land that takes about 20 minutes to walk across and an hour to walk around. Lady Musgrave’s island is remarkable because it holds an underground lens of fresh water that supports a mature Pisonia forest.

The Pisonia is not your average tree. Historically, the species dominated coral atolls throughout the Pacific, but after centuries of human habitation, introduced insects, rats and weeds, Pisonia forests became rarer than ever.

Today at Lady Musgrave Atoll (as well as at our own Palmyra Atoll), it’s possible to see Pisonia forests in all their grandeur.

The trees grow to 100 feet tall and have smooth, light gray trunks, some as big around as a compact car. The towering hand-shaped leaves form a whispering canopy that blocks wind and discourages undergrowth, yet the ashen trunks give the forest a light and airy feel. If ever there existed an elven glen filled with sentient trees, this is it.

From a windy, wave-washed beach we entered the forest on a park path and were instantly transported to a shelter of green and gray. When rain fell from passing squalls, the trees kept us mostly dry, their layers of leaves making music of the drops that trickled through.

Fearless, rust-colored rails (birds related to coots and moorhens) skittered here and there, eating insects and tiny crabs from the forest floor.

On the leeward side of the island, we emerged from the tree haven to see humpback whales breaching just outside the reef. It’s winter here in the Southern Hemisphere, and the Southern Ocean’s humpback whales have migrated to waters inside the Great Barrier Reef to mate and give birth.

It’s true that Lady Musgrave Atoll protects boats from rough seas, but at high tide, rowdy waves rose over the coral walls and rocked the boat so hard I got queasy. That, plus the shaky anchor situation, and weather too cold to go snorkeling, made us decide to leave Lady Musgrave for a more sheltered part of the park on the mainland.

As we sailed from the atoll, a white-bellied sea eagle hovered overhead and a pod of dolphins raced to the boat, all seeming to bid us farewell.

No, my experience at Lady Musgrave Atoll was not what I expected. It was better.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser,

©2015 Susan Scott