Ashmore Reef

We left Darwin on the morning of August 6th, finally getting underway for our long crossing of the Indian Ocean. We had a couple of very nice days of sailing that put us very near to Ashmore Reef, the last outpost of Australia on the continental shelf. For the last six months we’ve never sailed in water deeper than 50 meters, the continental shelf around Australia is just huge. But it all ends at Ashmore – on the east side the water gradually deepens from that 50 meter range to about 100 meters. On the west side it drops off within a couple of miles to 2000 meters.

Since the weather was nice we decided to stop for a day. Australia maintains a 24/7 presence at the reef, seems the World Court says that if they’re not there then the Indonesians can make a claim. And there’s apparently a fair amount of oil in the surrounding Timor Sea. So, when we arrived there was a small Australian warship on station. We took a mooring near West Island (the Australian government has installed moorings to prevent damage to coral) and got in a nap. In the afternoon we did some snorkeling while part of the Navy crew enjoyed shore leave on the beach behind us. When they left we traded places and wandered on the beach.

The water was full of turtles, more than we’ve seen anywhere. A fair number of fish, and some very healthy looking coral, probably the healthiest we’ve seen since French Polynesia or the Cooks. The beach (at least at low tide, at high tide there isn’t much of one) is one of those pretty white coral sand beaches that they put on postcards and vacation brochures for the tropics. Lots of seabirds, the whole reef is a refuge and most of it is off limits to visitors. Really an unspoiled outpost in the tropics.

There were two other boats on the moorings with us, both Indonesian fishing boats that seemed empty. The next morning the Navy folks came over in their RIB and boarded both boats to check mooring cables. Then they came and checked in on us. Seems the Indonesian boats now belong to the Australian government – something about fishing where you’re not supposed to fish. The Aussies have an agreement with Indonesia that allows traditional sailboats to fish the waters around the reef, but these were motorboats and now belong to Australia. Just before mid-day the Navy traded places with a Border Force patrol boat (they switch on and off to maintain that 24/7 presence). The Border Force paid us a visit and did some much more formal paperwork. We talked with them and sounds like they get about 4 yachts a year, so it is not a heavily trafficked place. Makes you wonder why they put in 13 moorings? Maybe the fishermen, or maybe because they seize a fair number of boats and need to store them?

Either way it was quite an interesting visit, both from the wildlife perspective and from the governmental one. Shortly after the Border Force visit we left for Cocos Keeling, 1500 miles and at least a week of sailing to the west. Also an Australian outpost, but far from the continental shelf that surrounds Australia proper. We’ll be sailing in deep water again for quite some time.

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