The Abrohlos Archipelago lies about 50 miles west north west of Geraldton, in the Indian Ocean. It’s a set of 122 islands, and is essentially the coral reef rising above the sea. It’s the southernmost true coral reef on the planet, and is the center of the Western Australian rock lobster industry, as well as producing valuable pearls for jewelry in shades of pink, cream and gray.
Its name comes from the ship captain Houtman, who stumbled across the reef. A new, faster shipping route from the cape of Africa up to what is now Jakarta was established in the 1600’s, using the sustained winds in the Roaring Forties latitude to sail down to the south west end of Australia and straight up the Western Australian coastline, saving the Dutch East India Trading ships many months and men in their long journeys from the Netherlands to the Spice Islands. It was along this route that Houtman was traveling when he made the following notes in a letter:
“On the 29th do. deeming ourselves to be in an open sea, we shaped oureast. At noon we were in 29° 32′ S. Lat.; at night about three hours before daybreak, we again unexpectedly came upon a low-lying coast, a level, broken country with reefs all round it. We saw no high land or mainland, so that this shoal is to be carefully avoided as very dangerous to ships that wish to touch at this coast. It is fully ten miles in length, lying in 28° 46.”
The VOC, or the Dutch East India Trading Company, has a fascinating history all of its own, and we encourage you to read about it. Massive ships went back and forth, returning laden with spices that were more valuable as gold in Europe. The VOC loved the shorter route via the Roaring 40’s. Its savings in time meant more money but didn’t lead to a happy ending for many ships that didn’t take Houtman’s warning seriously.
The Islands are named Houtman Abrohlos, the second part of the name possibly coming from Abri Vossos Ohlos, a Portuguese phrase meaning “keep your eyes open”.
The reef extends about 100km and is very wide. Many skippers mistook the breaking white waves as moonlight on the water.
This ended tragically for the Batavia, which shipwrecked here in 1629. Although most survived the actual wreck, the events took a terrorizing turn when the commandeur Pelseart took a boat and around 30 crew up to Batavia (now Jakarta) for help. While he was gone, the second in command, the under-merchant Cornelisz, convinced a group of men to join him in the brutal massacre of 120 men, women and children.
The story ended when Pelseart returned, trying all involved in the mutiny, there on one of the islands, and hanging most of those involved.
And this incredible and terrible story took place in a place that appears as paradise. The juxtaposition is unfathomable.
Yesterday we took a flight out to the Abrohlos on a 7 seater plane, spending the day snorkeling, wandering and enjoying the beauty. It’s hard to imagine such a thing took place in this beautiful place and yet evidence remains: the fort where soldiers holed themselves up to protect themselves from the maniac is still there, and the wreck of the ship appears as a skeleton under the water. And they still find skeletal remains of the victims.
Here’s some photos.
You get the picture…
We also have lots of Go Pro snorkeling footage and I’ll try to have one of my tech-savvy kids put up some video.