In late March 2017, Cyclone Debbie crashed into the Whitsunday Islands. The Category 4 system* had sustained winds reaching 191 km/h with gusts up to 263 km/h recorded on Hamilton Island, the largest inhabited island of the group, resulting in extensive damage to infrastructure, forests and reefs.
Months later, in far-flung Tasmania (our only knowledge of the storm a half-remembered photograph of a battered cockatoo), we were offered a place aboard my aunt and uncle’s yacht as it sailed through the area. They were heading down the east coast from their extended travels in south-east Asia, and had generously offered to share their yacht (which is really their house most of the time) with any family who wanted to join them.
It was five days of glorious weather, as we motored between Hamilton, Hook and Whitsunday Islands. These are all part of the Whitsunday group of the larger Cumberland Island group, the continental islands given their current names by Captain Cook when he came across them on Whitsunday in 1770.
The 8000 year Aboriginal history in the area is recognised particularly via the Ngaro Sea Trail, a series of walks and waterways with interpretative panels that describe the seafaring lifestyle of the traditional custodians. Especially significant is the Nara Inlet Ngaro Cultural Site of Hook Island, which has paintings in the lee of a rock shelter. We found that the stories accessed via audio recordings was an effective modern medium for an ancient oral tradition, and complements the archaeological explanations in a nearby panel.
The Ngaro paintings also present an interesting contrast to the modern graffiti in Nara Inlet, of connection versus transience, both expressed through a mark made on the landscape.
Other walks on the Ngaro Sea Trail included Whitsunday Peak, and Solway Circuit and Lookout Point over Hill Inlet at either end of Whitehaven Beach.
It was on Whitehaven Beach that the cyclone damage was most visible on land, the lush rainforest stripped of leaves and left broken in its wake. But there were also signs of recovery, and certainly the Parks service had done a tremendous effort clearing the trails to allow tourists – and tourist dollars – to return to the region.
Below the surface the hard corals had also been damaged, with broken staghorn coated in algae everywhere. But we also found signs of recovery, with the soft corals around Nara Inlet in good condition (and none of the sharks we’d heard rumours of). The wildlife also hadn’t lost their fearlessness in spite of everything. Green turtles swam beside us, bat fish followed us around, and dugongs and dolphins surfaced near our anchorage in Tongue Bay.
Indeed, the biggest problem for my photography was the murkiness of the water – island run off makes the Whitsunday snorkelling much less clear than that of the outer reef. Thankfully RAW files allowed for some post-production recovery of contrast.
In all, it was a spectacular several days visiting one of the most beautiful parts of the world. And the beauty of it, even post cyclone, was undeniable – an ecosystem in recovery is itself an amazing thing to behold.
*Category 4 means a severe tropical cyclone with 10-minute maximum sustained winds of 86–110 kn (157–200 km/h). Debbie was at the upper limit of the category range.