Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Sunfish and Albatross: St Helens Point to Binalong Bay

Like many sea kayakers, we frequently use topographic maps instead of nautical charts for our paddles. Nautical charts show depths and some currents (not nearly complete) while topographic maps reveal all the land details that are important to kayakers. Ideally, you would have both, and we actually have access to both as we have the full set of Australian nautical charts and Tasmanian topographic maps (25K and 100K series) as raster maps on our computer. What we don't have is easy access to a printer so we only print maps for multi-day kayaks and rely on our memories of what the raster maps looked like the night before for walks and day paddles. 

Of course, this memory is reliant on actually having a good look at the relevant maps and charts the day before. I'm a map geek and can spend hours, if not days, looking at maps and plotting routes, but lately we have been so rushed as we dash from one part of Tasmania to another to take advantage of the brief weather windows that I have been remiss at studying the map carefully before we head out on our latest trip. 

In the calm Skeleton Bay
Photo, Doug B.  
For this particular paddle we had decided to launch from Burns Bay on St Helens Point and paddle south around the headland, perhaps out to St Helens Rocks before paddling north past Elephant Rock to Binalong Bay. There was a decent southerly swell running after many days of strong southwest winds so we knew we would only be able to land somewhere in Binalong Bay where we might get some local shelter from the swell. 

Burns Bay has a sheltered boat ramp (in southerly but not northerly conditions) and we were soon launched and paddling out through a long rolling swell towards St Helens Point. An albatross, the first I have ever seen and surely unusual in these inshore waters flew in and gobbled up a fish right in front of my boat and then kept pace with me as I paddled along. I've always wanted to see an albatross and only regret that it was Doug's turn to have the waterproof camera so I was unable to get a photo. This magnificent bird swam beside me for a few minutes only a metre or so off the side of my boat.

 Lazy rolling swell
Photo Doug B.  

There are a few rocks off St Helens Point and, in a kayak, with only 30 centimetres or so of freeboard it can be hard to see exactly where the swell is breaking without getting dangerously close. I love paddling out on the open ocean - where else will you see albatross - but having to paddle a half kilometre or more off-shore because of swells breaking on off-shore reefs is not nearly as interesting as being able to poke along closer to the shore. 

It soon became obvious that this was one of those days when we would have to paddle way off-shore to avoid the swells breaking off Bobby Halls Rock and its associated reefs. Which brings me back to the maps. Later, when I actually looked carefully at the Georges Bay nautical chart (25K scale) it became obvious that, unless the swell was very small we would have to paddle a long way off-shore heading south from Burns Bay as shallow water runs between all the little rocky islets along the coastline and also links all the islets together. The moral is obvious, have a good look at the chart before you leave.

Instead of paddling far off-shore, we decided to head north around Grays Point, past Elephant Rock and into Binalong Bay. Moments before we turned the kayaks around and began heading north, I saw a strangely waving and very large fin in the water in front of Doug's kayak. It didn't look like the dorsal fin of either a dolphin or a shark so I guessed seal as Australian fur seals are reasonably common in these waters. As we watched the fin wave about something didn't quite fit our gestalt of a seal, and, in the clear water we could see something huge, flat and mottled grey and white swimming just below the surface. "It's coming your way" Doug yelled. I admit, I felt a jolt of adrenaline (silly) at this point as I suddenly thought "Could this be a large great white shark intent on taking a bite of my rudder?" Doug swears he saw the whites of my eyes. The large fish swam right under my boat at which point I realised it was a sunfish. What a sighting! Not only an albatross but a sunfish. We had only been on the water for half an hour and already it had been an outstanding paddle. 

 Near Elephant Rock
Photo Doug B. 

Too soon the mammoth fish drifted away leaving Doug and I chattering excitedly. We paddled north up to Elephant Rock. Waves were breaking off Grants Point but we figured we had enough room to paddle through the gap between Grants Point and Elephant Rock without getting caught in a breaking wave. There were a lot of haystacks and a fair current running but we made it through easily, rapidly in fact as the current, fast as a river, carried us through. On the northern side the shallow water connecting Grants Point to Elephant Rock broke the force of the southerly swell and the water was much calmer. We ambled along, ducking behind Skeleton Rock into Skeleton Bay. 

There was a sheltered landing site at the head of the bay near Skeleton Creek but we continued around Boat Harbour Point to Binalong Bay. The swell was wrapping right around and dumping onto both the beach and the boat ramp so we paddled back to Skeleton Creek and weaved in between shallow rocks to a sheltered landing site. On the way back, we paddled around the outside of Elephant Rock which has deep water close off-shore and thus much less clapotis than the inside passage. A paddle of only about 20 kilometres but outstanding nonetheless.

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