JOURNEY INTO THE CORAL SEA…

 . . . to a marine world that has been changed by the intrusion of man.

Valerie Taylor calls herself an “old time diver”. She wrote this in 1972.

She is still a vibrant courageous famous friend, heading off to America where a film is being made of her life with her late partner the underwater cinematographer, Ron Taylor.

Valerie with Jaws!

Just over 289 nautical miles off the Queensland coast a great sea mount rises from the depths of the Pacific. The submerged mountain has no name but the frilly ribbons of coral that festoon its peaks do; They are called Kenn Reefs. The bones of lost sailing ships litter the reef flats. A treasure in relics lie half buried in the shallow lagoons. Enormous coral bommies (coral growths) rise vertically one hundred feet to ruffle the surface and shatter the peaceful ocean swells into curtains of white stinging spray. 

Un-named corals vie for growing space on these reef drop offs, and rare shells dazzle with their prolific splendour. A sea captains nightmare, Kenn is an underwater photographers paradise. 

It was Ron’s third trip to Kenn but my first. We, along with seventeen other divers had charted the luxury tourist cruiser “MV CORALITA”.  The Coralita had been built by Captain Wally Muller mainly as a pleasure cruiser but was also equipped with the necessary gear for diving and snorkelling.

Bad weather had held us several days, trapped off  the Saumarez reefs. There was a fishing boat also anchored in the lee of Saumarez. Her crew were busily removing the big bronze propellor from the wreck of the Francis Preston Blair, the American liberty ship which was torpedoed during the battle of the Coral Sea and stands high and dry on the exposed reef flat.

Rumour has it that to stop her sinking and to save his crew from drowning the captain drove his vessel high onto the reef after receiving two torpedoes during the battle, a battle that saved Australia from invasion and turned the tide of the war away from our coast.

Whether the story is true or not I do not know but the huge ship is certainly there. A grim reminder of one mans madness and a world at war, she stands alone and forgotten on a mountain top in the middle of the Coral Sea. 

Saumarez was interesting and the diving good, but we were impatient to reach Kenn. Finally the wind dropped and we awoke the following morning anchored near one of the four sand cays that dot the 40 kilometres of Kenn reef. Kenn was something rare in the diving world. Except for one small area it was virgin territory. We were to be the first underwater intruders. 

Ron was as usual after sharks. They appeared as soon as the anchor dropped, but after a short time, curiosity satisfied, they disappeared. It certainly looked promising though. The quick darting whalers and their more placid cousins, the white tip reef sharks were what Ron was most interested in. The tide was out. I longed to go fossicking amongst the wreckage on the exposed reef flats so seeing my excitement Ron ran me over to the dry reef in our aluminium dingy. 

Huge anchors lay like so many tomb stones marking the graves of several luckless sailing ships. The rusting ribs of a more modern vessel stood forbidding and ugly against the pounding surf on the weather side. Ron left me and several companions picking amongst the wreckage, while he returned to load his movie camera. Polished by the pounding surf, brass and copper fittings glistened from the encrusting coral. We had bought nothing to chip them out with and could only pluck fruitlessly at the worn shiny shapes. 

All of us found shells. Some of them new to Australia, so our reef walk wasn’t entirely wasted. The tide began to flow and our coral platform became submerged. Ron motored over in our tinny and picked us up. 

After an excellent breakfast we went for our first dive. Fish were large but not prolific. Small sharks were everywhere. No sooner had I speared a fish than it was torn apart by the frenzied marauders. With so many hungry sharks around no wonder fish were scarce. 

Next to the crystal clear water the marine growths were what really fascinated me. I was eager to dive with my Nikons, using the extension tubes Ron had made for it. Immense caves stared blackly from the sheer coral walls. Some must have been at least 20 meters high and over 35 meters deep. Narrow gutters split the vertical cliffs into an exciting maze of canyons and grottoes. Brilliant green algae coated the shaded walls, a contrast to the delicate corals flourishing in the weak sunshine. 

My husband seemed to have forgotten me. He was busy filming two sea snakes apparently making love. I climbed into the dingy after my camera and had almost succeeded in escaping when Ron surfaced and shattered all my lovely plans. 

The camera went back into its bucket and instead of taking photographs I returned to spearing fish. I was using a new gun given to me by Dick Oakes, one of the divers on the trip. Dick had said it was a little beauty and he certainly was not exaggerating. The spearhead seemed to contain a special radar for tracking down and piercing fish. I was rather pleased with my new toy. I was also pleased to discover I could still free dive as well as ever. Dave Ross, one of the other divers was with us. In spite of his youth Dave was a really experienced diver. 

The more fish we speared the more sharks we attracted. Ron seemed to have his own private feeding frenzy going on right in front of the camera. None of us were using S.C.U.B.A. lest it intimidate the sharks. Ron’s years as a spearfishing champion helped him to control his big 400 foot load Camaflex camera in its Perspex housing, without using breathing apparatus. In sixty feet of water this is quite a difficult feat. 

David speared a small six foot Whaler. To our amazement it started, during its death throes to give birth. Two baby sharks were born and swam briskly away. A third became trapped in the vaginal passage and could only struggle helplessly. David swam down and cut the soft white belly open freeing the half born shark. Seven more baby sharks squirmed helplessly inside the semi transparent oviduct sacs. David started releasing them from their dead mother. One after the other they wriggled out; perfectly formed miniature man biters. One even turned around and seemed to savage the fatty tissue oozing from the world it had left by returning to the security of its mother’s womb. 

I caught one in my hands. It tried to bite me wriggling this way and that. Ron filmed on. Another larger whaler darted in and savaged the dead female. Her empty belly oozed blood and offal into the clear warm water. The scene seemed very wrong. How cruel is the sea and its inhabitants. Only man himself can eclipse such savagery. At least the whaler used the dead fish for food. The female had been killed for sport and the fun of watching her die.

A Queensland Grouper around 150 kilos had been observing the action from under a shadowy ledge. Unable to contain his curiosity the big fish darted out amongst the dead sharks, rolling his pop eyes in amazement. Later we saw him with what was obviously our female dead shark jammed crookedly in his stomach, pulling his normally rotund middle into a very strange shape indeed. I would have loved to see him swallowing the shark. 

Valerie Taylor with Black tip sharks

Two days later we did see the same grouper swallow a grouper around 6 kilos in weight. It was rather funny actually. David had speared the large fish for shark burley (chum). The big grouper with his usual cortege of cleaner fish and remoras emerged onto the scene. Ron signalled me to feed the grouper a fish fillet I was carrying. I swam down and waved the fillet enticingly at the grouper who ignored me completely. He ignored Ron too, but seemed quite fascinated by David floating on the surface. In fact he practically stood on his tail trying to get a better look. After several minutes of this David finally realised the grouper wanted the dead grouper. No measly fish fillet for him. He wanted something much bigger. It spiralled slowly down to the sand. Ron positioned himself and the camera. With great dignity the grouper approached the carcass, almost as though he really wasn’t interested. Casually he nuzzled it for a moment then seemed to become rather shy for he looked away, his thoughts apparently elsewhere. In fact it appeared he was not interested in the Grouper after all – when suddenly with a flick he had its head in his mouth. He was a big fish with a big mouth but the dead fish gave him some trouble. The grouper gulped madly and the fish slowly begun to disappear. Ron filmed away happily. Finally the grouper just could not swallow anymore. He simply swam away with its tail protruding from his maw like a big brown moustache. Altogether it was a very interesting little performance. Ron of course was delighted. 

For some reason the sharks had vanished when the grouper appeared. 

Unknown to us another group of spear fishermen had started slaughtering fish some three hundred yards away and all our sharks had darted off to investigate the new action, which was to prove a fatal decision for many of them. These boys, all top Sydney divers, killed something like two dozen sharks before they were through. Former Australian spearfishing champion Vic Ley accounted for eight reef whalers during one day’s diving, without diminishing the supply at all. He also had a shark give birth after it had been speared and the tall tales at dinner that night came fast and furious. Ron and I were very saddened by some of the stories. It seemed several divers had just gone on a mad killing-spree spearing sharks for no useful purpose other than to see how many they could kill. 

Ron, not realising all of this was happening such a short distance away, decided in lieu of anything more exciting, to film me feeding moray eels. He found three morays living all in the one place. I was busy trying to keep my fingers intact and the eels happy with pieces of fish fillet when a five foot whaler dashed between Ron and myself. I can only say he gave me a terrible shock, I didn’t even know there was a shark around. Ron signalled me to offer the shark my fillet but I never had the chance. Once more he dashed in from behind making a wild grab at my bait. He must have done this six or seven times. The resulting footage looks just great. Having the shark passing between me and the camera made him look much longer than he really was.

Everyday we went filming sharks. Once we were lucky enough to have two tiger sharks circling the boat. The first one to appear was 3 meters. To Ron’s dismay one of the boys hit it with a powerhead. Ron was planning to film the tiger swimming around in the clear water. The explosion attracted another much bigger tiger shark and a dozen or more whalers. It was very exciting for a while. Fortunately no one managed to kill the bigger shark which must have been over 4 meters long. It was defiantly more wary than its smaller comrades.  

Another shark we found to be quite prevalent was the Leopard shark, which in spite of his bulk was very placid by nature. The Leopard sharks’ habit of swimming on the surface gave us a few frights. Once I nearly had a heart seizure. I was floating on the surface watching the action below when a fat old leopard shark came along and bumped into me. It was just so unexpected. Might I add that he got a fright also and darted madly away. 

Sea snakes were also a bother. They were just everywhere and it took some of the divers quite a while to become used to have having curious snakes inspecting them every so often. Although extremely venomous they are not as aggressive as some people would have you believe, but merely curious. However, curious or not I find it very hard to take calmly particularly when they twine affectionately around an arm or leg. 

I gathered a few shells, and whenever possible donned S.C.U.B.A and took close-ups in the caves. Some of the other divers really became carried away with gathering molluscs. Giant Helmut and Spider shells dotted the lagoon floor. There were thousands and thousands of them. After the first day we could hardly walk along the deck for shells. They were heaped everywhere. Captain Muller and Clive the engineer, cleaned them for us every afternoon. This service impressed me. I had never been on a boat before where the crew cleaned out the shells. (Helmut shells are natural predators of the crown of thorns starfish and now protected in Australian waters). 

The “Coralita’s” crew really looked after us. Our scuba bottles and petrol tanks were kept constantly filled. All the speared fish were filleted and frozen. Our cabins were kept clean and tidy. Best of all though, were the fresh water showers. There are seven showers on board and enough water for us to have a good shower every day. The Coralita advertises as being luxury plus and back in the early 1970s it was without doubt to us super luxury. 

The seven days passed all too quickly. No one was anxious to leave Kenn. Not only because we were having such a good time but also because we had to push into a 35 knot southwesterly once we left the lee of the reef. 

As you can imagine the trip back was rather rough and although no one was seasick everyone and everything received a good jostling around. 

Once back inside the Great Barrier Reef things became calmer. Ron, myself, and four others were dropped off at Heron Island where we were to continue work on a T.V series called “Barrier Reef”. Everyone else went with the Coralita to Yeppoon where they gathered up their drums of smelly shells, diving gear and frozen fish. We had lived and played together through eight days of adventure. Now we were all going our own different ways once again. Kenn was no longer just a name on the chart but a reef forever tinged by the intrusion of man. The adventure was over.  

I wrote this story 5 decades ago. The last time I visited Kenn Reefs was about 11 years ago. It was still a wonderful place but the excitement of adventuring into the unknown along with the sharks and big fish was gone.

PS Sadly it seems we can’t leave the reef alone. It is abused more by mankind each year. Nature doesn’t get much of a look in You don’t see the big fish much any more but that is because of over fishing. The best protection our barrier reef can have is to be left alone no harvesting, no polluting. Just look and enjoy not take and destroy.

Valerie Taylor AM

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