There’s a unique overlap of temperate and tropical species here, being the Indian Ocean’s southernmost coral reefs and the northernmost stronghold of the rare Australian sea lion. Millions of seabirds nest on the islands, including white-faced storm petrels, little shearwaters and brown noddies. The reefs here have claimed 49 vessels, and are littered with significant shipwrecks.
While it is possible to visit this extraordinary place, you can forget staying overnight on the islands – that is, unless you’re friends with a lobster fisher.
Historically, lobsters could be caught for a fixed season of just a few months. To maximise fishing time during the season, fishing families would live temporarily at the islands in makeshift shacks, called camps. A strong, multi-generational community developed over the decades. Community halls and pubs were filled with lively fun, and kids went to island schools by dinghy. It’s a time remembered with nostalgia by many.
In 2009, the fishery shifted to a model of total allowable catch, rather than a season. Licence holders are allocated a quota, giving them the flexibility to fish whenever prices are high. For some, the move to quota was unviable, and they sold up.
Lobster fishers, and a handful of aquaculture licensees, still own camps here, but the vibe has changed. Community halls are often empty, and the schools have all closed.
In 2019, things changed again, with the uninhabited islands becoming the Houtman Abrolhos Islands National Park. While DPIRD still regulates the lobster fishery and the 22 islands with fishing camps, the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) now controls the rest.
In consultation with diverse stakeholders, both departments have developed draft management plans on the future of the Abrolhos, including expanding tourism.
Final reports will be released by the end of 2022, but in their drafts, both departments indicate they will consider more sustainable, ocean-based tourism, and controlled day visits to certain islands. As for land-based accommodation, it’s a somewhat vexed issue.
Many consider the needs of tourists to be incompatible with the working lobster industry. On islands that already have camps, any tourist accommodation would need the support of the whole community, as well as upgraded facilities that met building codes and insurable safety standards.
On national park islands, the DBCA has already begun upgrading boardwalks, shade shelters and installing or upgrading signage on key islands. While the idea of camping or eco-friendly accommodation has not been ruled out, the natural and historic heritage values present almost insurmountable constraints.
But future tourism aside, there are several ways to visit the islands right now. Charter fishing and dive boats depart from Geraldton, along with day trips and multi-day excursions to pontoon accommodation with Abrolhos Adventures. A few expedition cruise ships stop here in deeper waters, and passengers take trips to key historic and snorkelling sites in small tenders.
My first visit was a day trip by light plane from Geraldton. Flying over the 100 km-long archipelago, I absorbed the pilot’s commentary on historic guano mining and the Batavia shipwreck from 1629. We photographed quirky fishing camps, and spotted rays and turtles in turquoise lagoons.
Landing on the alarmingly short airstrip on East Wallabi Island, we found reclusive tammar wallabies, countless birds and a cheeky King’s skink, which tried to climb into my bag. I snorkelled over vibrant coral reef with parrotfish, butterfly fish, and of course, lobsters.
It was enough to whet my appetite, and now I’m back, gorging on lobsters on the Eco-Abrolhos. During our low-key cruise, we respectfully view prolific bird colonies and frolic under water with curious sea lions.
We’re told hair-raising stories of the Batavia – the pride of the Dutch East India Company, wrecked on its maiden voyage off the Abrolhos Islands 393 years ago. Standing on Beacon Island above excavated graves, we learn how Batavia foundered on Morning Reef, and about the evil mutineers who went on to murder 115 of the passengers, including the women and children who had managed to make it to the island. Surveying this inhospitable speck of rubble, I wonder how anyone could have survived.
But some did, and a handful of soldiers endured after finding water on nearby West Wallabi Island. We visit their freshwater well, and stand in their defensive structure, now known as Wiebbe Hayes Stone Fort, the oldest surviving European building in Australia.
There’s the chance to meet a resident community, too. On Basile Island, eclectic shacks are painted turquoise, pink and yellow; some are adorned with fishing floats, whale bones and turtle shells. We’re met by brothers Peter and Nino Scarpuzza, second-generation lobster fishers, who welcome us with real Italian coffee. Peter says despite the diminished community, he’s always happiest here.
“Why would you want to go into town?” Peter laughs. “Too many people!”
Jane Liddon, one of the first female lobster boat skippers, feels at home here, too. These days Jane runs a pearl farm, while her sons fish. As I browse the shimmering jewellery in her kitchen-cum-shop on Post Office Island, Jane says her family supports sustainable tourism.
“There’s a lot of pressure to get things like Airbnb happening in fishermen’s huts,” she says. “I don’t think that’s going to happen for a long time, if ever. But people like Jay Cox [of Eco-Abrolhos] are running really good tourism. This is what we’d like to see.”
It is clear that the Abrolhos are on the brink of change in some form, and that robust discussions will continue to balance the needs of its fishing culture, conservation and heritage values and sustainable tourism.
But for now, I’m sliding off a tender, and diving down to stickybeak under an overhanging clump of coral. Through a tangle of wiry antennae, black eyes on stalks stare back at me. If lobsters could look smug, they probably would because it’s clear who is boss of these islands.
The writer travelled with assistance from City of Greater Geraldton, Tourism Western Australia, Eco-Abrolhos and Shine Aviation.
Need to know
- Eco-Abrolhos | Low-key, five-day cruises at the Abrolhos Islands from $3045 a person twin share. Includes all meals and activities, excludes alcohol. Departs Geraldton.
- Flying day trips | Several companies run flying day trips to the Abrolhos from Geraldton and Kalbarri including landing at East Wallabi Island: Shine Aviation, Geraldton Air Charter and Kalbarri Scenic Flights; from $330 per person.
- When to visit | The Abrolhos Islands are notoriously windy. The best chance of calm conditions is from March to May.