Connect with us

The Abrolhos Islands

While the Abrolhos Islands may be famous for their Dutch history, the word Abrolhos is of Portuguese origin, meaning “Keep your eyes open”. It is one of only two places in Australia with a Portuguese name. Discover the Abrolhos islands and understand why you may need to “Keep your eyes open”!

The Natural Beauty of the Abrolhos Islands

Limestone Outcrops, Coral Atolls, and Dreamlike Scenery

 

From sunrise to sunset and into the starry night, Australia’s beauty is unparalleled, and the Houtman Abrolhos Islands are no exception. These islands offer an exceptional, almost otherworldly beauty that showcases the best of Australia’s natural wonders.

Enchanting Landscapes

The Abrolhos Islands are a vibrant tapestry of colors and enchanting beauty, both above and below the water’s surface. The islands are interlinked by coral atolls, creating a colorful patchwork of blues and greens amidst the vast deep blue ocean. These coral formations give each island its unique shape and charm.

A Photographer's Paradise

The coral atolls make for stunning aerial photos, capturing the intricate and vibrant patterns from above. These atolls also provide a calm and clear environment for snorkeling, offering an immersive experience in the underwater world.

Tranquil Waters

Thanks to the protective coral atolls, the waters around the Abrolhos Islands are calmer compared to the open ocean beyond. This creates ideal conditions for marine life to thrive and for visitors to explore the natural beauty safely.

Experience the Magic

The natural beauty of the Abrolhos Islands is a must-see for any nature lover. Whether you’re exploring the limestone outcrops, diving into the coral reefs, or simply enjoying the view, the islands offer a truly dreamlike experience.

So, pack your camera and snorkel gear, and get ready to immerse yourself in the enchanting beauty of the Houtman Abrolhos Islands

The coral atolls create stunning aerial photographs and provide vibrant snorkeling opportunities. These natural formations connect the islands, resulting in calmer waters within the atoll borders compared to the turbulent ocean beyond.

The dramatic contrast is evident in the crashing waves against the coral barriers, famously known as the “Super Tubes.” The short video below offers a glimpse of these relentless waves that define the northern edge of the Abrolhos Islands.

The Wildlife of the Abrolhos Islands Ecosystem

A Unique Range of Wildlife

The Houtman Abrolhos Islands boast a remarkable variety of wildlife, including several endangered species. Known as one of the largest seabird breeding areas, these islands are managed by Western Australia’s Parks and Wildlife Service. The diverse ecosystem includes animals from the sky, land, and sea, with over 2,000 different species calling the Abrolhos home.

Bird Life

   The Abrolhos Islands host a total of 211 bird species, including:

  • Abrolhos Painted Button-Quail (Turnix Varius Scintillans): On an interim recovery plan since 2018.
  • Osprey: Known for building large nests on islands like East Wallabi Island.
  • White-Bellied Sea Eagle: Second only to the Wedge-tailed Eagle as Australia’s largest bird of prey.

A comprehensive list of bird species can be found on the Atlas of Living Australia website.

Big but Vulnerable

The Abrolhos Islands mark the northern breeding area for the Vulnerable Australian Sea Lions. These sea lions, which live an average of 8-9 years 

(sometimes up to 12 years), can often be seen sunbathing on the beaches. Admire these large yet gentle creatures from a safe distance, especially if they are with their pups. Learn more about them and what to do if you encounter one on the Seal Wise website.

Cute and Fluffy

Tammar Wallabies, the shy relatives of Rottnest’s famous Quokkas, inhabit the Abrolhos Islands. While they might be camera shy, spotting these adorable wallabies is a rewarding experience for eco-tourists. They are often seen scampering in the scrub on East Wallabi Island, a favorite for wildlife photography.

The Industry

Industries that Survive and Thrive Thanks to the Abrolhos Islands

The Houtman Abrolhos Islands are not only home to a diverse range of wildlife but also support various industries that depend on the health of these islands.

 

Commercial Fisheries and Aquaculture Operations

The unique ecosystem of the Abrolhos Islands, with its grouped islands surrounded by coral atolls, supports a rich variety of marine life. This abundance has become the livelihood of many West Australian fishermen. Two major marine species of interest are:

  • Western Rock Lobster: One of Western Australia’s most sought-after crustaceans, both domestically and internationally. Due to their high demand, strict programs are in place to protect their population. Fishing licenses, regulated by the state government, impose strict guidelines on the size and quantity of Western Rock Lobsters that can be caught each season.

  • Black Lipped Pearl Oysters: These oysters produce the world-famous black pearls, renowned for their unique coloring. Farms stationed in the waters between the islands specialize in harvesting these rare treasures.

Other marine species requiring fishing licenses and supporting local industries include finfish, scallops, and historically, trepang (sea cucumber).

 

Recreational Finfish Fisheries

Recreational fishing is another thriving industry, though it is subject to seasonal changes due to weather conditions. To protect the Abrolhos Islands, any boats entering the Abrolhos Fish Habitat Protection Area must notify the Department of Fisheries first. Many recreational fishermen hire local operators to take them to authorized fishing areas, boosting the local charter industry.

Historical Industries

The Abrolhos Islands’ rich bird and marine life laid the foundation for the guano mining and fishing industries during Australia’s colonial period. Guano, a fertilizer derived from bird excreta, was mined commercially from the 1880s to the 1920s, and again in the mid-1940s. Remnants of this industry include stone guano jetties on Pelsaert, Gun, and Rat islands, and the foundations of a small gauge railway on Rat and Pelsaert islands.

Research

To protect the Abrolhos Islands adequately, extensive research is conducted by government and privately funded marine and wildlife biologists. Research focuses on migration patterns, breeding numbers, ocean temperatures, coral health, and the impact of current and future industries. The Abrolhos Islands serve as a case study for universities, including Murdoch University.

Tourism

The Abrolhos Islands, designated a National Park in 2020, are a bucket list destination for tourists due to their natural beauty and historical significance. Unlike many other island paradises, the Abrolhos Islands remain relatively undeveloped, offering visitors an “uninhabited island experience” with the safety and quality standards of Australia. Tourists can explore the islands by both air and sea, experiencing a gem of Western Australia that provides lasting memories.

Story of the Batavia

Abrolhos Islands Batavia Wreck – See at First Hand where Murder and Mayhem was Perpetrated

The wreck of the Dutch East Indies ship Batavia on Morning Reef by the Abrolhos Islands in 1629 has everything going for it … deception, navigational disaster, mutiny, rape of women, the molestation of the fair and lovely Lucretia van der Miljen, intrigue, wild and licentious liaison, murder by homicidal maniacs, desperate defence of the first buildings in Australia by troops loyal to the Commander – and finally rescue and dreadful, bloody retribution by the Dutch authorities.

 

The cause of the wreck was not just some casual, unfortunate event. There was some real ‘history’ involved – with hatred, lust, the plotting of mutiny, piracy and intrigue right at the top of the list. When the brand new, state-of-the-art Batavia left Texel, Holland on 28th October 1628, she was part of a fleet of eight ships on their way to Batavia – now known as Jakarta – in the Dutch East Indies. With gold, silver precious jewels and artefacts on board, the expedition was all about bringing precious spices back to Europe.

While Francisco Pelsaert commanded the overall fleet, Aerian Jacobsz was Batavia’s skipper. As a result of previous events in India where he argued furiously with Pelsaert, Jacobsz determined to steer the Batavia away from the rest of the fleet, start a mutiny, throw Pelsaert overboard and anyone loyal to him, use the attractive women for the crew’s pleasure, dispose of the hags and the brats, and use the vessel as a pirate ship to plunder the V.O.C and other merchant ships on the high seas.

 

The plan was sound and uncomplicated, but evil – and was only undone by a stupid navigational mistake and a refusal to take notice of a well placed lookout.  On the night of the 3rd June 1629, the conspirators, with the charismatic and vicious Jeronimus Cornelisz to the fore, all met in the steerage cabin.  Francisco Pelsaert, unaware that mutiny was afoot, had again been ill (probably with malaria) and was confined to his bunk. 

 

Jacobsz had taken the night watch and by his reckoning from the positioning of the moon on the previous day, the ship was at least 600 miles from land. Therefore he did not have the slightest concern that they would be near any reefs. They had been at sea for 211 days, and as far as the skipper was concerned, there had been no incident of note to report.  It was a full moon with the light shining on the ocean, gusts of wind were blowing, and there was no sign of squall or tempest. Around midnight, the ship had already sailed safely past the first of the reefs without anyone noticing.

 

The Batavia continued surging ahead at full speed unknowingly towards the Houtman Abrolhos reefs (Wallabi Islands off the West Australian coast) and its date with disaster.  It was now the early hours of the morning, the decks were nearly empty except for the men on watch with Jacobsz and the lookout Hans Bosschieter.  In two hours it would be daylight and then Ariaen Jacobsz would be able to slip into a warm bed with his paramour Zwaantje.

 

It was sometime after 3am in the morning when the lookout watch Hans Bosschieter first saw a sign of impending danger.  Peering into the blackness of the night, from his high position at the stern, he could distinguish what appeared to be a mass of white spray straight ahead.  Hans then shouted out to the skipper.  Jacobsz, over confidently believing in his own calculations, dismissed the lookout’s observation as being the reflection of moonlight on the waves and so they held their course.  

 

Before the mutiny could take place, and early on the morning of 4th June, 1629 the Batavia, with full sails and at top speed, crashed into Morning Reef off Beacon Island and was impaled.  In that moment of impact the rudder was half ripped away, then a second later the ship’s bow smashed into the main part of the reef.  The Batavia’s forward momentum had raised her up out of the water to slam onto the reef with her timbers splintering and the hull shuddering violently from the impact.

With great difficulty, many survivors were landed by longboat on Beacon Island – while many of the crew contented themselves with breaking into the brandy barrels with obvious results.

 

Pelsaert needed assistance to sail the surviving longboat back to the Dutch East Indies and summon help. This time Jacobsz had no option – and performed what is perhaps one of the greatest navigational feats in maritime history, a journey of 1200 miles.  Upon reaching Batavia, Jacobsz was thrown into prison.  Pelsaert returned  to the Abrolhos in the Sardam to rescue the survivors and the cargo.  In the meantime, fuelled by drink and mutinous desires, which were now thwarted by the disaster, the prospective mutineers ran amok, murdering and raping for pleasure on Beacon Island.  By the time Pelsaert returned, opposing camps (mutineers and loyal troops) were fighting it out, and over two hundred passengers had been murdered by the henchman of the deranged psychopath Jeronimus Cornelisz.

 

Dutch justice and retribution was swift, brutal and bloody with numerous executions on Beacon Islands, and other mutineers dragged back to Batavia Castle in chains.

 

The evidence of the events can even be vividly witnessed today; the scarred reef where the Batavia smashed aground in the dark of night under full sail, the primitive forts where the mutinous horde was kept at bay by Wiebbe Hays and his lightly armed companions and Beacon Island where the ship’s passengers were systematically raped, butchered and slaughtered by drunken and debauched mutineers. When you visit the Abrolhos, you are standing on the site of the most monstrous mutiny in recorded maritime history.

 

And what’s the best way to experience this horrific tragedy at first hand?  Well, the answer to that is that you really need an all round view – from the air and on the ground – and that’s why the Abrolhos Islands flight offered by Kalbarri Air is such an incredible experience. You can only appreciate the extent of the damaged reef from the air, and take in the scope of the Islands which were held by mutineers and desperate defenders respectively.

 

At the same time, thanks to Kalbarri Air’s ability to land on the Abrolhos Islands, you can emotionally place yourself into the shoes of the defenders as they beat off the latest attack.  This is as vivid and ‘in your face’ as history can get.  And just as a reminder that real people were involved – and suffered – you only have to visit the WA Maritime Museum in Fremantle to see the butchered, scarred remains of one of the victims, the shattered timbers of Batavia’s stern, and salvaged cannons, silver and precious cargo.

 

You can read about it all in four splendid books on the subject *, and if you are interested in history, a visit to the WA Maritime Museum is a must. There is however, no better way of transporting yourself back almost 400 years than to visit the Abrolhos Islands yourself – to see where it all happened, imagine the trauma, and absorb the atmosphere.

Where to find more information on the Abrolhos Islands

Books on the Batavia

  • Voyage to Disaster  – published in the 1950s by West Australian historian, Henrietta Drake Brockman   
  • Islands of Angry Ghosts’– published in 1963, by journalist/diving enthusiast Hugh Edwards
  • Batavia’s Graveyard’ – published 2001 by Mike Dash
  • The Wreck of the Batavia ­– 2007 published by Simon Leys

Useful Websites