Part of perhaps one million starfish, near Mystery Cay
We were dumbstruck at the sight. Coralita had dropped anchor on the last day of our 10-day ‘Sea Safari’ to The Coral Sea. The charter boat, with 12 experienced divers aboard was returning to the Queensland port of Yeppoon, home base for this (at that time) world-class 79 foot dive boat.
The scene we discovered underwater was worse than anything reported elsewhere. Far worse than the Guam coral reefs of 1969 (which instigated Project Stelaroid to investigate Micronesian corals and Crown of Thorns intensity).
The late Theo Brown had found hundreds of starfish at Slashers Reef, Townsville and obtained black and white pictures for his book, co written with journalist Keith Willey on the subject.
Here we were much further south in the vast reef area of The Swains with possibly the largest concentration of starfish yet seen anywhere, including the Great Barrier Reef.
The starfish we guessed, numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The diving deckhands (Richard Weir and Roy Muller) then collected 1000 starfish using spears and long lines to thread the starfish on, like a needle and thread.
This way we thought an estimate of the population might be obtained. The further we swam from the charter boat showed no decrease in the numbers. Starfish may have been in the million and covered a huge area of lush living coral.
Reef fish hovered above, unable to occupy usual hiding space under coral ledges.
Some months later we returned to what our captain believed was the same location – but it wasn’t. This was the era pre GPS.
We had been on an unnamed reef, “Two reefs east of Mystery Cay” said Capt. Wally Muller.
Today the this reef would have a name or a number.
What became of the Crown of Thorns controversy? At the time it was a marine equivalent of climate change. People seemed to ignore the problem and it just ‘went away’, but not without cost to the reefs.
How did Mystery Cay obtain its unofficial name by the late Captain Wally Muller? Wally explained that he’d sailed past this reef many times without knowing it was there. It was therefore ‘a mystery’ to him.
The name would not have been adopted by authorities years later which makes tracking previous starfish damage impossible.