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.

Beautiful example, a coral formation in The Swain Reefs not effected by boat anchors or starfish.

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.


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Wally Muller (pictured on the surface) was a former pro fishermen who took-up diving. Very unusual. Most fishermen were too scared of sharks to enter the water – not Wally.

During the Belgian Expedition I clicked this shot. No details of where it was, most probably in The Swains Reefs. Wally was a master navigator of this region in the era before reliable charts were available.

On 2nd thoughts I now wonder if those unusual mounds of coral were part of an old shipwreck since covered with live coral?

Further north at Yonge Reef, near Lizard Island, I photographed French author Bernard Gorsky using his Hassleblad and underwater case – the first Hassleblad housing seen in Australia.  It was 1967.

This picture became a cover for the original Australian SKINDIVERS Magazine.

LAST DAYS OF CORALITA ……First scuba dive boat

In 1992 Coralita exploded and sank in Cairns. There was nobody aboard. Mystery surrounded the accident.

Alby was suspected by some, (dive boat oppositions especially),  of personally causing the loss. Two insurance company investigations cleared him.

It is believed recharging battery fumes (in the water-tight engine room) was ignited by a sparking electric bilge pump. BOOM. The sides and deck above were turned into splinters. The boat sank in 30 seconds.

During this final era with Coralita, Alby (a former pro abalone diver) ran a very slick dive boat. He mastered underwater photography in a matter of months, learning much from the guests who included the top international names. He used three motor drive Nikon’s with strobes. Discovered schooling hammerhead sharks at Osprey Reef.

His future plan was bigger and better live-aboard dive boats.

Alby was on the eve of expanding the  trips to include Papua New Guinea when the boat was lost.

(It wasn’t the only serious problem the boat had. Previously a giant US Navy ship had crushed her against the city wharf – splitting internal structural timbers and resulting in months of lost revenue eventually poorly compensated for).

The sunken wreck was salvaged, sold for one thousand dollars and slowly rebuilt.

Today she operates under a new name Bell Cay from her original home port of Yeppoon.

In August 2010 Bell Cay encountered a severe storm in The Swain Reefs.