Pelorus and Orpheus Islands
Introduction: These two islands are the northern-most islands of the Palm Group within the Halifax Bay region. They are separated by a channel approximately 800m across. Combined, they provide many kilometres of shoreline and fringing reef, which offers hundreds of potential dive sites. The following site profiles were assembled from both shore-based and boat dives, and are grouped under; Pelorus, Channel, and Orpheus. NQUEC names are used for the Pelorus and Channel dive sites, and common map names are used for the Orpheus dive sites.
Pelorus Island (or North Palm) is a relatively small island at 2.9 km long by 1.7 km wide, and lies approximately 16 km east of Lucinda. The island is surrounded by Habitat Protected inshore fringing reef (dark blue zone), and the land is managed by the local Hinchinbrook Shire Council. Wilderness camping (meaning campers must be fully self-sufficient) is permitted on the island without a booking (current as at late 2018).
Front Reef: This site is named in relation to where the club usually establishes a group campsite, i.e. it’s immediately to our front. Behind the island’s north-western beach, a creek runs down from the ridge line to a point about 250m above the southern end of the beach. I recommend entering the water in front of this creek as the inter-tidal zone here holds less coral rubble, which makes walking with your gear and donning your fins a little easier. I personally define the boundary for this site as being 200m north and 100m south of where this creek terminates behind the beach. Once you move out beyond the coral rubble you will find a gentle reef slope and a nice little wall between 6m and 10m, broken up in places by sand patches and colonies of low-lying staghorn coral. On a high tide, small reef sharks and even juvenile manta rays hunt around in the shallows, and in winter months keep an eye out for humpback whales traversing the Palm Island Passage. This site also makes an excellent night dive, and as long as you stay reasonably close and shallow; the glow from a beach campfire provides a useful navigation aid, plus a reminder of what good things await if you are feeling cold and wet!
Northern Point: This site extends from ‘Front Reef’ up to and just beyond the end of the beach. It follows the same shallow reef wall, although it is referred to as a separate site because of how different the terrain becomes as you approach the point. Depth at the point increases to around 15m and the wall becomes less recognisable, with detached rocks and coral bommies jutting out down towards deeper water. This area has some small swim-throughs between bommies, and you can almost always find barramundi-cod and sweetlips under ledges around these structures. This site also holds large coral trees which seem to act as ‘mini-habitats’, sometimes containing juvenile bat fish and lion fish, tiny glass fish, plus mussels and other filter-feeders.
Note: The outgoing tide at this site can produce a hefty current running in a northerly direction.
Southern Wall: This site name describes the shallow reef wall which starts approximately 100m south of where the creek terminates behind the beach. As you move south away from ‘Front Reef’, the coral rubble gives way to shallow coral gardens. At about 5m you will find sandy patches sloping away gently to deeper water, and then a uniquely-shaped coral bommie at around 7m. This bommie looks very much like a ‘corner’, and sometimes becomes a focal point for two opposing currents. It marks the start of ‘Southern Wall’, which runs all the way south into the next bay at a depth of between 10m to 16m. A good way to dive ‘Southern Wall’ is to head south along the base of the wall until you reach your group’s pre-determined turn-around tank pressure, and then return in shallow water at the top of the wall. As you move along the wall, also keep an eye out to deeper water, as large pelagic fish such as trevally and mackerel often patrol this area.
‘Southern Wall’ is heavily populated by sea fans (gorgonians) and barrel sponges, and it also seems to be favoured by reef scientists; as you will often see experiments in among the corals. Take your time on this dive, as we’ve made some interesting small-critter finds here such as; slipper lobster, octopus, eels, and intricate nudibranchs. Also look out for an impressive 6 foot tall black coral tree at the base of the wall in about 12m.
House Mooring: A house is located on the south-western tip of Pelorus Island above a beautiful little sandy beach, with a mooring just off-shore in about 10m of water. The first time I visited this site, I intended to complete a large circuit dive in front of the house, but we found the shallow reef wall so good, we just kept following it all the way into the channel. A small colony of giant clams can be found in shallow water close to the house, and the area also seems to suit smaller marine life such as; Christmas tree worms, feather stars, nudibranchs, painted crayfish, and cleaner shrimp. We’ve seen pelagic fish here too, although the site does receive some fishing attention, with lost tackle being a fairly common site. I also recommend staying clear of the mangrove-lined shore to the north of the house, as the coral cover here becomes fairly sparse.
Note: Before attempting to use the mooring buoy here, we recommend checking its conditions of use, as it may now be a private mooring for use only by the holder of the house lease.
Channel Diving: Prevailing south-easterly breezes and strong currents can make diving here challenging, but if you are patient and plan your dives at slack-water, then you can be rewarded with excellent visibility and some great structure. The approximate mid-point of the channel is a GBRMPA zone boundary, with the Pelorus side being Habitat Protected and the Orpheus side being Marine National Park.
Western Edge: This site begins off the house point and continues along the southern face of Pelorus Island, which also becomes the western edge of the channel (looking out to sea). During winter dives here, we’ve sometimes enjoyed 15m visibility, and even to a back-ground of whale-song! You can dive here from an anchored vessel, or a ‘live’ boat with your skipper following along. Either way, you can cover a large amount of terrain as the reef wall off this section of Pelorus rarely exceeds 14m in depth. The base of the wall houses some very large brain corals, with under-cut sections big enough to be used as swim-throughs. This area also supports many sea fans, possibly due to the channel’s ‘bottle-neck’ effect on tidal flows.
Ray’s Lump: In the mid 2000’s, a group of club members conducted a series of exploratory channel dives from private vessels, choosing their locations according to how the structure looked on fish-finder displays. They found a small pair of closely spaced coral ‘out-crops’ in an area of otherwise featureless terrain, and named the site paying credit to the diver who discovered it. Each coral out-crop is a miniature reef about the size of a tennis court, which rise a few meters above the surrounding sandy bottom in around 16m of water. Both out-crops are elongated, with their longest centre lines orientated in line with the channel.
I was introduced to ‘Ray’s Lump’ in 2007, and I was very impressed by it. My last dives just before ‘Ray’s Lump’ were in PNG, and I made a dive log book entry at the time describing it as being “on par with some of the small reefs near Madang.” This small site is packed full of life, with clouds of fusiliers above each out-crop, and trout, sweetlips, and cod living in and around the hard coral structures. It also appears to have resident blacktip reef sharks which circle the site over the sand.
Note: Even though we’ve omitted the exact location of ‘Ray’s Lump’, we wanted to at-least include an overview for the site; to both promote the channel area and to encourage divers to explore it.
Danger Marks: This site name is a reference to the isolated danger marks which signal the position of shallow water along the Orpheus side of the channel. As you approach the first of these marks, (from the inside of the channel heading out to open water) look out for a large up-right boulder on the Orpheus shoreline which dwarfs the nearby rocks. Move towards the first mark until this boulder is directly over your right shoulder, and then head out away from shore into the channel until you find at-least 5m of depth. A good way to dive here is to swim a large ‘box’ making repetitive 90 degree compass turns.
This is a shallow dive site, but it has some quite interesting terrain. For example, there are gutters in the rock base with walls which have an unusually high degree of accuracy and symmetry. These gutters contain colourful low-lying corals, and also seem to attract juvenile reef fish such as red emperor, coral trout, wrasse, parrot fish, and sweetlips.
Orpheus Island is a relatively large island (in comparison to Pelorus) at around 11 km long by 1 km wide. Most of its inshore fringing reef is Marine National Park (green zone), except for waters between Hazard Bay and the southern tip of the island which are Conservation Park (yellow zone). Orpheus Island has three National Park campgrounds with a range of basic facilities including composting toilets, tables, and gas barbecues. Permits can be obtained through the QLD Department of Environment and Science website. The island is also home to a large James Cook University marine research facility at the southern end of Pioneer Bay.
Note: During the construction of the following content, we reviewed dozens of dive log book entries for club dives all around Orpheus island. In the truest sense of exploratory diving, many were done based on how the visibility appeared on the day, plus what we thought the structure might look like. Therefore, some dives were pretty ‘unremarkable’ and lasted only minutes, whereas others were enjoyable and kept us coming back. So whilst the following sites by no means represent the fullest extent of potential Orpheus sites, they are sites we felt are easy to describe and to access, and which consistently produce good diving.
Iris Point: This point marks both the northern tip of the island, and the start of the channel’s eastern edge (looking out to sea). The reef wall here extends in places down to 15m in depth, and visibility usually ranges from 6m to 10m. I’ve made some memorable fish finds at this site such as; QLD grouper, grey reef sharks, and leopard sharks. This site also has very suitable terrain for painted crayfish, with ledges and cracks often supporting several crayfish living side by side.
OIRS Point: The research station is located at the southern end of Pioneer Bay, which has a large intertidal zone extending out towards the point to the west of the station. This area is great for snorkelling, but divers here on their initial visits quite often tend to stay out wide of the point in search of deeper water. However, it really is worth persevering in the shallows because you will find a pretty little reef wall, and a surprising amount of fish life close to the point. The area has also been used for giant clam research, so it holds some impressive patches of these animals.
Aim to dive here on a high tide, and you will need good buoyancy control, with your gear streamlined and well-restrained. Also ensure you are sufficiently weighted, especially towards the end of the dive as your cylinder becomes more buoyant.
Yanks Jetty: This is the name of the jetty at the northern end of the beach just below Hazard Bay. Its name derives from the use of the area as part of a degaussing station for allied shipping in WWII. It is a popular spot for local day-trippers, island campers, and even Orpheus Island Lodge guests. The location has also been widely promoted through the recent introduction of Sea Link tours for Townsville based day-trip customers.
The mooring section of the jetty is supported by pontoons which allows the structure to move with the tides. The resident fish under this floating section of the jetty are very inquisitive and great fun to snorkel or dive with. Depending on tide, depth under and around the jetty ranges from 4m to 8m. During our last visit, we found large schools of fusilier, jacks, and diamond fish circling around in the shadows under the jetty, but you had to ‘shoo’ the sergeant majors out of the way first. The area surrounding the jetty is also worth exploring, as you can find interesting coral bommies, anemones, and giant clams all within 50m of it.
Note: Depending on how you access this site, you will need to be aware of the no-anchoring areas in the vicinity of the jetty.