Montebello Islands, WA - A-Bombs and Bloody Big Fish
​Dateline: May 2013
Lying low off the WA coast, as if hiding from their dramatic past, the Montebello Islands are rarely visited desert isles that provide some of the most exciting fishing available on the planet. We set sail to discover what other treasures and hidden secrets they hold.
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A happy group of fishermen with a mornings catch.
The wide back deck of the boat was in thinly disguised turmoil. One minute the lures were being run out and set and then next second four reels went off, all at the same time. Four rods bent double as people snatched them from their holders and set the hooks and then slowly wound the line in, the flash of silver colouring the deep blue water below the stern of the boat as the fish lost the battle with lure and man.
 
Trying to control the melee on the deck, Bennie the deckhand, was issuing directions about not bringing all four fish onto the deck all at the same time. Some of us listened but in the excitement some forgot and we had two good size Spanish mackerels flapping around before Bennie got control of them, removed the hooks and flicked the fish back in the water. No sooner had the lures hit the water and they were taken again, the reels screaming in protest, and once again somebody made a lunge for a rod and set the hooks. 
In the next 10 minutes I'm not sure how many fish came aboard, were released, and as soon as the lure went back into the water were taken again. Whatever, we kept a couple of nice fish who had been damaged in the hook-up and then, tiring of the action, we went looking for something else.

Twenty minutes later one of the reels went wild and as somebody grabbed the rod and set the hook, the reel kept running as if the lure was attached to an express train. 'We've got ourselves a saily',  yelled Bennie, and Sean, who had been lucky enough to grab the rod, settled back for a bit of a fight, clipping the butt of the rod into his belt holder.
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Bennie the deckhand, Sean and Ant with one of the three sailfish to come aboard.
Twenty-five minutes later a flash of silver and dark blue below the boat made us think the fish was near spent, but with the sight of the boat this sleek beauty made a deep dive stripping line from the reel once more. Another five minutes went by before we sighted him again and this time he was brought aboard, Bennie grabbing the leader, then the bill and hauling this magnificent fish onto the marlin board below the main deck. The lure was slipped from him, a few pics were taken and then we gently put him back into the water, washing water over his gills, oxygenating his bloodstream, his strength building to the stage we had no option but to let him go.

The buzz on deck as we watched the fish vanish into the deep was incredible. Everybody was on a high – but the action hadn't finished.
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Loading the boat for departure from Exmouth - we never went thirsty!
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The houseboat 'Full Monte' in Claret Bay.
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Fun times on the back deck of the Full Monte.
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Sunset paints the sky red over the islands.
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Viv on the main beach of Trimouille Island where the 1st A-bomb was exploded just offshore.
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Ospreys nest around the islands.
We were on board Kylin, a 65-foot Westcoaster and about 10 nautical miles west of the Montebello Islands in the northwest of WA, where our floating base was anchored in a protected bay of one of the islands.

The Montes, as most old salts and new visitors call them, consist of 250 low lying islands and islets about 80km offshore from the mainland at the closest point, while from Exmouth, where our trip had started, they were about 120km north.  The Montebello Islands Marine Park now protects more than 58,000 hectares of ocean surrounding the islands, all of which are included in the Montebello Islands Conservation Park.

Because of the islands isolation and lack of development a number of rare and endangered animals have been released on the islands after a 10-year campaign to eradicate feral cats from these specks of desert rock and sand.

Still, the islands haven't always been so peaceful or idyllic. 
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There's plenty of places to explore on the islands.
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This cave acted as a post office and a refuge for early mariners
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This man-made sea wall was the site of the first pearling lease on the islands in 1902.
In 1622 the 46 survivors of the wreck of the British ship, Trial, managed to reach the islands, becoming the first Europeans to land on these islands ... or anywhere on the WA coast. Most of the survivors from what is now considered the oldest shipwreck on the Australian coast, made it back to Bantam in Java after an open water voyage in two longboats of 1800km.

Nicolas Baudin, the great French navigator, was the next European on the scene, naming the islands when he sailed through them in 1801, being more impressed with them than the even more low lying islands of the Abrolhos Islands further south (Montebello meaning 'beautiful mountain' in Italian ... but you'd have to say that's a bit of an exaggeration when related to these islands). Commercial hunting of turtles started in the 1870s and continued for nearly the next 100 years, while cultural pearls were farmed from 1902 until just recently. 
Still the most dramatic and controversial event that enveloped the islands were the British atomic bomb tests of the 1950s. With the Cold War in full swing in the early 50s, Britain asked Australia if it could test a couple of A-bombs on Australian shores and our government of the day said, 'Yeah, why not!'  

The British set up their headquarters on a hill overlooking Claret Bay at the southern end of Hermite Island, the biggest of the islands in the group. The building (which still stands) had a grand view to the north where the A-bombs were eventually to be detonated.

The first test, which was the first British A-bomb explosion ever and the first A-bomb test to be carried out in Australia, (Emu and Maralinga in SA may be more well known, but they came later), was christened, Operation Hurricane.  This was a 25 kilotonne bomb (Kt, or the equivalent of 25,000 tonnes of TNT) and was detonated on 3rd October 1952 on board the frigate, HMS Plym, which was anchored off Main Beach on the western side of Trimouille Island. The ship was basically vaporised when the bomb went off. By all accounts a large piece of the ship's boiler can still be seen in the 6-metre deep, 300m long crater that still exists on the ocean floor, while high flying scraps of ship's metal can still be found on nearby Trimouille Island. 
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A-bomb site on Alpah Island is peacefull now.
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'Operation Hurricane' 3rd Oct 1952, was the first A-bomb test in Australia and blew the frigate 'HMS Plym' into oblivion.
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Ruins of the old British HQ's still stand on the highest point of Hermite Island.
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Sean crawls out of the underground bunker manned during the A-bomb blasts.
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Remains of a A-bomb blast measuring device on the island.
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Ron and Viv, at one of the A-Bomb sites.
The second test – Operation Mosaic G1 – was detonated on the 16th May 1956 and was a 15Kt blast set on a 30-metre high tower at the northern end of Trimouille Island.

The final and third test on the islands – Operation Mosaic G2 – was on the 19th June 1956, which was detonated on Alpha Island. Again it was on a tower and rated as a 98Kt blast; it remains the biggest explosion ever to happen in Australia.

All the islands were closed off to public access from then on, till 1989 when after a safety survey the islands were reopened to pearling and to the occasional visitor.
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A-bomb monument and old tramway line on Alpha Island.
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Dot hangs around waiting for a feed.
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Dot, one of the giant groper always wins the tug-of-war for fish!

Our trip had started at Exmouth and after boarding and meeting the crew and other travellers we got away at about 11am. Cruising at a steady 15 knots and after stopping to fish a bommie for an hour or so, we arrived at the houseboat in Claret Bay at about 8pm. 
From my diary on the first evening on board the Full Monte:
Then a bloody big groper came out from under the houseboat - this was  'Dot' (named because of a mark on top of its head) and he/she didn't hang around for long to be replaced by a smaller (about 1.5metre long and 200kg in weight) but more dominant fish, 'Don', who the skipper fed with a small golden trevally.  Whether they are male or female nobody is sure - but most big groper change sex and end up female (I think that's the way they go).
It was a spectacular hand feed with the fish warily sidling out from under the boat and then in an explosion of energy lunging up and grabbing the fish, which was held just above the surface. Ben has had his hand grabbed a few times by this big fish, but it was hard trying to get a pic!
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Ron with one of the many spanish mackeral brought aboard in just a few minutes of hectic action.
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Will with a monster emperor.
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Bennie, the deckie, with a big Rankin cod that was put back to fight another day.
For the next two days we fished for reef species hauling on board our bag limit of emperor, red emperor, Rankin cod, coral trout, perch and more. Our day of trolling for pelagics when we had all hell break loose on the back deck of the Kylin was our last day of concentrated fishing, but how much time you spend fishing is really up to you. Some of our crew went game fishing off the rocks chasing big GT (giant trevally) on lures and flies.

We spent a day or two between fishing and snorkelling to explore the islands and visit the bomb sites. Small monuments mark the two land-based blast sites, and while wandering the islands you'll still find the scattered remains of monitoring equipment, old generators, the remains of a Jeep and even an observation dugout that was less than 1km from the blast at the northern end of Trimouille Island. 
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Craig with a fish the sharks got before he got!
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Sharks are common around the islands and out deeper.
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Diving the coral studded reefs of the Montebellos is one of the great experiences of visiting these remote islands.
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Green turtles are commonly seen.
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Tinnies waiting for some action.
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Jet powered 'Nemo' is a great dive and fishing boat.
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You can find a beach to yourself in the Montebellos.
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Our chef, about to turn a fresh cray into a delightful meal!
The last evening, after a meal of fresh caught crayfish and red emperor marinated and cooked to perfection by our young chef, we watched the sun go down for a final time from our floating accommodation, fed the giant gropers who live much of their life under the boat for the last time, and then slipped on board Kylin for the run back to mainland.  Matt, the young but well experienced skipper, ran the boat out through the narrow channel and between the reefs, his eyes glued to the GPS scanner as he turned the boat south. On our port bow the flares from gas towers on Varanus Island and then the bigger Barrow Island slipped by, the islands of the Montebello group slipping quickly below the horizon as we sailed south.
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Fresh tuna sushimi anyone?
We'll never be going back, but many keen fishermen make it an annual pilgrimage. Still we were more than glad to visit and experience these isolated islands and have the opportunity to partake in some of the best fishing on the planet ... you should give it a try!
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Claret Bay is a well protected anchorage.
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Yachties hide amongst the convoluted shores of the islands.
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Small waders feed along the wave wash sand.
Montebello Island Safaris
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'Kylin' on the way to the fishing hot spots.
The charter boat operator, Montebello Safaris, operates from Exmouth on North West Cape, Western Australia, running week long adventures to the Montebello Islands. The 65’ Kylin is the mother ship and fishing platform, while accommodation is provided in the 14-berth Full Monte houseboat anchored in Claret Bay at the southern end of the convoluted Hermite Island. The 25-foot diesel powered jet boat, Nemo, is used as a highspeed touring and diving platform around the islands, while three small 14-foot alloy runabouts with 15hp outboards are provided for clients to fish and do their own thing in and around the closer islands to the Full Monte
With 19 years of fishing, diving and surfing experience in and around these islands, Montebello Safaris know these waters better than anyone else. For more details visit: montebello.com.au, or give Jim a call, ph: (0419) 091 670.
Visiting the Islands
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The mouth of the Fortescue River is the closest mainland spot to the islands where you can launch a boat.
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Map Sanctuary Fishing Zones
You can visit these islands in your own boat but you must take adequate fuel, water, food and first aid supplies as no services or facilities are available.

The closest boat launching spot on the mainland is the Fortesque River mouth - about 42Nm or 80km away – a long run in a small boat!

Visitors to the Montebello Islands may camp (except during turtle nesting season from October-April) on the beaches of Northwest, Primrose, Bluebell, Crocus, Hermite and Renewal islands.

Camping is allowed within 100 metres of the high-water mark. Select a site that looks as though it may have been used before.
Maximum duration is five nights.

Take a portable fuel stove (not heat beads), as open fires are not permitted on the islands.

The islands offer great fishing, diving and surfing.

Fishing is restricted to the areas marked on the DEC map. Download the Montebello Islands Marine Park brochure that details the different management areas of the islands at: https://parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/sites/default/files/downloads/parks/2009177_montebello_islands_mp_brochure.pdf

Diving is best during times of neap tides as currents are strong at other times resulting in stirred up dirty water.
Good surf breaks can be found along the outside edge of the offshore reefs.

Calmest weather, wind wise, is generally during April or August.
​Copyright Ron & Viv Moon