Montebello Islands, WA - A-Bombs and Bloody Big Fish
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.