Magnetic Island

Next stop: Magnetic Island (known affectionately as “Maggie” by locals…. Australians truly love to shorten every name).

Maggie is a 52 square km island, located 8km off the coast. We left the cars in Townsville and took the ferry over.

On the island, we found grocery stores, cute cafes, and paved roads. Maggie has a little over 2000 permanent residents, in addition to the tourists buzzing around the island. Transportation around the island is fairly easy – the side roads are dirt but the main roads are all paved. There are buses every half hour that go from one side of the island to another. However, the main method of (tourist) transportation around the island is hiring either a very tiny car or a scooter. We went for the scooters.

Photo from Karin.

It took a little practice to get the hang of them, but they were overall very easy to drive. It was so much fun scooting all over the island. The speed limit on Maggie is just 50km/h everywhere, which was nice – the scooters couldn’t go any faster than that anyway, and you didn’t have to feel bad about massively holding up traffic.

We scooted over to the other side of the island to start. The north side of the island had another section of cute little shops, takeaways, and some accommodation. We stayed at the cutest little hostel there. Each dorm room was inside its own little bungalow:

We spent three days on Maggie, time passing easily as we explored the islands. Our group would often go off in different directions during the day (a couple people hiking, a few people snorkelling, others sleeping in) and then we would all meet up in the evenings.

Highlights from Maggie included:

The Fort walk, with old structures left over from WWII, and incredible views from the top:

Finding wild koalas on the Fort walk trail!!

Magnetic Island, with over 800 koalas, has the highest koala density of Australia. Koalas that live on the island also tend to be a bit smaller than their mainland counterparts:

Photo from Dev.

Exploring some of the bays around the island. Some are only accessible by hiking several kilometres to get to them. Some are nudist beaches.

Hiking trail overlooking Arthur Bay:

My favourite was Radical Bay. Estef and I hiked there together one morning. There were only three other people on the whole beach with us. There was also, quite randomly, a piano there:

While exploring the piers at the south end of the island, we saw a fisherman pull up the weirdest thing. It turned out that his hook had somehow snagged on the back of a stone fish – the deadliest fish in Australia. This fish camouflages to look like a rock or a piece of coral in the ocean. If you accidentally step on it, it releases venom that is extremely painful and can even be fatal (this is one of several good reasons not to step on coral – not only is it bad for the coral, but you never know what you might accidentally touch):

Photo from Dev.

The fisherman let everyone gather around and take a look (stone fish can survive up to 24 hours out of the water!), then threw the fish back into the ocean.

Walking along the pier at the south end. In the distance, those hills are mainland Australia:

Snorkelling around Magnetic Island was also very fun – at times. There are several good spots around the island for snorkelling, with coral reef a short distance from shore, as well as a couple of old wrecks to look at. In the designated snorkel areas, there are lines to indicate where the best stuff is look at – you swim out to them, then follow them around. These lines aren’t to be confused with the shark drum lines, which are around about 1km off shore, and which are intended to keep sharks away from snorkellers and swimmers.

The most dramatic moment of the trip came during snorkelling one day at Geoffrey Bay. The bay had lots of shallow coral around one side, which gradually got deeper until you could swim just above it. The intended route in, however, was via an old boat ramp, which put you straight into the deep water. From there, you could swim out to the lines that marked where an old plane wreck lay, visible about 10m under the surface.

I was out with Estef, Dev, and Veronica. We were all snorkelling in roughly the same area, but a bit spread out. I found the plane wreck and some coral and had been out maybe an hour, then was feeling a bit tired and cold, and decided to head back in.

I left the snorkelling area, where visibility was good, and started heading across the deep section, was visibility was pretty low. I was about halfway across when I heard someone yelling.

I popped my head out of the water to hear properly. It took about five times before my brain registered what was happening. Veronica, already on shore, was yelling at me as loudly as possible: “Shark! There’s a shark! Get out of the water!”

My first thought was that maybe she was overreacting at the sight of a reef shark. Reef sharks are typically only a couple feet long and harmless. It would be a treat to see one.

“How big is it?” I yelled back.

I’m amazed Veronica didn’t start pulling her hair out from frustration. “It’s big enough!” she yelled back, and said again: “Get out of the water!”

‘Big enough’ sounded like a shark I did not want to be beside. I couldn’t see it anywhere around me but the people on shore (by now, there were multiple people yelling at the snorkellers to get out) seemed to be gesturing that it was close to the boat dock.  

I started swimming, as quickly and calmly as I could, towards the shallows. Dev and Estef, both still in the water, had made it to the shallower area already, and Dev kept yelling at me: “Don’t panic!”

As soon as I could, I stood up. The water was still up to my knees, and I started walking. Then I turned around and finally saw the fin. It was massive; you could see both the fin and a large tail sticking out over the water. The people on shore later told me the shark was about two metres long. It wasn’t in the deep end anymore, it was in the shallower waters, and it was swimming straight at me.

My instinct was to stop moving (maybe honed from summers in the Rockies, and countless wildlife encounters that taught me to simply do as little as possible and let the animal move away on their own). I was near a large bed of kelp, so I took a big step over, stood behind it, and stood absolutely still.

Dev continued yelling out helpful tips: “Don’t panic! If it comes near you, just punch it in the eyes. But don’t panic!”

As soon as I stopped moving around and splashing in the water, the shark turned away from me and swam in a different direction.

I gave it a couple seconds and then walked quickly into the shallowest waters, reuniting with Estef and Dev. Hearts racing, we all made our way slowly along the bank (exposed from low tides), stepping carefully as we could around sharp rocks and bits of coral (luckily no stonefish!) until we got back to the road and pulled ourselves up.

Feet cut up from the coral and adrenaline still going, we reunited with Veronica, who had been very worried about us. Apparently she had been at the boat ramp, nearly out of the water herself, when she saw all the fish swimming and trying to jump out of the water around her. She got out quickly and saw the shark, then started yelling at us.

Based on the markings on the tail, the size, and our location, we think it was either a very large reef shark or an average size tiger shark (tiger sharks are the 2nd most deadly shark in the world, and known for being both the most inquisitive and most aggressive around snorkellers). Being attacked by a shark is still unlikely, and I don’t think we were ever really in any danger, but it certainly got the heart rate going.

We headed back to the hostel with a story to tell our friends. That night, I decided that life is short (based on my experience with the shark approach). I bought myself a pizza for dinner, some happy hour champagne, and toasted:

 To another day of adventure.

One comment

  1. What a beautiful place Magnetic Island must be! I am so very happy that you were not harmed by a shark. You are certainly having a magnificent experience Caelan! Living the dream :))))). I’m happy you have found your “tribe” to hang out with….friendships that may last a lifetime!! Love, AJ

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