Western Australia’s Montgomery Reef and the Mystery of the Tribe’s Disappearance

It’s 9.30am on a blue bird’s day on the isolated Kimberley coast, and we’re speeding across the ocean in search of Australia’s Atlantis. As many wish the mythical sunken city of ancient Greece could one day do, Kimberley’s 400 square kilometer Montgomery Reef miraculously rises out of the ocean every day at low tide – and we’re about to. to see it happen.

“Montgomery Reef is completely unique in the world,” shouts our APT naturalist guide, a bright-eyed young Kiwi named Steve Todd, above the hum of our Zodiac’s engine. “For this phenomenon to exist, you need to have huge tides, like the four to 10 meter tides here, and the type of reef that can survive by going in and out of the water twice a day.”

Within minutes, our Zodiac enters the main channel that meanders through the exposed coral reef and we gaze breathlessly at hundreds of mini waterfalls gushing from the top. Egrets and frigatebirds fall like sparks from the sky to grab their morning seafood feast from the small chasms that mark the reef, while a now unprotected green sea turtle rushes to the safety of the sea.

Montgomery Reef, Todd tells us as we skirt its shimmering surface, was named by naval officer Phillip Parker King for his ship’s surgeon, Andrew Montgomery, during their exploration of the Kimberley Coast in 1820 But the reef and its surrounding islands had already been inhabited by indigenous people for thousands of years before.

Todd points to a few small globes of land on the eastern edge of the reef, known as the High Cliffy Islands, and tells us that they were once home to a tribe that mysteriously disappeared. “The Yawijibaya have lived on the main island, which is only a kilometer long and 300 meters wide, for nearly 7,000 years,” he says, shielding his eyes from the late morning sun flashing on the reef.

The Yawijibaya, a tribe of about 300 people, were nicknamed the “Giants of the North” by passing ships and explorers, as some were seven feet tall. “Their lives were tied to the massive tides, and they rode the currents to Montgomery Reef on mangrove rafts to collect food, including sea turtles and dugongs, stingrays and fish,” Todd explains.

In 1929 a film crew traveled to the High Cliffy Islands and filmed the Yawijibaya (you can still find clips of this video on Youtube), fishing and rafting and transporting 150 kilogram sea turtles on their shoulders.

When the crew returned shortly after this first visit to do more research, however, the Yawijibaya had disappeared without a trace. “There are stories of tsunamis and tribal wars, even alien abductions,” Todd says. “But the most sensible and likely theory is that they just integrated into other indigenous communities in the area.”

Whether the reason is rational or not, the disappearance of the Yawijibaya remains one of the greatest mysteries in the Northwest and only accentuates the idiosyncratic nature of Montgomery Reef.

As we continue to explore, searching for reef sharks and manta rays, and gasping when dozens of turtles pop up to breathe, Todd makes us ponder another anomaly: how does this reef manage to survive the temperatures extremes out of the water? While the world’s coral reefs are in peril due to rising ocean temperatures, Montgomery’s corals have become remarkably hardy, Todd says, as they are exposed to extreme air temperatures every day when they come out of the water.

“Scientists are in the process of taking coral from this reef and planting it on the Great Barrier Reef, to see how it does,” Todd explains. As time is running out to tackle global environmental issues, the resilience of Montgomery Reef offers some hope for the future. As we return to our luxurious expedition cruise ship, I turn to watch this mysterious Atlantis recede into the distance, soon to disappear beneath the waves again.

Nina Karnikowski traveled as a guest of APT.



APT’s 10-day Greater Kimberley Coast cruise from Broome to Darwin (or vice versa) aboard MS Caledonian Sky costs from $10,995 pp, twin sharing. See aptouring.com.au



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