Cairns, Australia and The Great Barrier Reef 1977-82

I had the amazing experience to live and work as a fisherman on the Great Barrier Reef for several years during the late 70’s – early 80’s.  I grew up working on fishing boats out of Kona, Hawaii.  Big Blue Marlin was the draw, and the deep, mostly calm blue water off the Kona Coast is one of the few places on the map one goes for the Blue Marlin experience.   But to those in the know, the pinnacle big-game fishing experience is ‘down under’, off the Great Barrier Reef of Australia’s Queensland coast and the wind-blown Coral Sea.

For those big-game fisherman who can afford it, the ultimate  big-fish experience is to travel to the Great Barrier Reef to spend 1-2 weeks fishing for Giant Black Marlin.  Whereas one might see a 1000+ pound Blue Marlin once or twice a year off the Kona Coast, that could easily be a daily occurrence on the GBR.  In the same way anglers are drawn to the GBR for the big Blacks, it is also the ultimate big-game fishing experience for those Captains and crew members of game-fishing boats the world over.  To fish a season – mid-Sept through mid-Dec – on the GBR fishing for Giant Black Marlin is the ultimate proving ground.

My first Marlin experience was from the back deck of the Valkyrie II, skippered by Fred Erickson, from that original generation of skippers along with Henry Chee, Rope Nelson, George Parker,  among others, which preceded the generation helmed by Peter Wright, Bobby Brown, Willie Erickson, Butch Chee, Bart Miller, Peter Hoogs, etc. I was in awe of these guys…going on board the Malia or the Blue Hawaii for the first time was a big deal. Fred was the father of Wille who had married my sister, Michelle. Wille went on to skipper the Hale Akaine and then the Finest Kind, a 37′ Merritt, at that time the third Merritt in Kona waters, behind the Black Bart and the No Problem.

Before I got into fishing, I was a crew aboard the TSMV Jeannie Marie, which, along with the Capt. Cook, took tourists en mass from Kailua pier on a leisurely motor down the coast to Kealakekua Bay, at which point we would load thirty or so guests at a time aboard a glass-bottom boat on permanent tether in the bay.  It was a great crew and a great time aboard the Jeannie Marie.  I was the only (and first) Haole to work on the boat. The Captain was Henry Akuna, 2nd mate was Gilbert Gaspar (now a police officer in Kona), and the two other crew were two Hawaiians named Jack and Jake. Jack was older, heaver set, friendly and smiling all the time. Jake was tall and slim, much young than Jack but much older than me. Gilbert got me the job…we lived together for several years at Michelle and Wille’s house in Kona Heights. Gilbert was also a Karate black belt, and it was he who got me into the discipline of self-defense.  So, after motoring a ways into the bay, me and the other crew would jump over the side with a handful of bread and dive down below the glass to feed the fish for the tourists looking down from above. At 15 years old, I got pretty good at getting down and staying down, but nothing like Jake and Jack, but especially Jack. He would often go down to seventy-eighty feet and hang out there.  At my best I was good for maybe 2+ minutes underwater whereas Jack could stay down for 4 minutes, no problem.  All in all, growing up on the Kona Coast was a pretty magical experience.

But I digress…

So, one day after a long day fishing I was at Huggos having a beer with the boys when Peter B. Wright flat out asked me when I was going to do a season on the GBR.  He added, “you ought to go, it’ll make a man out of you”.  There’s no shame in knowing when someone is right, so I said I was interested and Peter gave me the number of a captain in Cairns who was looking for a crew for the season. At that time, only a handful of Kona crew had made the journey, including, of course, Peter Wright.  Others were Bart Miller, Jeff Fay, David Beaude and one or two others, not many.

I was not yet a Captain, and knowing I needed the experience, I kept the number and that Sunday I called long distance international to Captain Peter Bristow and explained the referral; we talked and after a few minutes he said to come on down and he’d try me out.  So I did.  Most game boats that fished the GBR were set up with a captain and two crew, one to ‘wire’ the fish and the other to either tag or gaff the fish.  Peter  was only interested in having one crew, so that’s the way we worked.  Back then Peter had a number of early season charters so we would fish around Dunk Island beginning in July/August then move up the reef to Lizard Island for August/September.  October, November and the first half of December was generally spent on the edge of the GBR, camped out on a mother ship. Here are some pics:

Captain Peter Bristow

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Bristow’s boat, The Avalon, in the bay at Lizard Island.

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The Avalon, tethered to a ‘mother ship’, somewhere on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef.

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In the bay at Lizard Island.

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Captain Peter B. Wright & The Hooker, Lizard Island.

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Jeff Fay on the deck of The Hooker

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McGrew Rice

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On deck…

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‘The Mothership” – TSMV Petaj on the bay at Lizard Island.

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4 Comments on “Cairns, Australia and The Great Barrier Reef 1977-82”

  1. JohnH says:

    Very enjoyable material from an expert who worked with Pete Bristow, today both are rare modern-legends of the sea.

  2. Di Doreian says:

    Hi there!
    Love your article!
    Can I ask if you have any more shots of the TSMV Petaj or Marlin boat ‘Betelguese’?
    Petaj was skippered by my father, and later we owned Betelguese.
    would LOVE any more images you may have.
    Best Regards,

  3. Anonymous says:

    Cool article! I crewed on the Petaj in 1987 on Flynn Reef…when they were a scuba diving operation. I would love more pictures as well!

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