During the month of October, 1962, Dr Donald McMichael, Curator of Molluscs at the Australian Museum, led an expedition to Swain Reefs. Also taking part in this collecting trip were the Museum's Curator of Crustacea, Dr John Yaldwyn, the Curator of Reptiles, Harold Cogger, and the Curator of Fishes, Gilbert Whitley.

On the 1st of the month, several cars and trucks wove their way through the Waratah Parade in central Sydney to take a ‘mountain of gear’ from the Australian Museum to Pyrmont, ready to be loaded on the motor yacht Coongoola. By the end of the day all ‘the heavy and light equipment [was] manhandled onto the wharf, and by some miracle of compression, all catalogued and cornered in lockers and holds’.

Two days later, Captain Norman Thomas skippered the Coongoola out through Sydney Heads on the way to Swain Reefs. The journey was not particularly comfortable for those on board. The sea was very rough for first few days and seasickness was rife. But worse was to come.

On the afternoon of Friday 5th October the Coongoola hit a submerged reef. After taking down the sails they were able to free the yacht, apparently undamaged. However, it was subsequently discovered that the steering gear was damaged, so they pulled in to Ballina for repairs. These took five days, which the Museum scientists spent investigating the fauna in the local area.

Another two days sailing took them to Heron Island, where Bob Poulson came aboard to pilot the Coongoola around the reefs. The following day they reached their destination.

They spent a busy and productive ten days collecting and photographing at Gillett Cay, Thomas Cay and Capre Cay, before beginning their return journey.

The Annual Report for 1963 pays special tribute to Leonard Thomas, an Honorary Museum Associate, ‘who was responsible for much of the preliminary planning and for enlisting the interest and support of the sponsoring firm’. The firm in question was David Jones Ltd. Their donation of £800 to the Museum financed the collecting trip.

Page from Gilbert Whitley's official diary
Page from Gilbert Whitley's official diary detailing the Turrum emburyi caught off Gillett Cay in the Great Barrier Reef during the 1962 Swain Reefs Expedition. Image: Gilbert Whitley
© Australian Museum

Len Thomas accompanied the expedition, along with medico Dr Frederick Rost, and photographer Anthony Healy. The naturalist, photographer and game-fisherman Athel F. D’Ombrain also took part. The marine engineer (and skin diver) was Donald Wilson.

When summing up the expedition, Dr McMichael wrote: ‘It will take many years of research by numerous scientists, both here and overseas, before the material collected is identified and properly studied.’ Just looking at the dates of these papers published in the Records of the Australian Museum, shows how correct he was.

1981 Kingston, Susan C., 1981. The Swain Reefs Expedition: Ophiuroidea. Records of the Australian Museum 33 (3): 123–147. 1975 Clark, Ailsa M., 1975. The Swain Reefs Expedition: Crinoidea. Records of the Australian Museum 29 (13): 391–406. 1964 Whitley, Gilbert P., 1964. Fishes from the Coral Sea and the Swain Reefs. Records of the Australian Museum 26 (5): 145–195.

Much of this information came from Gilbert Whitley’s personal diary from the trip [AMS598/38].

For more information see:

The Swain Reefs self-published by Anthony Healy, showing data and images of the expedition members and the fauna of Swain Reefs

The Swain Reefs Expedition, Donald McMichael, Australian Natural History, September 15, 1963, Vol. 14, No. 7

Some Striking Inhabitants of the Reef, J. C. Yaldwyn, Australian Natural History, December 15, 1966, Vol. 15, No. 8