Whales aren’t stupid. This time of year, around 25,000 humpbacks make their way to North Stradbroke Island, chilling out in the warm coastal waters as if on a lunchbreak on their annual road trip to Antarctica.
We here in the south could learn something from the noble Megaptera Novaeangliae. Instead of shivering through another drippy winter, we could be dipping our toes in the sultry winter waters of Moreton Bay.
Chris Semple knows the allure. He was fortunate enough to grow up on Straddie (as the locals say), and sensible enough to stay. “I did a lot of travelling,” he says. “I’ve been been overseas quite a lot – I lived in Canada for a year, and Europe. But I’ve always come back. It’s always been home.”
Semple now runs Straddie Stand Up Paddle, which encourages visitors and locals to get fit while connecting with the gorgeous natural surroundings. Semple and other trained instructors teach customers how to surf while standing upright and steering with a paddle – a distinctive tradition that began in 1950s Hawaii.
The job was was a natural choice for Semple, who has long been attuned to the watery way of life on North Stradbroke. “We surf and we fish and we live by the ocean,” he says. “It’s a pretty easy, simple life. Sometimes we’ll just load our boats up and go to Moreton Island and go camping up there, and fishing and surfing. Go down Main Beach and drop our boats in. You can just launch your tinny straight off the beach here.”
Despite being a mere 30 minutes from the suburbs of Brisbane, North Stradbroke Island remains a genuine oasis. Of its 275.2 square kilometres, exactly half is national park. In its bushland scamper wallabies, kangaroos, echidnas, koalas and bandicoots; below the waters roll dolphins, manta rays, dugongs and six of the world’s seven species of sea turtle. And between May and November, there are the whales – the number of which have been rapidly increasing.
“Every single year [are] more and more humpbacks,” Semple says. “In my tinny, I’ve had them come underneath. Like, three metres, five metres away, quite regularly. If you have a two-hour surf, I guarantee you’ll see five or six of them this time of year.”
Given they’re constantly surrounded by water, surfing is the way most locals appreciate the island. Semple says he was six when he first stood up on a board. “You see little kids still get it today; their parents are down there pushing them onto waves when they’re five and six years old. At that age, it’s pretty simple to pick it up.”
Unfortunately, the learning curve is a little steeper when you’re an adult. Post-six, it can take a few hours of concerted floundering before you’re momentarily upright. But, a few years ago, Semple noticed folks on the Gold Coast were doing a strange new thing: standing up on their longboards and gently rowing across the surface of the sea. It seemed like a good idea for a local business of his own.
“I thought to myself, ‘I should start this on Straddie before someone else does,’” he says. “Unlike surfing, it’s something people can do at all ages, especially in the flat water. I have people up to 70 years old trying it. Successfully doing it, as well.”
As part of Straddie Stand Up Paddle Semple takes groups out on the lakes in the centre of the island, or does marine tours through the mangroves and out over the bay. “The amount of animals that live up in that mangrove system is phenomenal,” he says. “Every time we see fish and quite often turtles, and sometimes dolphins as well. Big schools of mullet and – no exaggeration – some paddles I reckon we see 40 stingrays of different varieties.”
Of course sea creatures aren’t just good to look at. “Up here, we catch a lot of fish and squid and fresh seafood, so we tend to have big barbeques,” says Semple. “There’s prawn trawlers that work here off the island. There’s a place called The Prawn Shack up at Point Lookout and they’ll get trawler fresh seafood, Moreton Bay bugs, and lots of fresh, local options. It’s pretty special.”
While all the ecological wonders of North Stradbroke are easily accessed by your standard-issue tourist, Semple suggests digging a little deeper to discover some of the island’s cultural (and culinary) treasures. The Quandamooka people have been on North Stradbroke – properly known as Minjerribah – for at least 25,000 years. They are the rightful traditional owners of the island, and in 2011 the Federal Court belatedly recognised them as such.
“A lot of people don’t really have much interaction with the culture of the traditional islanders,” he says. “As kids, we always saw corroborees and were invited to eat all the elders’ foods on NAIDOC Week. All these good friends of mine, their grandmothers and uncles and aunties, cook different traditional recipes with all the fish that’s caught here with different spices. It’s a huge part of North Stradbroke Island.”
For those looking to learn more about the traditional ways, expert Matt Burns hosts bush-tucker tours along the Goompi Trail, and Salt Water Murris in Dunwich is an excellent place to discover the culture of the three local clans.
At the end of the day, Semple reckons southerners would benefit from doing like the residents do. “Have a cold beer and watch the sun go down,” he says.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Visit Brisbane.