It's steaming hot - but bouncing through the King Sound at top speed with a cool breeze and sea spray blasting the face, it's impossible to tell.

Off to the right, just north-east of Cygnet Bay, the waters are a calm, translucent robin egg blue, sparkling like diamonds in the sun. Up ahead, they are chaotic, a turbulent foamy mess created by extraordinary tidal movements sucking billions of litres of water back out to sea.

This is a place where the waters of three marine bioregions - the Canning Basin, King Sound and Buccaneer Archipelago - clash twice a day in spectacular style.

The world's biggest tropical tides of up to 13m create whirlpools, standing waves and eddies in improbable places, turning otherwise peaceful waters violent and treacherous.

During the especially strong spring tides, when the Moon is full or new, the power level ramps up - and that's when Cygnet Bay's Giant Tides tour operates.

In the hands of an experienced operator, on a high-speed boat specially designed for the purpose, shooting through the swirling water proves an exhilarating experience.

Some guests on board the vessel - aptly named The Cyclone - flew in on charter planes via the Horizontal Waterfalls, where water is expelled in a massive rush through narrow channels, as part of a full-day tour.

Others made their own way to Cygnet Bay Pearls - Australia's oldest commercial pearl farm still operating and open to the public, about two and a half hours north of Broome - to join in with the fun.

'MEET CYGNET BAY PEARL MAN'
James Brown

After zooming north past the One Arm Point Aboriginal community, The Cyclone takes different routes through the islands, depending on the tides.

Close to King Rock, the water churns like a powerful washing machine, dragging the vessel around as it idles to demonstrate the force of the water.

Cranking the twin engines, skipper Tony then pelts into the roiling water several times over at a kamikaze pace, making for a fun rollercoaster ride. Afterwards, when we've got our breath back, he points out Escape Passage, where early explorer Philip Parker King almost came a cropper on the same tides after being sucked towards the rock now bearing his name.

As legend has it, his ship was about to be dashed to pieces when a breath of wind miraculously filled the sails and whisked it away to safety.

Others weren't so lucky; lonely sailors' graves remain on many of about 1000 islands dotting the Buccaneer Archipelago, including the biggest, Sunday Island.

Making its way to Shell Island, which emerges only at low tide, the vessel heads past flipping dolphins and turtles to breathtaking tricolour islands of quartzite, dated between 1.8 and 2.4 billion years old.

Blackened below the high tide mark, grey in the middle and with pindan-stained cliff tops jagged as teeth, the magnificent Precambrian islands were populated for thousands of years by the Bardi tribe, who navigated the waters in mangrove wood rafts as if they were autobahns.

Now, only ospreys and brahminy kites live on the islands, watching over sandy coves fringed with mangroves from nests in spindly trees, waiting for food to emerge from the corals at low tides.

Almost half the age of the planet, the islands loom large in the water and imagination. Out here, dazzled by beauty and the powerful forces of nature, it's easy to feel insignificant, a mere fleeting moment in time.


  • fact file *

·The Giant Tides tour from Cygnet Bay, $140 for adults, includes a behind-the-scenes look at the pearl farm.

·Packages from Broome, including meals and a scenic flight over the Kimberley coast, are available through Kimberley Aviation and Broome Aviation.

·Visit cygnetbaypearls.com.au for more information and dates of spring tides.

See the giant tides run in amazing footage in our video feature at thewest.com.au/ travel and go online to meet James Brown, the man who has continued a family tradition and steered Cygnet Bay Pearls through the highs and lows of the pearling industry.

The West Australian

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