Diving the Great Barrier Reef was near the top of our not-to-be-missed list. The amount of information available to tourists in Cairns is absolutely overwhelming, and we did quite a bit of research on possible ways to get there. Carmen, from Experience Cairns wasn’t the first agent we chatted with, but she was the only one who really helped us sort things out. A true pro, she assesssed what kind of travellers we were and what was imprtant to us, while still providing us with lots of different options. We felt confident in the information, and ended up booking a 4-night liveaboard dive trip called Fly Dive Coral Sea, with Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, one of the top operators that head out to the Ribbon Reefs and Cod Hole, north of Cooktown, and far north of Cairns. We liked the idea of an open-deck policy, which would give us the freedom to get in as much diving as safely possible, and not feel restricted by too much structure.
The trip left from Cairns on a Thursday, early evening. We were able to store the bags we wouldn’t be needing on board at the Mike Ball office, which was very convenient. We spent the day wandering around Cairns once more, killing time until we would meet the group and the crew to board. When we did, we were pleased to find a nice range of ages, backgrounds and nationalities. There were quite a few Americans, which was a little surprising, since we haven’t run into many thus far otherwise. Once on board Spoilsport, the 30m x 10m catamaran, outfitted specifically as a dive vessel, we were introduced to the full crew as well as our fellow travellers. There was a large lounge area for reading, reviewing photos, relaxing, etc. DVD’s played Blue Planet and other relevant educational videos during the day. There was an al fresco deck and a sun deck if you preferred the fresh sea air.
Quality food with plenty of variety was prepared by Fiona with some tasty input by one of the volunteers on board for the trip. Every meal was delicious! It was Italian one night, Bounty of the Sea once at lunchtime (prawns, salmon, barramundi, calamari), and Roast another night (lamb, kangaroo, steak, pork, along with potatoes, and lots of other sides). Breakfasts always included fresh fruit along with some kind of eggs, bacon, mushrooms, toast or pancakes, and for lunches there were lots of veggies plus soup and salads on hand as well. We had to restrain ourselves from eating too much both so we could get back in the water and so we wouldn’t get too used to this 5-star treatment before we had to return to instant noodles and canned tuna!
Each morning, our charismatic Trip Director, Kerrin went from cabin to cabin with his pleasant refrain, “Good Morning! Wakey, wakey.” This was something the group was already nostalgic about when we got together after the trip back in Cairns. After a light cereal or fruit, we hit the water for the first dive of the day. After that we usually had the cooked breakfast followed by an open deck for a few hours, lunch, more diving, and sometimes the opportunity for a night dive. Donny did his first night dive on this trip, and said it seemed like something like a military secret operation scene in a movie! It is always exciting to go down with lights into the dark depths. Bigger fish are out hunting, but sometimes the most rewarding sightings are the small creatures like shrimp, crabs, etc. Even the coral has its tentacles swirling about at night.
Dive briefs were also conducted by Kerrin after he rounded us up with, “It’s dive brief time.” Anyone traveling alone was assigned a buddy for that dive, and we sat around the dive deck to get all the details on navigation, where the boat would be, and what type of sea life we could expect to see. Dives ranged from coral mounds and walls to pinnacles and towers. Sea life was diverse and the reef seemed very healthy. One of our favorite spots was Lighthouse Bommie, where we saw turtles, unicorn fish, nudibranchs, a sea snake, tons of the common butterfly fish, damselfish, chromis, surgeons, parrot fish, snappers, wrasse, and on and on and on. Now and then we’d spot schools of barracuda or trevally or a White-tipped Reef Shark or Gray Whaler Shark. After the very first dive, I looked out the window and a whale (a Humpback, I think) was just diving under the waves. During the last few dives at Cod Hole we saw diver-sized cod, huge Bump-head Parrot Fish, and Napoleon Wrasse about the same size. There was always a member of the crew or two who would be on the dive if anyone wanted to go with a guide; otherwise we were free to explore with our buddy. Unfortunately, strong winds and a very choppy sea prevented us from getting all the way out to Osprey Reef, so we missed out on seeing some of the larger pelagics that would have been around on the outside of the reef. Personally, I saw enough sharks, but a return visit that would include the more remote spots in the Coral Sea is another tempting possibility.
Not having travelled as far as we might have, the last night of the trip was relaxed, and we had time for plently of conversation and even some party games. We were anchored off Lizard Island, and we could see the lights of other boats and the resort onshore. We chose winners for the photo competition, and watched a video put together by the video pro during the trip. There was also a yummy Ozzie Barbecue. The party games included people getting tied together and having to figure out how to get apart, and one where a box on the floor got progressively shorter as you had to pick it up with your teeth without leaning on anything or using your hands. Believe it or not, both Donny and I made it to the final round, with the box flat on the floor! (See photos for proof.)
In the morning we took the dinghy to Lizard Island and had a walk up to a lookout before heading to the air strip. Our return flight to Cairns took just over an hour. It was amazing to fly over the reef and get a true perspective of its vastness. We were able to see sites we had been diving on and get some great aerial shots, including a peek at Endeavour Reef, where Captain Cook ran aground.
We had made some new friends, and before we went our separate ways, we agreed to meet for drinks that night. We had a wonderful time reminiscing (if you can do that about an experience that’s only hours old) and sharing details we’d been too tired to share every night on board. The trip was a wonderful experience, and a great memory. Carmen was right. It seemed like a stretch of the budget when we booked (and it was), but we returned feeling every penny was worth it. Maybe next time we’ll make it a full week!
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