Experiencing the Great Barrier Reef

By Pat Kinsella 4 September 2014
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Take the plunge and explore the Great Barrier Reef while you still can, because the future of Australia’s biggest World Heritage site is far from crystal clear.

I’VE NEVER EVEN heard of a devil ray, so when one suddenly bursts through the beam of light my torch is painting on the black canvas of the ocean at night – two demonic horns sticking straight out of its head – I think it’s either a mutant manta or a monster from the deep.

Whatever it is, it has a devil-may-care attitude to our presence. The satanic-looking ray just keeps barrel rolling through the shoal of fish it has cornered, gorging on its midnight snack.

It only scarpers when a two-metre shark swims past our shoulders, utterly unseen until it abruptly appears in the pocket of light to join the feast. I glance at my dive-buddy Deb and the whites of her eyes are as wide as her mask.

One thing is certain – neither of us will ever forget our first self-navigated night dive.

This encounter, and the explosion of excited conversation it precipitates once we’re back on the boat, epitomises the attraction of diving: it’s a very controlled pursuit, conducted within extremely safe technical parameters, but when you’re down there, you just don’t know what you’re going to meet.

And that, in a mollycoddled world, is bloody exciting.

Advanced Diving course

Our boat – a ProDive live-aboard charter – is bobbing around in the kaleidoscope of chaos and colour that is the Great Barrier Reef. Besides the crew, we number about 12. All divers engaged in various stages of training.

I’ve been diving for 14 years prior to this trip. That’s to say I’ve been a qualified open-water diver for all that time – but my log book reveals a sporadic history, with most of my dives being booked on impulse while already on holiday.

This is different – a multi-day trip that revolves around one activity. Everyone here is serious about diving. They all want to take it to the next level. Most, like me, are doing their Advanced Diver course.      

Doing an open-water diving course is common practice for adventurous travellers. Typically, at the end of a five-dive course, when the exams have been passed and most of the technical details already forgotten, people are buzzing and full of where they’re going diving next.

Sadly, however, this enthusiasm often dissipates just as quickly as it arrived.

Diving can be a time-consuming and gear-heavy hobby, and an expensive one too – particularly if you calculate bottom time versus dollar outlay. But arguably it’s no pricier than a sport like mountain biking, and you have to remember it’s a passport to another dimension, and an opportunity to engage sensory hyperdrive. There’s nothing else quite like it.

Dropping over the side of a boat and descending into a dive spot is like skydiving in slow motion. What it lacks in adrenaline-producing speed, it more than makes up for in detail and interaction.

When you’re diving you can pause your fall at any stage, establish neutral buoyancy, explore the terrain you’ve just parachuted into and meet the locals. Done in the right place – and believe me, Australians are spoilt – it’s totally intoxicating.

The trick lies in improving your skill level as soon as possible. Continue your training and get your Advanced Diver’s ticket, because that’s when the aquatic adventures really begin.

When you stop simply following a divemaster and start exploring underwater crags properly, that’s when the activity morphs from soggy sightseeing into a real outdoor pursuit.

This is when you become a ‘diver’, rather than a bubble-blowing tourist.      

Diving mind tricks

My lower education continues in a series of ever-changing underwater classrooms in the hallowed halls of the Great Barrier Reef. Having bid land and shoes farewell for three days, we steam out of Cairns and keep going for 60km until we hit (not literally) Milln Reef.

Here, we play with parrotfish around Petaj, where three greenback turtles join us for two relaxed dives, before getting down to some learning at a neighbouring series of linked dive sites collectively known as the Pools.   

Our divemaster, Tobin, immediately puts us through one of the harder parts of the course – navigation. We follow a bearing on an underwater compass and calculate reciprocal headings to return by. Easy in principle, but depth plays havoc with your mental agility, and the two reef sharks looking on are quite a distraction.

Reading a compass accurately underwater is an essential skill for independent exploring, so Tobin keeps us at it until we’re all navigating as smoothly as migrating whales.

Later, we do our compulsory nightdive at the same site. While the scenery is the same, the population has changed completely. The night shift includes unicorn fish, stingrays and a blaze of red bass. Some of the day workers are still out, including the sharks that patrol the perimeter of the Pools.

The parrotfish are hanging around too – fast asleep, tucked into the reef in translucent bubbles made from their own mucus.

If you don’t consider diving to be an overly active sport, try doing four dives in one day and see how long you can keep your eyes open. I’m soon climbing into my own (non-mucus) bubble and sleeping with the fishes.

Heads heavy after a big sleep, the dawn dive instantly challenges our mental awareness. This is the Deep-dive test where, at a depth of around 30m, we’re expected to do mental arithmetic. Tobin holds up several fingers and we have to make up the number to 11 by raising the requisite number of fingers, but with our hands facing the opposite way to his. Simple on the surface, but your brain is dealing with funky pressures at that depth, and it proves tricky.

To demonstrate what’s happening to our grey matter, Tobin has brought a raw egg with him. When he cracks it, the yolk comes out strangely shrunken, and it stays compact as we knock it around like a ping-pong ball. The yolk is oddly coloured too. As you go deeper, further from the sun’s light, colours begin disappearing.

Red starts to fade at just five metres and orange says goodbye at about nine metres. Yellow sticks around until about 12m and green is visible right down to 20m or more, but from then on it’s shades of blue until you hit black.

To prove this, Tobin has an orange with him, which looks like a bluey-grey ball. It’s interesting, but I’m beginning to worry that there won’t be anything left for breakfast.

We head north to Flynn Reef before doing the next stage, the Naturalist part, which involves identifying fish species from a handheld slate. We’re also let loose on our own, to do some independent underwater exploring.

The final part – Search and Recovery – proves the most challenging. We’re recovering an inanimate object, thankfully, not one of our dive buddies, by setting up a search pattern and following an increasing square in order to find it.

And then you have to figure out how to tie a bowline knot onto it so you can bring it to the surface. We pass with flying colours (none of which you can see at the depth we’re now qualified to dive at).

The Ribbon Reefs

Trouble is, once you’ve sampled a live-aboard experience, it’s hard to be content with occasional dives at busy sites. Shortly after completing my advanced course, while honouring a promise to myself to dive regularly thereafter, I find
myself on Spoiltsport, one of Mike Ball’s legendary expedition dive boats.

Mike, a member of the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame, pioneered live-aboard diving on the Great Barrier Reef, and his company Mike Ball Expeditions has been operating since 1969.

As soon as we board, the boat has a five-star feel. The staff-to-client ratio is virtually 1-1. Our group is small and highly experienced; most have hundreds of dives under their weight belts. My buddy Dale and I are by far the greenest of the group and we’re almost childishly excited by the buzz.

This time we depart Cairns as evening falls. Spoiltsport steams all night to deliver us to one of the world’s most famous dive spots first thing in the morning: the Cod Hole, way up north in the Great Barrier Reef chain, at the far end of the Ribbon Reefs.

I’ve joined this trip to build on what I’ve already learned and to get more experience, not to do any more courses.

However it only takes one beer and a quick chat with Julia – the on-board photographer, wildlife expert and a divemaster – on the first evening for me to be convinced that adding a Nitrox qualification to my bag of tricks is worth doing.

Julia explains that diving with Enriched Air Nitrox (a mix that contains more oxygen than normal compressed air – typically between 32% and 36% – and less nitrogen) is the first step into technical diving.

It doesn’t allow you to dive any deeper than normal (in fact you should avoid going too low, as it can become toxic below 40m), nor does it extend your overall dive time, but it will allow you to stay at certain depths for longer periods, because you’re absorbing less nitrogen.

It also significantly decreases wait times between dives. You still have to observe requisite surface intervals, but they’re much shorter and physically you feel far less tired, allowing you to do more dives in a day and to feel better while doing them.

The course only involves post-dive study while on the boat, so the quality of your time in the water is not impacted, and while the enriched mix adds a few dollars to the cost of each refill, it’s perfect for maximising the potential of a trip like this.

Here you can dive up to five times a day in genuinely world class conditions if you have the energy, and snorkel in between if you’re keen.  

Meeting the Great Barrier Reef’s monster cod

Cod Hole seems a terribly prosaic title for such a premier dive spot, until you actually meet the fish that give the site its name. The behemoth potato cod that populate the ‘hole’ are as big as me and can weigh 110kg.

There are plenty of decent-sized sharks in this area too, but the cod dominate this dojo – no question.

We put in four dives on the first day, exploring the neighbouring Snake Pit site twice before returning to the Cod Hole for a night dive. In between dives, we’re visited first by a mob of minke whales – with at least one calf in tow – and then a pod of spinner dolphins.

The potato cod turn black when the sun dips to give them an assassin’s camouflage. A group of five huge cod adopt us and follow our fins for the entire dive. It’s like we’ve got a group of bodyguards chaperoning us around.     

During the subsequent three-day diving odyssey, we head further out into the Coral Sea to explore Osprey Reef – one of the best and most remote reefs in the GBR and home to myriad species.

We check out False Entrance and Admiralty Anchor before experiencing the much-anticipated shark dive at North Horn, where a number of big hungry fish – including whitetip reef sharks, grey reef sharks, silvertips, dogtooth tuna and giant potato cod – await their lunch.

Assuming position around a sub-aquatic amphitheatre, we’re circled by a growing number of increasingly impatient sharks.

A barrel of offal is taken down and opened by the head divemaster (wearing a chainmail glove for protection) and the sudden gory eruption of fish blood and guts into the water induces a feeding frenzy of such epic proportions that, once it’s over, we find sharks’ teeth lying on the ocean floor.

This practice is not without its critics – who oppose interference with the natural food chain and point to the dangers of sharks associating humans in wetsuits with food – but feeding has gone on here for more than 15 years without mishap.

For me though, it’s the night diving that provides the biggest thrills.

Being in the water in the dark sharpens your senses and delivers a particularly intense experience where you’re surrounded by the enormity of the ocean, but can only interact with what appears in your torchlight.

Like all adventures on the darkside – be it caving, night riding or running – your mind occasionally strays and begins wondering what’s out there beyond your beam, but that’s what makes it so exciting.

A self-navigated night dive ups the ante even more. In theory, the boat is much easier to find in the dark, as it’s covered in lights and should be highly visible as a large glowing object in an otherwise inky ocean.

Using this logic during one of our night dives, Dale and I surface to discover that the luminous thing we’d been swimming towards was in fact the moon, and the boat was hundreds of metres away.

Swimming across the surface of the open ocean at night is far scarier than diving under it with a bright light, and that particular doggy-paddle of shame lasted an eternity.

On the last dive we return to North Horn before catching a flight back to the mainland from Lizard Island. The twin-prop plane stays low – it has to, since we’ve all been diving just hours earlier and would be at risk of the bends at altitude – and we skim across the surface of the ocean.

A hundred feet below us the translucent sapphire-stained sea teases with glimpses of yet-to-be-explored reef systems and a shipwreck. You could literally spend a lifetime diving the Great Barrier Reef and barely see half of it.

Conservation on the reef

That such a watery wilderness exists right on our doorstep is a magical thought. This is a special place, where you’re incommunicado and feel immune to infection from the rest of the grubbier world, with its bad news and dirty deals.

Or so we think, anyway.

Sometime after returning to terra firma we learn that the Australian government is actively seeking to downgrade the level of protection that currently extends across the Great Barrier Reef – the country’s biggest and best-known World Heritage site – to allow more mining activity to take place within the area.

The news sends a chill through divers that no wetsuit on earth could keep out.

See it now, while you can, and then help fight for its life.

The essentials

Dive companies: ProDive offers a range of live-aboard dive trips, ranging from three to seven days in duration, and $670 to $3025 in price.

Advanced diving courses and Nitrox packages are offered on all trips.

See www.prodive.com.au for more.

Mike Ball Expeditions also offers a range of live-aboard options, from three-night dive-fly trips through to seven-night safaris and special trips to see everything from minke whales to great white sharks.

Prices (in standard accommodation) start at $1638 and go to around $3225.

See www.mikeball.com for more.