Jim and I started out the morning by going down to the wildlife preserve in town, which features Koala cuddling. However, this is by appointment only for a limited time each morning, so we just made an appointment for the last day of our stay.
Then we went down to the water sports pavilion to try our hand at some snorkeling. However, we were surprised to find that there is not much snorkeling on this island, and most of it must be done when the tide is completely out. Sadly, it was about four hours too late for that this morning, but we gave it a try anyway. It was such a bust that we came in almost immediately and went to lunch at the open air pool pavilion.Then I went to the spa and tried to soothe the muscles I had tested over the last four days of diving. As I was finishing up in the spa, it started to pour down rain, and we had to learn how to button up the buggy. We’ll see, but tomorrow is projected to rain again. I hope not, because we are scheduled to do a helicopter ride over the Great Barrier, and go snorkeling out there off a huge permanent pontoon float called Reef World!
Thank you, Dear Readers, for your patience! I left you dangling in Queensland, Australia, but our journey didn’t end there. For those of you who are curious, I’ll try to finish the story now.
Yesterday (Feb. 19th), we bid a fond farewell to the Spirit of Freedom and her crew in the port of Cairns. Then we went back to the Cairns Hilton, where we basically spent all day by the pool in the shade resting and reading after our vigorous dive trip (and having laundry done). At dusk, we had fun again watching the resident bats (thousands of them) take flight across the skies of Cairns.
Cairns at Dusk
This morning we flew to Hamilton Island (about an hour’s flight from Cairns), where we are staying at a super resort called Qualia. We’re still just off the coast in the northeast part of Australia, and the closest coastal town to us would be Airlie Beach. This island is probably the most developed in the Whitsunday Islands archipelago located at the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef. The whole island was owned and developed by one company, Hamilton Island Enterprises, which probably explains why there is no piecemeal or junky development here. HIE still owns most of the property and about 97% of the businesses on the island. They even own the tour boats, which go out to the other islands, the reef, and the mainland. The island was pretty hard-hit by a cyclone about 18 months ago, but it is amazing how little reconstruction remains to be done.
The resort where we are staying is a real gem, and features individual units positioned so most of them look out on the channel between Hamilton Island and Whitsunday Island. Surprising, the island is fairly large, but cars are essentially forbidden here so everyone gets around by golf carts (“buggies”). Upon checking in, Jim and I were issued our own buggy for the duration of the stay. Since our room wasn’t quite ready, we hopped in and took off the tour the island.
Right outside the resort is the highest point of the island, which offers some stunning views! Photography bug satisfied, Jim and I lingered a while at the cute little bar/café located there. I ad a blast watching the resident cockatoo strut around. It turns out that there are hundreds of them on the island. Then we returned to the hotel to enjoy a quiet afternoon at our little casita gazing out on the channel and reading.
This evening, we enjoyed a fabulous meal down by the harbor at the restaurant for the yacht club which is called Bommie. As you might guess with our proximity to the ocean, the menu was almost entirely seafood oriented. It turned out to be one of the best meals we have enjoyed here in Australia and we were blessed to have amazing service, as well.
We did not have so far to travel last night to today’s location off Holmes Reef. The downside of that is that we anchored about midnight, and the swell caused the boat to pitch hard from side to side. I don’t think many of us slept much for those last six hours until our wakeup call.
We are still out in the Coral Sea, but today we are diving the sites around Holmes Reef. It’s a bright sunny morning, and we all scramble to get ready for our first dive today at Amazing Caves, whose name says it all.
Then we moved to another of the Holmes Reef site; called Cathedrals. I spent most of my time here chasing a Coral Cod around a coral head trying to get a good picture of him.
For the final dive of the trip, we moved a short distance to a dive site called Nonki’s Bommie. Legend has it that Nonki was a Japanese diver who discovered the site. A Bommie is a coral head that rises up from the ocean floor in a free standing hill. This was a very special because it has crevices you can swim though and some more great soft corals and fan corals.
Sadly, it is now time to head back to Cairns. We really treasured our time on the Spirit of Freedom. The entire dive team was very well professional and experienced, but also very attentive to ensure each guest enjoyed a stellar experience. We would go back in a heartbeat!
Last night, the Captain moved the boat out to our furthest point eastward, and we’re about 200 miles off the coast on Bouganville Reef. Today, we have four dives on tap. The first is at a dive site called Dungeons and Dragons; named after all its caves and twisting crevices between coral outgrowths. The site is rich in soft corals and fans, and hosts tons of tiny tropical fish. Although we weren’t too adventurous going into the caves, we did have fun swimming through the crevices. We just loved this dive!
Credits to @ViliPhotography, Vili Maitaiwai
For our second dive of the day, we moved a short distance to the site of a wreck, the Antonio Terrabocchia. The ship itself isn’t that old, having sunk in 1961. However, after it went down, a tug attempted a salvage operation to pull the wreck off the reef with catastrophic results. The back of the ship broke and the ship disintegrated, and is now spread widely over this reef area. The wreck is found on the oceanward side of the reef, and above that area is a much shallower reef area where the fish life is pretty interesting.
However, the sun has disappeared, and the Captain joined our dive briefing to warn us that there are rain squalls nearby and the winds might shift suddenly, which would drive the boat back onto the reef. In that case he will have to weigh anchor, and we will have to get back to the boat via tenders. To keep us safe from the boat’s propellers, we are instructed that if we hear the boat’s engines, just to stay down and finish the dive and then come up normally.
In addition to creating a great environment for smaller fish to shelter, there is a huge potato cod that frequents the area, and as you can see, we found him! There are also some giant anemones, which have there own schools of “Nemo” clownfish. Overall, the dive site is just gorgeous! However, about 20 minutes into the dive, we can hear thunder crashing overhead, and the boat’s engines revving up. As we ascended to do our safety stop, we can see the surface is very roiled by the hard rain obviously falling above. When we hit the surface, we were initially disturbed to find that the rain had caused the visibility to reduce sharply, and we couldn’t even see the Spirit of Freedom! Nonetheless, the tenders showed up quickly, and we beat feet back to the boat.
As dawn broke over the Great Barrier Reef, we were awaked by the crew for breakfast, and then another exciting day of diving. As we finished up “Brekkie No. 1” (first breakfast), we got our dive briefing for our first dive of the day at the aptly named Around the Bend dive spot.
As a general note, we found the captain and crew to be incredibly knowledgeable about each of the areas we visited, and happy to share that knowledge. In fact, I’m going to use their charts from the dive briefings to show what we did for each dive, and that is at least going to be the starting place for these blogs. The dive briefings were very detailed, and the crew was hyper-aware of the potential for changing conditions.
In this case, the dive is essentially a drift dive along the outer reef face or a sea mount, with a stop mid-dive to watch out for sharks and other large predator fish that gather at a break in the reef wall to hunt. Then a swim across the opening, gradually ascending to a shallow area called the Grotto where you can do your safety stop and gaze at a coral reef while you do it. At least, that was the plan …
There are some big challenges about this dive spot. First and foremost is the current, which is very strong. Also, because the current is so strong, you must descend very quickly in order not to miss the place you hang out and watch for the big fish. Next, also because of the current, it was really tricky to latch onto the opening in the reef where prior dive companies have erected a rope into the reef face for you to latch onto. Finally, making the ascent across the reef opening with its increased current made for a tiring end to the dive. In short, this turned out to be the most challenging dive of the whole trip! Jim and I didn’t have any trouble making the descent and doing the drift dive, but that whole latching-on-to-rope-thing was fraught with peril. Jim and I got separated by the current. By the time I had made it back to the reef wall and latched on to (literally) one of the dive masters, I had pretty much missed the opportunity to see any of the hunters in action. Then came the hard swim to our ascent location. What can I say?! Another eff’g opportunity to learn! Our takeaway: if the dive plan goes to shit, you can always latch onto something long enough to make your safety stop and then ascend. If you’re too far away from the boat, that’s what those inflatable safety sausages are for!
After a really hearty “second brekkie” while the captain moved the boat (and we recovered from our harrowing first dive), Jim and I were ready for the main event of the day; a shark feeding at North Horn. This is a totally cool area which features a natural amphitheater at about 40 feet which looks down at the top of a seamount about 15 feet below it. The crew has filled a metal cage with pieces of frozen tuna heads threaded through a metal cable and attached to some buoys. as we took our places on the ledge of the amphitheater, the cage is slowly lowered onto the top of the seamount and tied off. Then the sharks and other predators began to gather. When we had amassed a sizable crowd of sharks, the crew member with the short straw had to latch the metal cage and then a food fight broke out. The best pictures from this came from our onboard photographer, Vili, who took up a position right on the edge of the seamount about three feet from the cage. My photos are the definitely less interesting (but safer) ones looking down on the scene.
We stayed in place for our third dive of the day, which gave us an opportunity to do more diving along the reef wall of North Horn. This was a very cool experience, because there are all sorts of nooks and crannies to look for fish, and we saw types of fish I have never seen before. Now the challenge is to try to identify them from the pictures I took! Tomorrow, we’ll be diving further south off Bouganville Reef.
Jim and I set off this morning on a four day trip to the outer Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea aboard the Sprit of Freedom, and it was a fabulous experience! The ship is fairly modern, with some very nice amenities, like a huge dive deck, and a dedicated indoor area for camera and computer use. The cabins are fairly small, but serviceable, and always spotlessly clean. However, there are plentiful public areas indoors and out, and the ship is very comfortable.
Because this trip goes to the outer Great Barrier Reef, the reefs are in deeper water, and thus influenced by slightly cooler ocean waters, which means sea life is very plentiful. In fact, all the reefs we visited were very healthy and we saw no evidence of reef bleaching at all. The coral colors were just amazing, and the fish variety was mind-boggling! Add to that average visibility ranges of 100-150 feet, and you can see why this is a diver’s paradise. Once aboard, you are given 4-5 opportunities to dive each day. The food was yummy, and the chef always had a fresh offering ready each time we came out of the water. Therefore, our life for the next four days will consist of “Eat, dive, eat, dive, eat, dive, eat, dive and sleep”. Let’s get started with a dive on the Coral Princess Palace!
Dive Briefing for Coral Princess Palace
Then we moved the boat to Ribbon Reef No. 9 in order to dive at Challenger Bay. We actually did two dives here: one in the late afternoon, and the second at night.
Then came the night dive …! This night dive is all about seeing the big predator fish (and sharks) which come out at night to feed. Because the boat stops weekly in this spot, the local fish have adapted somewhat to the divers. Our first clue about this is when the boat turned on her floodlights aimed down at the ocean to help guide divers back, and HUGE Trevellys started jumping out of the water. Think hunger big tuna and you’ll begin to get the feel. Another way the predators have adapted is that they have learned that our dive lights are a helpful way to locate their prey. Accordingly, our dive leader instructed us not to shine the lights directly on the fish you are viewing lest they get eaten. He cautioned us “only 1 kill per diver”, and not to cause any of the “pretty” fish to get eaten; only the ugly ones.
The thought of getting into the water with all these hungry fish was a little daunting! Then you get into the water, and these fish and the sharks are so thick you can hardly see anything else. However, the dive was really cool, and many things were active that you never see in the day.
Happy Valentine’s Day, dear Readers! This morning we were scheduled to go do a hike at Kata Tjuta (about a 45 minute drive away from Uluru) followed by a visit to the Anangu Cultural Center at Uluru. However, we didn’t feel like doing another dawn wake up (and it was still pouring down rain at dawn), so we opted just to visit the Cultural Center later in the morning. Besides, if possible, the Kata Tjuta stone formations are more sacred than Uluru. So sacred, in fact, that non-Anangu peoples are forbidden to even learn about the sacred stories and traditions surrounding that rock formation. Fortunately, the sun (and heat) came back before we left for our visit, so we were able to place our sopping wet shoes out to dry.
The Cultural Center was really fascinating, and also featured some workshops by some of the local artists. There were some videos made by some of the community elders about the time the government decided to turn Uluru back to the local Anangu tribe, which was only about 30 years ago. Most interesting to me was learning that, in addition to being one of the oldest land masses on the planet, this area of Australia can trace its human habitation by these tribes back more than 58,000 years. When you see the facial structure of the Anangu today, it is easy to see how human evolution worked because their features are so ancient. Sadly, the Cultural Center is also considered sacred so no photos were allowed. However, it was well worth the visit!
Then it was back to the resort and a final meal before catching the flight to Cairns, which will be our gateway to diving on the Great Barrier Reef. Jim and I can barely wait!!!!!!!!