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Great Barrier Reef, June 2007

Great Barrier Reef, June 2007

Bill Utterback

My flight from Iowa took me through Denver, Los Angeles, and Brisbane to Cairns.  I’ve never flown united through Denver without problems and it was the case again during this trip.  On the other hand, there were no problems with the Quantas flights.  We got seated and they provided us with a menu that laid out what they’re serving for the meals along with a bag that contained a toothbrush, toothpaste, and sleeping shades.  A trip like this required me to change from domestic to international terminals, which I was able to navigate without many problems.  Having all my things in wheeled luggage would have made the trek between terminals even easier.

Cairns is located in the northeast part of Australia in the state of Queensland.  The brief rain showers followed by sun and more rain showers along with the palm trees created a tropical setting that surprised me.  A $10 bus ride from the Cairns airport to the Pacific International hotel reminded me that one needs to change money in some countries.  Australia is one of those countries.  Even though the exchange rate is favorable for US currency, people want to deal in the Aussie dollars.  Lots of shops and places to eat are located in the Pacific International area of Cairns.  It’s a 5 to 6 block walk to the terminal where the liveaboards dock and most will arrange to pick you up.  Want to buy an opal?  No problem.  Want to find a watering hole?  No problem.  Want to be close to the Esplanade?  It’s either right across the street or a few blocks away depending on where you are. 

Divers from Canada, Australia, Great Brittain, US, Japan, France, and Singapore were on the Spirit of Freedom (SOF) during my 7 days of diving on the Great Barrier Reef.  15 people were on for the first three days and 27 people were aboard for the last four days.  Information on the boat shows that 26 is the capacity but I was told that a “reservation error” created the situation with 27.  The SOF is a beautiful boat with a very comfortable lounge and dining area. The two bunk beds in my cabin were arranged so there was room for a bathroom/shower.  Each bunk was provided with a reading light but I could only find one outlet for those of us had computers.

We were told that the weather was unusual for this time of the year.  The tossing and turning during the 4-hour boat ride onto the reef confirmed this.  The overnight crossings usually required an early bedtime along with something to help calm the stomach.  The people who partied the night before or who were tired from their series of flights were queasy and paid the price.  The SOF provided ginger pills free of charge and sold a product called Travelcalm.  My personal experience with both resulted in my becoming a believer in Travelcalm. 

This trip was really a 3-day trip and a 4-day trip.  The 3-day trip ended and the 4-day trip began at Lizard Island.  A walking excursion was available for those that wanted to go ashore.  Several people stayed on the boat to relax.

The boat and dive briefings were professionally prepared and quite helpful through the week.  The boat briefing PowerPoint continued to cycle throughout the week on the wide screen TV.  Previously prepared maps with what might be seen at each dive site were used for the dive briefings.  The SOF crew works one week on and one week off so there were no apparent signs of burn out. 

An emphasis on safety was evident through my stay on the SOF.  Each person was provided with a complimentary water bottle at sign in and we were encouraged to stay hydrated.  Dive partners were documented before the beginning of each dive and divers initialed their dive profiles after each dive.  At least one SOF staff member (not necessarily a DM or instructor) was in the water on each dive.  Cylum sticks were provided to divers if needed for night dives.  The cylum sticks that were rubber banded onto the mooring line for the night dives were a nice touch.  Divers were encouraged to have two safety stops on each dive; 2 minutes at 30’ and 5 minutes at 15’. 

I curious about SOF’s procedures for gearing up and getting into the water with their emphasis on safety.  I found it very crowded with 27 divers gearing up at the same time on their dive deck.  They tried to separate out groups of divers but it was near impossible to do that.  There was a lot of apologizing going on as we constantly bumped into each other.  Divers were asked to walk down steps to the dive platform and staff would help them put their fins before a giants stride.  No one did a face plant on the steps but one diver with back problems did ask, and get, staff to carry her things down the steps.

The nitrox provided averaged from 31% to a little over 32%.  The 2 analyzers, which fit the low-pressure hose, were available throughout the surface intervals so analyzing by a large number of divers didn’t seem to be an issue.

It appeared to me that the diving on the GBR is impacted by the weather as the visibility and the sites we could reach were affected by the windy, rainy weather.  Depths of our dives ranged from 30-120 feet throughout the week as we dove bommies, several Ribbon Reefs, Cod Hole, and Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea.  Diving highlights of the week included petting and feeding the cod at Cod Hole, seeing hammerheads on Osprey Reef, having giant trevally feed using our night lights, and watching lionfish hunt and eat their prey. 

Hoping to get fed, the 4-5 foot cod would follow divers acting like little puppies but these cod were very aggressive during the feed organized by boat staff.  The hammerheads were quite skittish and kept their distance, but quite a sight.  It took a while to get used to the giant trevally zipping past our shoulders on the night dives as they dove in to eat what was spotted in our lights.  Watching the lionfish drift from side to side to corner its intended meal and then using its fins to propel it forward to snatch its prey

The size of the Queensland grouper (goliath grouper) seen off the back of the boat one night was amazing.  We saw told in our briefing that we couldn’t get in the water if dwarf minke whales were within 100 meters.  These whales visited a couple divers at their safety stop but other than this, there was no sight of them. 

Due to the unusual weather, those of us expecting something a little balmier were scrambling for a way to stay warm during the surface interval.  The SOF staff dressed in a zippered fleece vest and long pants.  A mental note here: pack for stormy weather and be happy if you don’t need them when the weather turns out nice. 

The 4 meals prepared by the chef were very tasty and kept us well fed.  A continental breakfast before the first dive was followed by a regular breakfast, which was offered before the second dive.  The lunch was a mix of soups, salads, and sandwiches with a hot dish included occasionally.  A third and fourth dives in the afternoon preceded the dinner meals of chicken, lamb, fish, or beef typically accompanied by rice or couscous and a salad.  Anyone with a sweet tooth enjoyed the wonderful desserts.  Complimentary wine was offered along with the dinner as well.  Beer, wine, and soft drinks were available on an honor system throughout the day.

Things I wished I would have known include ahead of time:

  • The air conditioning in the dining and lounge areas is set to compensate for the heat generated by the operations of the boat and it is quite cool.  Bring warm clothes.
  • Towels were not changed during either the 3 or 4-day trip and they began to smell after the second day.  Either bring your own towel or ask to have the towels changed more frequently.
  • The 4-day trip took on more than the capacity allowed and it showed throughout the day.  One person needed to sleep in the crew quarters.  The buffet style serving the food took up table space resulting in needing two rooms to eat and this reduced the interaction between the divers and crew.  Check with other boats that have this same itinerary to see how many passengers they carry.
  • The SOF doesn’t have a permit to interact with the dwarf minke whales so people are restricted to watching from the deck if the whales are within 100 meters.  Divers in the water are not under this restriction.

The weather wasn’t the best, the boat was overbooked, and there was little sighting of the minke whales but the sights of the Great Barrier Reef made this a trip of a lifetime!