Diving The Great Barrier Reef is one of the ‘bucket list’ items for adventure-seekers everywhere. It is possible to dive from Cairns or Townsville on Australia’s eastern coast, but the GBR stretches 2300 Km along that coast. The best way to experience a variety of dive sites along the reef is to do it by liveaboard – staying on a boat equipped for diving and diving directly off the boat onto the reef. The Spirit of Freedom’s 7-day Cairns to Cairns trip matched my requirements best.
They picked me up from my guesthouse in Cairns on a Monday morning. We would then travel northward along the coast, diving along the Ribbon Reefs. After three days of diving, we would stop at Lizard Island, where one group doing a 3-day dive trip would get off and fly back to Cairns. The same plane would drop off another group doing 4 days of diving. Those of us doing the 7-day trip had no flights. From Lizard Island, we would head eastward to Osprey Reef, then Southward to Bougainville Reef. We would then head back toward Cairns, diving at Holmes Reef on the way.
The Spirit of Freedom is 30 metres long. We walked from the wharf where she was docked onto her top deck. There were rattan sun-loungers on deck. In a shaded area there were nice cushioned seats, more rattan chairs and tables. Big bottles of sunscreen were placed on the table. The interiors of the boat used a lot of wood. We received a safety briefing before being led into the bridge / wheelhouse. A tiny joystick is used to steer boats these days in place of the wheel. Stairs in the bridge led down to the lounge. Behind the lounge was the dining area. There were wall sofas with velvet cushions as well as leather-covered chairs. It was slightly cramped, given the number of guests we were. We found that food was often laid buffet-style on one table and the guests were limited to three and a quarter tables. The galley was a small walled-off section within the dining area where Chef Sam created some very impressive buffets and multi-course dinners.
The dive deck was behind the dining room. There was space and holders for a bunch of tanks with BCDs (buoyancy control devices) attached. Bungee cords were used to hold them in place as is standard practice on dive boats. There was storage space overhead as well as inside the seat. Steps led from the back of the boat to the water. There were pipes overhead for pumping compressed air into the tanks in their holders so there was no need to move the tanks in between dives. The pumping system had dials for air as well as nitrox (air enriched with a higher proportion of oxygen). I opted for nitrox for my dives. Nitrox reduces the maximum depths of one’s dives, but increases the duration at which one may safely remain at those depths with regards to the nitrogen build-up in the blood. It significantly decreased stress during the dive on account of my not needing to watch out too hard for my “no-decompression” time limits underwater. Having dived only in Asia so far, I found the dive operation to be the most professional I’ve experienced yet. SOF personnels’ briefings were very detailed and their safety standards high. They provided the divers with manually-enabled GPS tracking devices and inflatable signalling devices.
The crew checked our certifications, our competence in the water and our buoyancy before starting the fun dive proper. If you are not a diver, you might be afraid of sharks. Divers on the other hand are mostly OK with sharks. We know what we really need to be afraid of: accidentally stepping on a stonefish can kill you; jellyfish of various kinds can sting to cause pain and itching, agony or even death; territorial titan triggerfish can bite and injure. The titan triggerfish are the most notorious of the bunch in the parts of Asia where I have dived. Triggerfish are easily identified by their motion: they move the fins above and beneath their bodies to propel themselves. Titan triggerfish can be 75 cm long, are pretty bulky and have cartoonishly bulbous eyes. They have teeth that appear to belong on horses and are known to bite humans. They are not known to be deadly, but just unpleasant. Divers exchange stories of encounters with the titans and knowledge on how to get out of a territory dispute. They have a conical-shaped territory above their nest, the tip of the cone at the nest and the mouth expanding upward. They way to get out of the titan’s territory is to swim horizontally away. If you move upward, it will just chase you upward. On the very first dive, I saw a titan in the distance and looked at it occasionally to ensure I stayed well away. Imagine my surprise when another turned up right next to me and started coming at me. I used my fins to fend it off, did not notice where exactly I was going and found that now I was dangerously close to the other one. Eventually our group fended off the titans without getting bitten and moved on to other things.
I found my dive buddy, Tom, to be a little odd. He repeatedly shot up and down rapidly on the first dive. This can be dangerous; we are trained to maintain our buoyancy and ascend and descend in a controlled fashion while diving. I was photographing something and lost my group, only to find them many metres above me as the dive master was figuring out how to keep Tom level. Dive 2 started badly for me. As we prepared to descend, I noticed that my camera was no longer on me. It was slowly falling down. I dived after it, catching up with it at a depth of 7 metres. Heading on down, I floated around looking at the dancing shrimp, coral groupers, lionfish, many-spotted sweetlips and christmas tree worms. My buddy seemed to prefer to stand vertically on the seafloor, turning his head around to watch the other divers in the distance. As I was heading off in the planned direction, he became a ghostly silhouette at the threshold of my visibility. I signalled to him by blinking my torch and got him to follow me. Back at the surface, Tom told me that everything was fine; he was just doing his own thing. I got another buddy for my next dive.
Day 2 was the most intensive of the trip. We had five dives including a night dive. I buddied with a chubby Korean named Jinho. We communicated well with each other and I never felt out of control of the situation underwater. Dive 2 of the day brought me my first sighting of stonefish. They seemed to wobble sideways when they moved unsteadily forward. They were well camouflaged when they stayed put and revealed themselves to be colourful when we shone lights upon them. The site of the third dive was called “Nudi Rudi” and I was looking forward to seeing and photographing colourful sea slugs (nudibranchs). I failed to spot a single fucking nudi. Many others were similarly disappointed. I saw my first shark of the trip on dive 4, a slender white-tip reef shark. Other critters of the day included tiny white shrimp on gorgonian fan corals, hawkfish, a school of bumphead parrotfish, wrasse of many kinds, pufferfish and surgeonfish.
The night dive was fantastic. Even before we entered the water we saw giant trevally, some of them longer than one metre, swim around in large numbers close to the boat due to its lights and even leap out of the water. Underwater, they zipped by close to us. Then I saw the first shark of the dive, a white-tip, swim a few metres away. What I almost didn’t notice was the second shark. As I turned my light forward, the shark materialised on my torch beam just a metre ahead. It almost brushed my body giving me no time to react. After that I just went around enjoying the feeling as the sharks and the trevally zoomed around.
I skipped my dives on day 3. I was not feeling well and decided to rest this day. A key dive of the day that I missed was the feeding of the potato cod. The divers went down with some food to feed the giant fish to make sure everyone got a sighting. This was something that made me feel uncomfortable. A lot of people have accepted by now that feeding wild animals is a bad idea. It makes them associate humans with food and motivates them to get aggressive in order to get it. I have experienced this aggression myself from the monkeys at various Hindu temples in Indonesia and India. Fish are not immune to these behavioral changes, as I would soon find out. On a later dive, a cod snuck up centimetres next to me. I swam away from it and it moved on to the next human, in the hope of a gift of food. I knew that there would be fish feeding on this trip, but chose to join anyway as there was no other boat that did a similar route at the right cost at the right time that skipped the fish feeds.
Day 4 involved getting off on the beach at Lizard Island. Prior to the departure, first mate Jimmy took us into the engine room and gave us a tour of the machinery while not too many parts were moving. We had approached it in the afternoon the previous day. After three days away from land, it was nice to see an island. It was rocky, sandy and green. A variety of trees and grasses grew on the island and I observed plenty of flowers and even the odd caterpillar. It was a sight. We got off the boat and hung around at one of the beaches. The beach had fine powder sand. I saw coconuts, false coconuts and something that resembled passion fruit lying around. The hard endoskeletons of cuttlefish were strewn around the beach. After cleaning it up of plastics we trekked to another beach where we hung around while we ate brunch. The divers who were doing a 3-day trip then left for the airport. The 7-day trip folks headed back to the boat on tenders (smaller boats made of rubber/plastic that supported SOF and could be loaded on the main boat while travelling). As we were leaving we saw a small plane fly toward the island, bringing the next batch of divers.
By this point, I had become friendly with two Americans, Adam and Gary, who were both doing the 7-day trip like me. Adam was a big man with a massive beard; he was humorous and easily made friends on the boat. We chatted about a bunch of things and I found that he believed that artificial intelligence had advanced so far that general intelligence was imminent and that most people would lose their jobs; I was just not sure what he was doing about it. Gary was a “budget man” for the US Air Force “writing reports that no one outside the US Government cared about”. He got quote friendly during the trip and started joking about arranging my marriage to a yoga teacher (I’m Indian, get it?) he knew in Oklahoma. I would not have anything to do with any yoga teacher – he responded that she was not a very good one. Gary and Adam stayed in the expensive room with a double bed and windows. It stank, was hot, its air-conditioner made a noise and there was less space per person on the bed. Gary was constantly complaining about Adam as a dive buddy and about having misadventures underwater. Adam was a little aggrieved that Gary made them both sound incompetent; I figured that there was a little bit of exaggeration involved for the sake of storytelling.
After Jinho left, I joined Adam and Gary as a third buddy. I should have been wary. We plunged into the water without much planning on the boat and headed all the way down to the bottom without passing many signals between each other. Toward the end of the dive, we were heading back at a depth of 5 metres. Adam and I followed the depth and stayed at 5 m, but Gary followed the bottom instead. The bottom dropped deeper as we approached the boat, which meant that Gary would have to do a safety stop at 5 metres again before surfacing. As Adam and I arrived close to the boat and planned to ascend to the surface, Gary took off in another direction. Adam headed off to look for Gary. I started getting dizzy from looking in all directions and from the choppy waves and decided to surface. I asked for a new dive buddy for my next dive.
The day provided some interesting sights as well. I spotted a pipefish; it looks like a stretched-out seahorse. At the bottom I came across a farm of garden eels – these were elongated creatures that had their tails buried in the sands and their heads projected upward, as though they had been planted. They swayed about like ballet dancers on one leg, while opening and closing their mouths to gobble up the mist of plankton that blew about them. The garden eels would duck into the sand if a diver got too close, but if we sat around and did not move for a couple of minutes, they would re-emerge. There was a night dive and more sharks and trevally, but the most interesting sight was a tiny worm, barely 4 cm long that seemed to be repeatedly shitting out tiny thin worms from its rear end. As I shined my light on it a trevally almost went for it, but decided against it and it survived until I looked away.
By day 5, we had moved out into the open ocean, beyond the “barrier” reef. The waves and currents got much stronger and the dives became more difficult, the worst part being the entry into the water. Previously we were able to calmly put on our fins at the water’s edge and stride in to the sea. Now we needed to jump off the side of the boat in rapid succession while the boat was at the right place. We would kit up fully, waddle to the side gate and jump off from a height of 1.5 metres into the water. We would then regroup our buddy team at a predefined spot and head down into the water. At the end we would be picked up by the tenders which would take us back to the boat.
I was first up next to the side gate on the first dive of the day. Everyone queued up behind me. Ellis, the trip director, opened the port-side door from the dive deck to the sea and asked us to jump. As I adjusted my mask, he shouted out loud that there was no time to fuck around. That got me a little stressed and I giant-strided off the boat. I forgot to head to the spot and went straight down because I had agreed with my buddy Christian that I would meet him at the bottom.
Dive 2 was a shark feed. I buddied with my new roommate Serguei from this dive until the end of the trip. As we descended into the water I estimated about fifty sharks circling around – mostly grey reef sharks and white-tip reef sharks. Remoras / sucker fish stuck to the sharks, ready to pounce on any morsels they left behind. We sat around in a natural amphitheatre – a big semicircle around an isolated platform. We were sitting on destroyed coral and I wondered how exactly it had gotten that way. How many divers’ bottoms had rubbed the corals to smoothen them up adequately to make them obvious locations for other divers to sit on? I was pleased to spot a silver-tip shark, considered dangerous to humans according to our reef fish guidebook. Parrotfish, tangs and trevally also hung around. The staff lowered a box filled with frozen tuna heads onto the platform. The sharks went into a frenzy once the tank was opened, trying to feed on the tuna heads. I also chanced upon a napoleon wrasse and a school of barracuda on this day.
It was clear that we were altering the sharks’ behavior (as the cods’) by feeding them. There was no reason for such a large number to circle around the place if not in anticipation of the food they were about to get. Yes, the amount is small enough that they have to hunt elsewhere to survive, but we have taught them to associate humans with food. I would not worry a great deal about a potato cod or a harmless white-tip reef shark or grey reef shark. It would be a slightly different matter with something with an inclination to bite humans. Plenty of travellers have first hand experience of the violence caused by monkeys in Indian temples being given food by visitors. Imagine the damage to life and to the preservation of sharks themselves if one should approach and attack a human on account of it having previously being fed.
That night I went outside to the bow (the front of the boat) to look at the stars. Birds flew about in the dark. A booby landed on the boat and stuck around. I was far enough from civilisation to see the Milky Way.
Day 6 looked as though it might be a bit easier, with more relaxed entries into the water. On the second dive, we were swimming about the wreckage of a boat when the light dimmed and we heard the patter of rain on the surface above us. I also realised that I had lost my buddies and was forced to surface. The tenders were moving around, picking people up. It was a bunch of shivering divers that boarded the boat as the rain was colder than the seawater. Nevertheless the day provided a number of good dives. I saw more schooling barracuda, an eagle ray, nice gardens of coral, caves with swim-throughs and nice varieties of surgeonfish.
On day 7, the first dive had gone well and I surfaced with 60 bars left. Karina, the second mate decided to tow us on the rope rather than get us on board the tender. I heard a hissing sound as I sat on the rope and enjoyed the tow. Later Ellis gave me a stern talk about how my air was at 0 bar when he checked my tank. I stood my ground regarding the amount at the time I surfaced. He said that he’d have to get me to follow a dive crew if I wasn’t careful. I was impressed with how the crew took our safety seriously. We dived again at the same spot. I visited a bunch of swim throughs with Serguei. There was one cave that looked particularly interesting, but rather small. I bid Serguei wait and checked it out. Very colourful and large crayfish, with metre-long feelers walked around in the cave. I took it in, then headed out and passed my light to Serguei for him to see the sights.
With the last dive, I had done 20 of the 26 dives possible. It has been my longest dive trip so far. I did not actually see a great variety of creatures that I had not seen before. The stonefish, potato cod, grey reef sharks and silver-tip reef sharks were the most memorable new sights to me. The corals were on par with most of my dive experiences and in occasional cases, better. Having a liveaboard, we were able to go far out and see the best that was on offer.
One thing that I did not like about the trip was that I couldn’t just jump off the boat when I felt like it, even when we were anchored at Lizard Island. Nanny state regulations required that a lookout be always present when someone is in the water. I didn’t want the very hard-working staff to also stay on lookout just so I could have a swim by myself.
In any case, it was a great experience: Good diving, good food, high safety standards, very decent accommodation, even a bit of WIFI now and then.