Friday, 19 June 2009

Diving on the Barrier Reef

Everyone knows that the Great Barrier Reef is one of the great dive spots in the world so one could hardly come here without venturing into the water. Cairns has so many companies offering diving that you could probably go on a different one every week for a year and still have some left over for the next year – and of course they are say that they are best and offer a unique experience. In addition, the numerous “independent unbiased advice” tourist offices (absolutely the opposite of independent and unbiased) receive a kickback whenever they sell a dive.

Safety as always, is of paramount importance and the fact that over the past few years there have been a few cases of dive boats going out to the reef and and leaving a few divers out there (to drown or be eaten) has highlighted the fact that there are some dodgy operators in the dive business. Any organisation which says “no experience or training? No worries, we will look after you and have you diving in an hour” is really dodgy. Hence I always choose dive outfits that are “PADI Five Star” in the hope that the effort required to secure this quality mark eliminates the rubbish (and the danger they bring with them).

The inner sections of the reef are said to be a bit tired and worn out due to the large number of visitors and therefore many visitors now head to the Outer Reef for a decent dive. I have got five dives booked, two from a moored platform on the Outer Reef from which Pat can see the fish through a submarine boat whilst I dive and three north of Cairns at the Agincourt Ribbon Reef which is said to be less visited.

The 6 am wakeup call finds us less that totally refreshed, partly due to a phone call from someone in the UK at 2 am our time (no idea whom, we think it was someone selling something) and partly due to jet lag.

The outer reefs are about 60 km out (1.5 hrs in a fast catamaran)

Reef Magic Catamaran

and this particular company (Reef Magic) has a moored island from which all activities take place.

Dive Platform

One can learn to snorkel, snorkel (if you know how), do a “try-dive”, go “certified diving”, take helicopter flights over the coral, see the coral from a submarine boat (this sinks about seven metres and passengers see the fish and coral through glass windows in the side of the boat),

Submarine Boat

or just stay on the island and snooze. The plan is for me to dive and for Pat to go on a couple of trips on the submarine boat and also go down into the underwater observatory (and snooze).

Pat Resting .

There are three certified divers on board (as passengers) and for the first time in my life, I am the most experienced diver. The water temperature is 26C so we wear 5mm shorties (as against full suits) and are in the water within a few minutes of the boat mooring at the island.

Having dived in the Red Sea only two weeks previously, comparisons are inevitable and sadly (for Australians) I would have to say that the Red Sea was better in that the coral was less damaged, the visibility clearer and the fish more plentiful. Never-the-less, it is an interesting experience and one does see types of coral not seen elsewhere.

Coral 3

Staghorn Coral 

Staghorn Coral

Coral 4

Coral 1

and for the first time, large sea cucumbers about 50 cms long

Sea Cucumber 1

Sea Cucumber 2

as well as large shoals of fish seen in other dive sites.

Shoal Fish

The Australian attitude to the fish is very different to that in Egypt, here the fish are handled (if they give the opportunity) and some have been tamed to take food and behave for tourists.

The Dive Guide allocated to us was not really a “guide”, more a young lad who had got a job whilst travelling which enabled him to dive and have fun. So in summary, these dives were interesting for me and gave Pat the opportunity to see fish and coral and as a consequence she has told me that if she has the chance to snorkel in shallow water she might give it a go – we will see what is possible on the Ningaloo Reef in about 6 weeks time.

The following day I went diving further to the North at “Agincourt Ribbon Reef” with a different company “Quicksilver” and the experience was totally different. A Cairns dive shop told me that diving was better further north and recommended that I try diving from Port Douglas (about 70K north of Cairns). This was to be a totally different experience – immediately one got to the ship one felt that they were totally focused on diving and on board

Quicksilver Boat

the catamaran there were about 20 certified divers plus snorkelers and try-divers.

My dive buddy was a Maria Beyer whom I met on the bus to Port Douglas – we landed up together simply because everyone assumed we were together. As it turned out, we made a good buddy team, checking and careful but not over-the-top. The Dive Guide also actually guided us rather than just enjoyed himself playing the fool.

There were three dives all on the Agincourt Ribbon Reef  - so described because it is a ribbon strip on the very outside of the Great Barrier Reef. All of our diving took place just inside the ribbon so that we were protected from the Pacific Ocean (!) by the reef itself. Dive one was a check dive at the start followed by a fin around some good coral, some poor coral and also a chance to see the resident Potato Cod

Potato Cod 1

Potato Cod 2 with diver

which is very docile provided you kept your fingers away from its mouth.

Dive two was over a coral forest and round a tall coral pinnacle (spiralling up the pinnacle so that we saw all of the fish living at different depths) and dive three was a drift along the reef wall (which got very fast in sections and was great fun).

Immediately one got into the water, it was obvious that this was a far better dive site – the sea was clearer, the coral in far better condition, large shoals of fish and a number of species which I had not seen before.

Unicorn Fish

a large unicorn fish (why is it called this Sam?)


a turtle (a fish got in the way of the best picture)

Blue Spotted Ray

Blue spotted ray (larger than those in the Red Sea)

Fish 2

Sam can you look this fish up in your fish book and tell Papa Paul what type it is please?


Cuttle Fish – these change colour as you watch them just like chameleons

Fish Shoal

Fish Shoal Small

Large shoals of fish (what sort Sam?)

Sea Anenome

an Anemone with stinging tentacles

Nemo in Anenome

A Nemo living in an Anemone

There were a number of large clams in the area – these were of a size that only featured in adventure magazines when I was a child – divers were always getting their legs trapped in the clam and were rescued just in time by the hero (or heroine) – the one below is about a metre wide.

Clam 1

If you waved your hand over the top of the clam, it closed quite fast. Looking down into an open clam, you can see its mouth (remember it is a living creature).

Clam 2

The coral was quite good (but not as spectacular as at St John’s in the Red Sea)

Coral 2 

and great forests of Staghorn Coral called as such because they look like

Staghorn 1

the horns of a stag. Many small fish live in this type of coral because they

Staghorn - Fish living in

Staghorn Fish Shoal

can easily dart in and escape predators. There was one section where the forest just went on and on – most spectacular.

Overall, it was a good day in the water (and divers are better off going with Quicksilver than Reef Magic) – thanks very much Dive Buddy.


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