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June 2006 Vol. 21, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Nimrod Explorer, Coral Sea, Australia

a sea full of turtles

from the June, 2006 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Reader,

I deplore missing dives I’ve paid for, especially when time is limited. The Nimrod Explorer’s advertised first day schedule is, “Lunch served on way to the first dive site; two dives are offered today, including the orientation dive, at Lagoon Reef.” So, to arrive at the boat by noon, I rose at 5:45AM, then got picked up for a bus trip to their 5-seat air charter, which flew to the vintage WWII landing field at Lockhart River; then a van to Portland Roads over an unpaved, washboard surface that’s impassible during heavy rain; and a short ride in an inflatable to the Nimrod. All for a long wait until 6:45PM for the reprovisioning and refueling barge to arrive. Two precious dives. Scrapped. A Scottish chap chimed in that the same happened on his trip last year. For the time and money I spent, I’d expect an operation to find a way to guarantee that first dive day.

But if the diving goes well, one soon forgets about such matters and after a few tours of the reef I had become one happy diver. The Nimrod Explorer departed Cairns for its remote Ocean Outback Adventure, eventually reaching Raine Island, in the Coral Sea. Only one other vessel, the Undersea Explorer, makes the journey. This section of the Coral Sea was ours alone.

Marine life is mind-boggling. I saw more than twenty species of butterflyfish, from the eastern triangular to the Pacific double-saddle. Not to mention the hybrids from interspecies hanky-panky like the offspring of dot and dash and spotbanded varieties with their delightful arabesques and curlicues.

The legendary visibility on the shallower reefs was only 40-50 feet due to coral spawning. At outer bommies of the Great Detached Reef, such as the phenomenal site called The Pinnacle, visibility hit 100 ft. and the dives as much as 120 ft. In November, we had little current and the water hovered around 80ºF.

Nimrod Explorer, Coral Sea, AustraliaThe hard coral reefs, which rise to inches below the surface, are pristine –- certainly the healthiest and most colorful I’ve seen. Except for a couple that have suffered storm damage, most sites have magnificent stands of branching corals from large elkhorn to tiny, delicate blue- and pink-tipped clusters at reef top. At Nature’s Way, I saw more healthy staghorn than in all the Caribbean venues I’ve dived combined. Home to undulating black ribbon worms, at least six species of sweetlips that could suck a golf ball through a garden hose and Pacific giant clams with colorful mantles, Nature’s Way was kaleidoscopic.

The hard corals offered the perfect backdrop for a rainbow of slender anthias. Like tiaras of precious stones, they glittered in the strong Australian sun. Colorful damsels and reticulated and humbug dascyllus darted in and out of the protective arms of the coral as if driven by a frenzied calliope.

Surfacing from this wonderland, I could see the solid footprint of a 72’ steel catamaran with two aft ladders leading to a spacious dive deck. The Nimrod, which can adequately handle the 18-passenger max, is clean and in good repair, thanks to the wry, cerebral mechanic and raconteur, Mark. The generator and compressor are decently muffled. Between dives and meals, I repaired to my berth for note-taking and a nap. Like all the cabins, it had individually controlled AC, reading lights, dark wood veneer, and a private head and shower. The onboard desalinization system provided plenty of water, but it became tepid at peak usage so I took my shower first thing.

The craft has two double cabins, one with a single large bed, the other with two single beds. The four quad cabins are considerably cozier, but the design gives some relief since two beds are forward of a small central area where the head is and two are aft. Still, if you’ve got a roomie who snores or needs Beano, it’s going to be a problem. The two aft quads have single berths, while the forward two have V-berths, and can be configured as double staterooms with full-sized double beds and twin upper bunks.

Food was plentiful, if not gourmet. Colin, who was filling in for the vacationing chef, and Carlie, who served as steward and social director, worked hard to have food out before and after every dive. Though he was shorted on the boat’s meat order (for this we missed a half day of diving?), Colin kept the menu varied. Breakfast was an assortment of cereals, mixed fruit bowl, hash browns, fatty Aussie bacon, pork sausages, and instant eggs. Lunch could include sandwich meats and cheeses, pasta with various sauces/fillings, fresh green salad and ice cream. For dinner, it was a fresh green salad, a cooked vegetable or two, potatoes, chicken breast or wings, pizza, fish or red meat. There was always dessert, sometimes as fancy as Pavlova and plum pandowdy. The web site says that Aussie beer and wine are included in the price. We were initially charged and had to wrangle until midweek to get the Captain to concede.

We ate in the primary common area, the salon, where we also socialized, had photo shows and dive briefings. A large table is in the center, with banquettes along both sides. It was snug and the AC was feeble, making for some sticky meals. The rear upper deck was outfitted with tables and chairs, as well as seats along the stern railing. It was a good spot to enjoy the beer, though the few smokers found it was an area where they would minimally offend others.

I did manage to get in 23-hour longdives, including three night dives, in our five plus dive days. Before each dive, the chief divemaster, Demi, with a conspicuous grin and profuse head bowing, gave an amusing and adequate briefing with basic drawings. Since many experienced divers went their own way as soon as they hit water, the recommendations of no depths below 130’, starting the safety stop when tank pressure reached 750psi and not surfacing without a buddy largely went in one ear and out the other. But with their impressive diver check system, it was unlikely we’d go missing, as did the Lonergan couple, the thinly veiled subjects of the movie “Open Water.” The far north Great Barrier Reef is not the place to get lost or left behind. The crew logged each diver entering and reboarding, recording depth and time. If a diver sat out, he was required to sign off. The DM carefully checked the list before leaving the deck.

One Nimrod quirk is to return divers who surface too far from the boat by hauling them through the water behind the inflatable. I felt as if I were troll bait for the tiger sharks that visit this turtle breeding area and did not like being exposed to jellyfish stings.

Tanks are filled in place and readily available. However, they couldn’t keep up with 15 divers who wanted Nitrox -- about half the divers had to settle for it every other dive. In return, the Explorer charged $AU75, half of the advertised price for unlimited Nitrox. There is a dedicated camera rinse tank, but the general rinse tank quickly got funky and should have been changed twice a day.

At Black Rock and Raine Island, I got up close and personal with schools of massive bumphead parrotfish, some 4-ft.+. As they smashed chunks of reef with their rhinoceros-like protuberance and gnawed down the pieces, I pondered how many fine white beaches one poops out in a lifetime. Just one of these fellows excretes thousands of pounds of sand per year.

Nearly as impressive and far more composed are the solitary, hulking, Maori wrasse. Casting a curious green eye at the diver as they pass, they soon disappear to wherever a fish of that size goes to vanish. I saw a few gray reef sharks, juvenile whitetips, and adolescent silvertips, and tucked under spreading table coral a sizable tawny nurse shark with perfect café au lait skin.

The terminus of our itinerary was Raine Island, a blip of sand that serves as the world’s busiest nesting site for Pacific green turtles. Nearly 15,000 were once counted in a single night. It is a protected reserve accessible only to authorized researchers and park officials, but it can be dived within limits by special permit. I eagerly anticipated our first dive, so it was anxiety-producing when two comically officious Queensland rangers, who looked like they’d been sucking on lemons, boarded and secreted themselves with the Captain for nearly an hour. After they departed, we were told that a “new regulation” prevented us from diving within 3 km of the island. After the week’s earlier disappointments and misunderstandings, this moved our even-tempered group leader to get on the horn to the front office and demand action or a refund.

So, we dived Ruined Reef. As a “consolation” site, it was pretty darn nice. Bluespine, spotted and white margin unicornfish paraded about like prevaricating Pinocchios, while blackbelt and blackfin hogfish bedeviled bottom prey. The usual low profilers, such as tailspot squirrelfish and ringtailed cardinalfish, demurely observed from their hiding places.

Early next morning I rose to watch the nesting turtles drag their bulk back to the sea. Through binoculars the sandy beach looked as though it had been subjected to a crazed dune buggy race with uncountable tracks running up and down. The sea was so littered with green turtles that wherever I looked with my binoculars an animal or two popped up for air. And then, to everyone’s great relief, the rangers returned, hats in hand, and offered a sincere apology for their misinterpretation of the regulations.

I went scouting the turtles with gusto. They were rather skittish, so slow, nonthreatening approaches from above and behind worked best to get extended periods of viewing. Finning past these handsome creatures with carapaces of vibrant green and gray tones, I had happily achieved my goal.

Given the grueling haul from Los Angeles to Portland Roads, for a single week this trip alone isn’t worth the hassle. But, with an additional week diving at another venue –- or a week enjoying the splendors of Australia, it becomes worth the investment. But I’d first research the Undersea Explorer, which also makes the run, and if I were to choose the Nimrod, I’d get a written guarantee from headquarters that the boat would be provisioned for an on-time departure or money back. Otherwise, 20 hour in transit and a $2900 liveaboard trip is just too much.

- Doc Vikingo

Nimrod Explorer, Coral Sea, AustraliaDiver’s Compass: Upon arrival, the captain told us we would be required to pay a $60 fuel surcharge . . . The Nimrod Explorer is owned by an American company, Explorer Adventurers, which runs live-aboard in the Caribbean . . . I paid $2,900 for my share of a double cabin, (and quad was $2145) which included alcoholic beverages and any needed rental gear. Other seven-day trips start at $2145 (but only $1345 if you bunk in a quad) . . . For Nimrod details and pricing see www.explorerventures.com . . . This itinerary is only done twice a year, in our late autumn, but there are several other excellent Coral Sea trips, where the diving surpasses the Great Barrier Reef . . . Nimrod has a first aid kit and 02, radio, automatically deploying inflatable life raft, life vests, fire suppression systems, emergency lighting and EPIRB (boat only, not divers). Nearest hyperbaric facility is in Townsville, a couple of hundred miles south of Cairns . . . For overnights in Cairns, go to www.needitnow.com.au for the best deals. I stayed at the Coral Tree Inn (www.coraltreeinn.com.au), a good value.

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