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April 2007 Vol. 22, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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MV Odyssey, Rowley Shoals, Western Australia

great diving Down Under

from the April, 2007 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Reader:

After a 17-hour overnight steam from the pearling port of Broome, Captain Dave Abbott expertly guided the MV Odyssey through a narrow channel. Bottlenose dolphins served as escorts on both sides of the boat, guiding us to open ocean, when someone shouted, Whale! I saw a huge humpback leisurely roll by on his way toward the horizon. A typical day at Rowley Shoals.

When I told people I was going diving in Australia, they inevitably thought I was going to the Great Barrier Reef. But after 40 years of diving, Ive been there, done that at many resorts and liveaboards, and I wanted to try something different. So I headed in the opposite direction, towards the northwest, to dive a location so remote and inaccessible that fewer than 400 divers a year are privileged to see it. The kind of diving I like is sheer walls covered with colorful coral and interesting critters, and buffeted by currents. Rowley Shoals had that in spades.

MV Odyssey, Rowley Shoals, Western Australia

The Odyssey

I also had to watch my wallet, so I needed a liveaboard promising good diving on a moderate budget. Thats how I became one of three Americans, 17 Australians, and four crew members aboard the 80-foot catamaran Odyssey. A six-day Odyssey Expedition trip costs less than half that for North Star Cruises yacht True North. It also lacks the luxury, crew-to-guest ratio and helicopter rides, but it visits the same dive sites and lets experienced divers explore them solo. The boat, launched in February 2006, only offers Rowley Shoals trips in October and November.

MV Odyssey, Rowley Shoals, Western AustraliaCaptain Dave set anchor inside Mermaid Reef as Kylie, the cook, prepared the dive boat and divemaster Tess Harry gave details about the dive, a one-mile drift along Mermaid Wall. Mermaid Reef is one of three coral atolls that make up Rowley Shoals, 186 miles offshore from Broome in Western Australia. They rise almost vertically from 1,300- foot depths. The three are equidistant from each other and nearly alike -- 10 miles long, five miles wide, with a channel deep enough to navigate to a shallow lagoon. The Odyssey went to Mermaid Reef, the most northerly, then Clerke Reef, but did not visit Imperieuse Reef.

At Mermaid Wall, I hit the water and dropped to 50 feet. I went to investigate a four-foot round leather coral but before I could fully appreciate it, the current whisked me on. Above me, bluefin trevally and purple soft coral shared space in a crevasse. I spotted a six-foot gorgonian and wanted to inspect it for pygmy sea horses but I blew past the wall. Then the water slowed enough to appreciate the 150-foot visibility and a school of Moorish idols over a tabletop-sized plate coral with purple sea fans beneath. I was shocked out of my reverie when I turned my head and found a sixfoot sea turtle observing me from a couple feet away. We made eye contact, then it dropped its left flipper and banked away.

I came up and was welcomed by Tess and Captain Dave onto Homer, a 38-foot dive boat moored at Mermaid Reef for the two-month season and used for most dives. The Odyssey definitely needs more staff -- half its crew is away from the boat on every dive, with no divemaster to spare for guided dives and handholding. Because Odyssey Expeditions owners Nick and Lori Linton run a budget dive operation with small salaries, they said its hard to hire more when Western Australias labor shortage means dishwashers earn more than divemasters. But it was obvious the crew loved what they did, and their smiles were infectious. Dave is around 30, competent, friendly and a good communicator. Every evening, he would explain the next days schedule in a casual, humorous way.

Tess is in her early 20s and had been with Odyssey Expeditions since August. She did not dive with us, though she did offer to if anyone asked. She was cheerful but inexperience showed through at times. On the first dive at Cod Hole, she drew a picture and explained the direction of the currents, but she was corrected by a diver who had done the trip before on another boat. She stopped using drawings but gave short explanations of underwater terrain and recorded air levels, depth and time for the bends. The Odyssey had an annoying rule that openwater divers couldnt go below 65 feet and the maximum depth for everyone was 130 feet. That didnt make sense, especially since most guests had a few hundred dives in their logbooks. But it was in Tesss rulebook of things to say, although she didnt make it an absolute rule. Most went deeper anyway.

The Homer was used specifically for diving, but the crew also had two 16- foot boats for fishing and chores. Once a tank was on board Homer, it wasnt removed except for night diving or by Nitrox users transferring tanks after each dive. But its not a good dive boat. Instead of fitting it nicely against Odysseys stern, the crew placed fenders in between to hold the two boats apart. That meant I had to step over the two-foot high line attaching them, then lean over three feet to grasp a rail on Homer with one hand while keeping the other hand on Odyssey, and then carefully transfer my weight down. Homer is equally frustrating at sea. Tanks slide into slots running down the boats center with benches on each side. To get my tank in, I had to stand on a bench, hoist the dive system up over the back of the bench and drop it into the slot. To put the tank on, I had to place it on the 18-inch bench, which left only 10 inches to sit on and wiggle into my BC. One diver punched two holes in his BC removing it from the center slot. Getting my fins on was also a challenge because there isnt enough deck space near the bench.

Odysseys stern deck had benches with tanks on both sides and storage space for equipment underneath. A ladder on each side leads to a platform for entering the water but I only used the back deck for a night dive. I had to use air because they only had two 95-cubic-foot and two 75-cubic-foot Nitrox tanks, and two other divers had already reserved the 95s. MV Odyssey, Rowley Shoals, Western AustraliaThe boat couldnt provide more Nitrox because of a slow, labor-intensive method of filling tanks, and it charged $12 U.S. for each fill. The Odyssey also didnt have underwater photographers needs high on their list. Nothing was mentioned in the initial briefing. My photo system and another divers video system were kept on a small seat next to Captain Dave on the dive boat. I dont know where additional large photo and video systems would have been kept if there were more photographers. When I asked where the photo table was, Tess said to use one of the picnic tables on the upper deck, meaning I worked on my photo system beneath a roasting sun.

In shallower water warmed to 86, the live coral decreased by half. At 50 feet, where the water temperature was 84 or less, the coral was thriving. Still, the limited number of annual divers had left coral gardens untouched. No dive was boring. It was either a scale of sheer vertical wall, a sweep through deep canyons on high-speed drifts, an exploration of Technicolor coral bommies in turquoise lagoons, sometimes all three on one dive. Most fish had no fear. At Clerke Reefs Blue Lagoon, large maori wrasse foraged on the reef, and trevally, mackerel and tuna hovered in schools nearby. Reef sharks were curious but not enough to get close for a photograph.

I chose to buddy up with Darryl, a mild-mannered Australian businessman in his mid-fifties from Fremantle. He was fearless except when it came to cuttlefish. Thats because one evening at dinner, a gregarious Australian guest told us about a diver chasing a lobster into a cave where a cuttlefish rested. The cuttlefish became agitated, rushed straight at the diver, wrapped its arms around his head, and bit his nose, making him bleed to death. The next day, Darryl and I came upon two large cuttlefish, but Darryl obviously had the dinner story on his mind. One cuttlefish undulated its fins and approached Darryl -- the perfect photo situation -- but Darryls eyes dilated as he gyrated his fins and backed well away. Afterwards, Darryl said he knew I wanted a photo but had no desire to provoke a fatal nosebleed.

The Odyssey sleeps up to 20 people, with six deluxe doubles and four twin shares. Roomy deluxe cabins offered two single beds that could join to make a double, a sink, desk and storage cabinets. My standard cabin was downstairs in the starboard hull with two comfortable bunks, two standup storage cabinets and storage space above. Each cabin had a small refrigerator that kept drinking water cool. Cabin towels and bed linens were not changed during the week, but the crew did personal laundry upon request. Four rooms with showers, toilets and sinks are against the back deck. I didnt have to wait long to use one, and it kept extra moisture out of my cabin. But because they were situated over the generator, compressor and engines, they were always hot. It was also impossible to get cool water for a shower because the freshwater storage tank in the engine room kept the water continuously warm. After changing out of my dive gear, I walked to the deck upstairs that had a half-shaded area with three picnic tables and a little bar that always had a five-gallon bottle of drinking water and an ice chest with cold soft drinks. A door led to the air-conditioned dining salon where meals were served buffet style on tables for six.

Kylie the cook, an upbeat woman in her thirties, served solid, nutritious food, but it lacked imagination. I doubt she considered herself a professional chef. Still, the Australian guests either didnt notice the food quality or didnt care, and they dug into every meal with gusto. Kylie set up a continental breakfast of fruit, toast, cereal, yogurt, juice, and coffee before the first dive at 7 a.m. Every other day was a cooked breakfast of omelets or pancakes and bacon. The second dive at 10 a.m. was followed by lunch, typically a main dish like tuna casserole with salad and bread. After the mid-afternoon dive at 2 p.m, scones and fruit were served as snacks. The night dive or late afternoon dive was before dinner, typically grilled meat, salad, fruit salad, and pasta salad. A handy machine always offered hot water for tea, cappuccino, coffee and espresso. The boat sold beer and wine, but most guests brought and shared their own.

Three night dives were offered. I did the first one at Cod Hole. A moment after I descended, a five-foot potato cod came up to me with big, friendly eyes. I put my hand on its side as it slid past, turned and came back for more. Finally satisfied, it moved to a cleaning station where wrasse and shrimp scampered around its head. I moved on to take pictures of clownfish on an anemone. When Darryl showed me he was down to 700 p.s.i., we headed back to the boat but the current had really picked up. We swam to the reef and decompressed at 15 feet, holding on to a piece of dead coral and flapping in the current like two flags in the wind. Our swim back was across the current but Kim, the engineer, was wisely standing by in a fishing boat to pick up anyone having trouble. I skipped the other two night dives because they were inside the atoll where visibility was poor.

Kim was usually in the engine room but friendly and helpful. When one diver had problems with his new regulator, Kim tried to fix it but it was a manufacturers defect and another first stage was needed. I was surprised to find the boat did not have spare dive equipment, so another guest lent the diver a first stage for the rest of the trip. Kim also couldnt fix the air conditioner, which stopped working on the starboard side during the third night, making sleeping hot and uncomfortable. Captain Dave asked everyone to leave cabin doors open to let the functioning air conditioning cool both sides. It worked but was not a perfect solution.

Two guests were snorkelers, and one called their experience drifting atop Mermaid Reef the best snorkel of my life. So I joined them for the second time there. Thousands of foot-long garfish reflected the sunlight, changing from silver to blue as they formed a circle around me, with yellow and black sergeant major fish joining in. I snorkeled to 12 feet and listened while a herd of 100 oblivious egghead parrotfish crunched coral. The reef had many crevasses, one with a big piece of brain coral hanging over it, so I held my breath and investigated the dark hole. A big snapper allowed a fleeting glimpse before retreating further in. Even though I saw sharks on every dive, snorkeling with them was better because they were more relaxed and lingered longer when air bubbles werent around. Two white-tip reef sharks let me get within six feet before moving off.

MV Odyssey, Rowley Shoals, Western Australia

The Homer

While the Odyssey moved from Mermaid Reef to Clerke Reef on the third day, I visited the high-tech helm. It features the latest navigation and communication equipment, including a connection to the large-screen TV in the dining salon that showed the boats position when we were moving. From the helm, steps descended to the bow of the boat and benches, where I spent a pleasant evening sipping wine and singing songs while one diver played his guitar. On another evening at Clerke Reef, we went to the white-sand beach at Bobs Island, where I enjoyed wine, observed a nesting red-tailed tropic bird, and was treated to a glorious sunset.

The next morning at Clerke Reef, everyone decided to snorkel Rollercoaster, a drift on the inside of the reef through Clerke Reef channel. It started out as a calm swim over turquoise shallows surrounded by lace coral fronds, delicate as ballerinas. The coralscape moved faster below me as the current picked up with a high, outgoing tide. As I blew through, I saw white-tip sharks, staghorn coral, redfin butterflyfish, ornate butterflyfish, Teira batfish, and a blue-girdled angelfish. I was propelled out of the lagoon to the edge of an abyss that plunged below into inky midnight blue. The final dives were less adrenaline-pumping and more mellow explorations of caves, crevices and alleys in the outer reef before an overnight steam back to Broome.

Drift diving at Clerkes and Mermaids walls offered constantly exciting surprises and even jaded divers will find Rowley Shoals worth the jet lag, expense and time commitment to visit during its short season. Inexpensive land excursions near Broome, Darwin and the Kimberley are also worth building into trip time. Experienced divers preferring low costs over luxury will fare best, especially since they must be capable of looking after themselves in the water, dealing with the poorly designed Homer, and helping with the physical tasks of transferring diving equipment and luggage. Odyssey is a new, clean boat but its food and AC breakdowns make it far from luxurious, and it needs some remodeling to better serve divers. The crew, though short-staffed, made up for most shortcomings with positive attitudes and friendly help. North Stars boat may offer gourmet food and helicopter rides, but for those most concerned about whats underwater, the Odyssey offers a budget-friendly trip to one of the worlds top dives.

--M.P.

MV Odyssey, Rowley Shoals, Western AustraliaDivers Compass: The ideal weather for Rowley Shoals is October and November ... From June through September, Odyssey takes 10- and 12-day trips through the Kimberly north of Broome ... Deluxe cabins cost $2,052 per person; I paid $1,888 for a standard cabin ... The flight from L.A. to Sydney took 13 hours and air travel from Sydney to Perth was 4 hours; a round-trip fare to Sydney via Qantas is approximately $1,400 in October-November ... To Broome, Air North (www.airnorth.com.au) flies from Darwin and Qantas flies from Perth to Broome; the latter took me 2.5 hours and cost $381; Qantas also flies from LAX to Broome via Auckland and Melbourne for $2,300 including taxes ... A visa for $25 is required to enter Australia ... Weather in Broome was hot and humid but comfortable aboard Odyssey (with air conditioning) ... Tipping is unusual in Australia, and nothing was mentioned or expected aboard Odyssey ... The boat and most Western Australian merchants dont accept American Express ... Bring electrical converters for chargers ... The nearest chamber is in Broome but requires a helicopter ride ... Website:www.odysseyexpeditions.com.au

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