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October 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 26, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Spoilsport, Great Barrier Reef & Coral Sea, Australia

something for everyone, even snorkelers

from the October, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

The third dive of the day started at the far north end of Osprey Reef. We backrolled off the RIB and drifted south at 80 feet in a swift current. The yellow soft coral on the wall reminded me of Peleliu, in Palau, and the eight of us continued on past cascading plate corals, while two whitetip reef sharks patrolled within camera range. Ahead of the pack, I spotted a gray reef shark below me at the edge of the deep drop off, below 31-percent nitrox depth. I signaled to my partner. No, wait, three sharks. No, five, uh, 10, hang on a second here. I dropped to 100 feet and continued counting until I got to 24 grays all facing into the current, swirling and twisting in the breeze. Two hammerheads were farther out, waiting to feed on the current's abundance.

A Resident of Cod HoleThe day before, the crew orchestrated a shark feed here at North Horn. We had all sat in a depression in the wall at 50 feet and waited, while the gray and white tip-reef sharks waited somewhat less patiently, circling the rock. A metal trash can was lowered from the RIB and tied off by divemaster Cleo, who was wearing a mesh glove. Inside, two tuna heads on a short chain were connected to a styrofoam ball. A rope was used to pull the lid off the trash can, the ball popped up with tuna and voila, instant pandemonium. After a big run-up, it was all over in a few seconds --like sex. (The only silver- tip of the trip was sighted at a distance, never coming near enough to feed.)

Spoilsport, Great Barrier Reef & Coral Sea, AustraliaToday, we learned what they did when the kitchen was closed. The drift ended at the feeding station, where a couple of potato cod, a Napoleon wrasse and two more whitetips were hoping for handouts. On the way to my deco stop, I passed a dozen great barracuda, a school of small spotted darts on the surface and a couple more gray reefs under the Spoilsport.

Diving in the Coral Sea can be as good as that in Papua New Guinea. Healthy, colorful corals, swarms of fish, sharks on almost every dive and the chance to see something big. Unfortunately, out of seven days, the boat only spent two in the more distant Coral Sea. The first and last three days of the trip were inside the Great Barrier Reef, where the diving is very good but not of the world-class caliber Coral Sea. Mike Ball Dive Expedition's website lists a three-day Fly-Dive Cod Hole trip, a four-day Fly-Dive Coral Sea trip and a seven-day Coral Sea Safari itinerary, noting that on the fourth day, "Guests on the Fly Dive option may join this Coral Sea Safari at this halfway point." Well, the guests do join the Coral Sea Safari, but the rest of trip is inside the Great Barrier Reef.

Spoilsport sails out of Cairns every Thursday. Boarding is at 6 p.m. after a meet-and-greet with owner Mike Ball at a restaurant near his office. After we strolled down to Trinity Wharf, the crew greeted us dockside and escorted us to our cabin, where our luggage was waiting. I unpacked shorts and T-shirts, stowed the bags underneath the beds and went aft to the spacious dive deck to set up gear. Each diver is assigned a seat with a milk crate gear box beneath it, and an 80 cuft. aluminum tank. Each seat had a number, and a plush, numbered towel was waiting on the rack just above the tanks. Safety sausages were provided to those who didn't carry their own, and they even threw in a Mike Ball souvenir water bottle with each diver's name on it. Water coolers at the end of each rack were always filled, and we were cautioned to stay hydrated.

Spoilsport, Great Barrier Reef & Coral Sea, AustraliaI had selected a standard cabin with two twin beds. The Club cabin features bunk beds. The two windowless budget cabins also has bunks, and shares a head and shower. At time of boarding, a premium cabins with twin and queen beds was still available for an upcharge. There's room for 24 divers, but we only had 14.

The cabins are in good shape, the mattresses fair, and the heads clean and functional. Towels can be replaced when desired, and the linen is changed halfway through the trip. The air conditioning worked fine for me, but condensation fell into a drip pan beneath the unit, and when the ship rocked during an overnight crossing, I got douched with cold water, clearly not conducive to a good night's sleep. All told, there were five nighttime crossings, and two of these lasted all night. August is the dry and windy season, and the winds made this big catamaran rock 'n roll, but none of this affected the diving.

An all-night crossing found us at Cod Hole, which seems to get featured at least annually in Sport Diver or Scuba Diving. I dropped down 86 feet to a sandy bottom with scattered coral bommies and 100 foot visibility. The big Maori wrasses and Queensland groupers (they're also called cods) are no longer fed by divers, which is wise (years ago, hard-boiled eggs killed one of them), so fewer populate this spot. But the ones we saw were huge, unafraid, and offered great photo ops. At a cleaning station, one of the larger residents with his mouth open made me wonder if I could see back to last Thanksgiving. The reef had nice stone corals, long nose and pyramid butterflies, bird wrasses, coral rock groupers, some pink anemone fish, a few Moorish idols, pennant bannerfish, and a beautiful armina nudibranch. All in all, a beautiful Pacific reef for a checkout dive. After a reasonable surface interval, we made a second dive to see the big beasties, and this time a white-tip reef shark cruised through.

My buddy and I used nitrox. While the crew refilled tanks in their racks and capped them, it was a diver's responsibility to analyze the mix, note it on the tank's label and re-attach the first stage. By doing this between dives, we avoided the rush for the three analyzers when briefings were called. Trip director Kerrin Jones, whose personality reminded me of a young John Cleese despite his Kiwi ancestry, diagrammed each reef on a white board and noted the position of the boat, current, wind, probable critters, potential issues such as depth, and then asked for a show of hands for guided dives with divemasters Cleo or Shea. Giant-stride entries could be made from the rear center of the dive deck with a six-foot plunge, or we could walk down steps both starboard and port directly to the sea. Exits were made by ladders at these steps, and there was always a smiling crew member there to take our weights and fins, log our depth and time, and ask us to sign in.

By the end of the first day, my new merino-lined 3mm suit wasn't doing the job in the 73-degree water. Next day, I added a 3mm core warmer, and instead of adding weight, I graduated to a 100 cu-ft. tank (no extra charge), and thus I was warm and neutrally buoyant. My partner wore a 5mm suit and hood, and had no complaints. Some folks wore 5-mm shorties, but they came from chilly countries like Sweden, Germany, Belgium and Holland. Another American couple and a lone Kiwi rounded out the group, and all were experienced divers with good skills.

The Spoilsport is a well-run operation. A continental breakfast was served at 6:30 a.m., first dive at 7 a.m., followed by a hot breakfast while the boat moved to another site. The second dive at 10:30 a.m., surface interval time, third dive at the same site, lunch at 1 p.m. while the boat moved, fourth dive at 3 p.m., then the night dive at 6:30 p.m. at the same site as the fourth dive. The good-humored crew had enormous enthusiasm for the diving, and performed a final check of each diver before entry. A lookout with binoculars and a radio was posted on the sun deck for the duration of each dive, and they paid serious attention to their task.

The professionalism didn't stop at the dive deck. Chef Ragini's fare was terrific. Breakfast included eggs, pancakes, hot and cold cereal, bacon, sausage, mushrooms and freshly baked breads and muffins. Lunch always featured a hot soup made from scratch, fresh salad and a different international cuisine every day -- Mexican tacos and fajitas, Italian pastas and pizza, Asian noodle dishes and stir frys. Dinners were after the night dive. Two main courses -- steak, chops, a hearty beef stew, or baked fish -- accompanied by fresh veggies, potatoes or rice, and fresh bread. Dessert might be cake, fruit crumble, chocolate mousse or ice cream. Meals were served family-style or buffet on the Saloon Deck, and crew ate with the guests. Red and white Aussie wines were poured at no cost. An adequate bubbly from Down Under could be had for AUD$12 a bottle. Beer was $5. A small selection of liquor was available for $5 a shot, and soft drinks were $1.50. After meals, there might be a reef ecology talk given by photo pro Laurence Buckingham, an ad hoc slide show by one of the guest shooters, or a discussion of the next day's dives.

Fairy Grotto at Osprey Reef was our first wall dive. I dropped to 98 feet to view a blaze of red sea whips. Down deep, soft corals beckoned while gray reef, nurse, and white-tip sharks swam within camera range. At the top of the reef, blue, yellow and pink tabletop acropora coral were the background for long-fin bannerfish, disk butterflies and Moorish idols. To accurately report this dive, I must add, embarrassingly so, that I had failed to properly connect my power inflator, and I dropped to 125 feet before I got my buoyancy controlled. My wife stayed at 98 feet, calculating my potential insurance payout.

Admiralty Anchor offered lots of swim-throughs between mounds of algae-free hard coral. I took the guided dive with Kerrin to see the anchor lodged in the reef tunnel, then departed to do my own thing, hovering close to snap photos of sleeping white tips. Diving freedom is the rule here, and on shallower dives we were welcome to go for 60 or 70 minutes. The day after the shark feed, we dove Fast Eddies while the sun rose in a clear sky and slowly revealed the colors of the soft corals on the wall. Up top, a green turtle swam through the hard corals, while fire dartfish and blue-head tilefish hovered over the sand.

On the fourth night, dinner was a barbecue with steak, shrimp and kangaroo (well, their skin is used in running shoes). Guests were encouraged to wear their loudest party attire, and wine flowed. But the party was a mid-week farewell because many divers we had gotten to know well were leaving the following morning on a wave-skipping flight from Lizard Island (lodging there runs up to AUD$1,500 a night) back to Cairns. So after the three remaining seven-day trippers spent the morning chasing goannas around the island's national park, we were joined by new guests going on the three-day tour. Gone were the old experienced hands; our new companions included newbies, openwater students, snorkelers and non-diving spouses. The next three days were spent inside the Barrier Reef, and included a return visit to Cod Hole.

At Lighthouse Bommie, the resident olive sea snakes engaged in a mating dance that left them entwined like a caduceus. A patient green turtle posed for close-up photos while a black and blue phyllidiidae nudibranch prowled the coral. Underneath the boat, I off-gassed while communing with at least 100 big-eye trevally. At Pixie Wall and Pixie Gardens, curious cuttlefish masqueraded in staghorn coral and raised questioning tentacles to touch my partner's miming fingers. A night dive (with lights provided) was ho-hum, except for the giant trevally that used the light beams to hunt unsuspecting reef fish. Apparently thankful, the trevally chased the boat back to Cairns while I spent time on the bridge chatting with competent Captain Peter Jackson.

While we talked about things like fuel consumption and maintenance, I considered the Mike Ball Dive Expeditions business model. The reality is we are living in tough times. Ball maintains a large staff of great people, and needs to put guests on the boat, hence the four-day and three-day sections of a seven-day trip. I wish I had been better informed about the itinerary so I would have known upfront that not all divers would be at the same level of experience. But our sport does need new divers to keep these boats floating. Once upon a time, I went to Fiji with only 25 dives under my weight belt, so I find it hard to be too critical of Ball for what he must do to keep his business going.

On our last night out, we enjoyed another barbecue. We had picked up first mate "Pirate" Pete Conlon at Lizard Island. Pete sang and played guitar while the shrimp and 'roo sizzled on the barbie and the sun sank into the Pacific. A great time was had by all. But the best times were on the Coral Sea. The worst time may have been on the overnight trip back, which was into such strong winds that Kerrin handed out barf bags. I will not disclose whether I kept mine tucked away.

-- D.L.

Spoilsport, Great Barrier Reef & Coral Sea, AustraliaDivers Compass: My Qantas coach flight included food and beverages, good video entertainment, and they offered express passes that whisk passengers with tight connecting flights to the head of the security and customs lines . . . If you arrive on an international Qantas flight, you can save up to 60 percent on domestic flights to places like Ayers Rock and Alice Springs, and save a bundle on excess baggage fees (see sidebar on page 2) . . . Economy fares for flights recently priced for November 2011 are $2,188 from New York and $1,850 for Los Angeles, and flights during the high-season Christmas holidays are $3,284 and $2,965, respectively . . . Through March 2012, three-day Fly-Dive Cod Hole trips range from US$1,500 to $2,200, four-day Coral Sea trips run from $1,715 to $2,950, and the seven-day trip runs from $2,940 to $4,485 . . . Reef tax is $20 per person; nitrox is $75 for a four-day trip and $150 for all seven days . . . For rental gear, you pay $40 a day for a full kit, including Aqualung BCD and regulator, and a 5mm wet suit; new (well, one year old) BCDs and regulators are free of charge for guests in Premium and Standard cabins who need them . . . Website: www.mikeball.com

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