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Dive Review of Spirit of Freedom in
Australia/Great Barrier Reef, Coral Sea

Spirit of Freedom, Nov, 2012,

by John Sommerer, MD, US (Contributor Contributor 15 reports with 6 Helpful votes). Report 6841.

No photos available at this time

Ratings and Overall Comments 1 (worst) - 5 (best):

Accommodations 2 stars Food 5 stars
Service and Attitude 5 stars Environmental Sensitivity 5 stars
Dive Operation 5 stars Shore Diving N/A
Snorkeling N/A
Value for $$ 4 stars
Beginners 3 stars
Advanced 4 stars
Comments This was a special charter, arranged through Reef and Rainforest. The Spirit of Freedom (SOF) spent two weeks diving all the way from Cairns to the north end of the Barrier Reef, then out to Ashmore and Boot Reefs, then out the Eastern Fields. Toward the beginning of the trip, those interested where put "ashore" on a tiny sandbar to (successfully) witness the total eclipse of November 14, 2012. Although the observation site was toward the north side of the path of totality, so the total phase was less than a minute, the view was fantastic, and out of my 5 total eclipse trips, certainly unique. Mark Strickland a professional photographer was aboard, as well as a high school physics teacher (who didn't dive!) as a resource for eclipse fans.

Since this was a special charter, most of my comments will not reflect the regular itinerary of this boat; I'll start with those that do. First off, this was probably the most professional crew I've seen on a dive boat. They really were top notch. They were all amp'ed up because this was not their regular one-week "milk run" as they described it, and several crew were added for the trip, but I'd dive with these folks anywhere. They worked hard, and well as a team, and they were uniformly helpful and friendly. Captain Tony, first mate Fabian, cruise director Nick, dive master Anna, and chef Tony were all particularly noteworthy. Captain Tony regularly drilled the crew on safety issues, and held emergency drills involving loss of rudder control, rescue, and first aid. All divers were provided with Nautilus Lifeline emergency transceivers at no additional charge. Nitrox was plentiful, and tank fills were rapid. They had lots of rental gear aboard, so any equipment problems were dealt with easily.

The regular dive sites visited by this boat, include famous ones such as Steve's Bommie, and Cod Hole. While I did not find Steve's Bommie world class, it was pretty fun, and in spite of the cliche, I found Cod Hole to be a blast. We did four dives there (two on the way north, two on the way south), only one of which involved feeding the potato cod (sort of a melee) and it was always possible to find a "private" potato cod to play with and photograph; also, the dive site itself is beautiful.

A few words about Chef Tony: he was new to the boat, and had been working on freighters before this, but got frustrated with his food budget. SOF told him: "don't be ridiculous (e.g. caviar) but buy what you want." This was the best dive boat food, ever. Tony (from Finland) was an amazing cook to be working on a boat. Fresh mackerel (caught by Captain Tony) with sea foam sauce. A barbecue including Morton Bay bugs, lamb, chicken, kangaroo, fish, etc. Fresh snacks every afternoon. Watch your weight! Complimentary wine or beer at dinner (if not night diving).

Although the dining salon, dive deck, and upper deck were spacious and comfortable (the forward lounge being completely given over to cameras), the rooms were among the smallest I've seen in a liveaboard dive boat. Presumably, this is not a big deal to the usual casual Australian diver clientele, who are typically aboard for 3-4 days (seven max), but it got a bit cramped with a lot of gear after two weeks. There were some deluxe cabins on the top deck that would have been a better choice.

Now about the special charter. This was exploratory diving, so the results were mixed. Some of the sites were awesome, like the huge underhang in the usually inaccessible lagoon of Tijou Reef. Some were fair. Some were boring. An unexpected coral spawn killed the vis for several days, which was a bummer for the photographers (which included everyone). The crew quickly adapted to tender diving, which was way more work for them, but which optimized our time in the water. Captain Tony even worked out "tender drop, return to main boat" dives, which I thought was nuts for dive sites that we'd never been to, but it usually worked out, and if someone needed a pickup, there was never a scolding. (There were some scoldings for safety violations, and for missing pool closed times when the boat needed to move; some of the divers were not happy about this, but I always found the directions clear enough.) I was very impressed with the crew's ability to put in a temporary mooring with wire stropping, and not damage the reef. Four dives were available on most days, and when the boat didn't move overnight, a fifth night dive was added (those were fewer, since the itinerary covered 1400 nm, and the boat typically moved over 100 nm overnight). One other dive at Tijou reef provided the amazing spectacle of a massive school of hundreds (no exaggeration) of bumphead parrotfish swimming up a channel from the deep ocean; given their appearance and the numbers, it looked like an underwater buffalo stampede.

The Coral Sea reefs were better than the Barrier Reef, and visibility improved. Sadly, although sharks were seen most dives, they were mostly small, even in protected Australian waters. The highlight for me was getting back to the Eastern Fields, having been there with the Golden Dawn a decade ago. Captain Tony had a sketch map of the Eastern Fields, and picked three dive spots that were OK, but did not reflect the best that the Eastern Fields has to offer. I had the GPS coordinates of the dives I had done a decade ago, and several of us nagged Tony to try Carl's Ultimate. He somewhat grudgingly gave in, and after a dive there, the boat was not moved for the rest of the day by popular acclaim (alas, starting from Cairns, we only had two days in the Eastern Fields). I insisted that Tony go in for a look, and after he came back having picked up the great action at the northern point in high current (he had a scooter, the luck dog) he announced his arrival back on board with a great Aussie "kick a**!" If Craig DeWit reads this review, I hope he is not upset with my using "his" site -- I promise I'll be back to do it again with the Golden Dawn, and I'll bet he gets some of my fellow passengersas new customers as well. it really IS the best dive site in the world. Unfortunately, even Eastern Fields has had its shark population depleted; the external walls we dived there all had long-line monofilament tangled in the coral.

The overall scorecard for shark types was pretty good: white tip, black tip, silver tip, grey reef, bronze whaler, occellated epaullete, and whale. Yes, one whale shark showed up one afternoon to max out the list.

There was actually a night dive late in the trip where I was, for the first time ever, scared out of my wits. The giant trevally that had been placidly hanging under the boat for the afternoon dive were out for blood after dark. Any fish showing up in a dive light was instantly gobbled, and the trevally would blast over your shoulder and whack you in the side of the head to do it.

There were only a couple of down items for the special charter. First, two tenders wasn't really enough for 18 divers. It required 3-4 tender drops to get everyone in, depending on how rough it was. This probably isn't a fair criticism, since SOF doesn't usually do tender diving, but we paid top dollar for this trip, and I think they should have been properly equipped. Second, it was mildly annoying that the "heavy gun" photographers always got the first tender drop. OK, two of them were paying their way, but the official "pro" was getting a free trip, AND selling his future trips through his evening presentations. Once in a while, it would have been nice to get the first drop, and have the chance to nab the sharks before they got vaporized in massive strobes; in fact there was justice one dive, when a sailfish awaited the divers in a later drop (not mine, unfortunately). Third, the crew took a lot of very nice pictures of both the guests and the sea life, which were played on the screen during meals. Those were available to us at the end of the trip on a flash drive, but I thought $50 was a bit steep, given that this trip was not bargain-priced. Finally, the crew support for wash-up and gear breakdown was essentially zero, in great contrast to almost every live aboard I've ever been on, where I usually have to wrestle gear away from a crew member to do anything myself; this was compounded when serious rain threatened, and there was no room in the dry spaces for hastily packed dive gear -- some tarps to keep things on the dive decks dry would have gone a long way to avoid the risk of seriously soaked gear to check through on the airlines.

For us, the chance to revisit the Eastern Fields, finally dive the GBR, and see a total solar eclipse was irresistible, and this charter was very special. That said, I tend to concur that for divers, it really should be called the "Pretty Good Barrier Reef." I loved the diving, but I can hear the siren song of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and even Micronesia pulling me back before another trip Down Under. But if you're in Queensland, I can recommend the SOF and her crew heartily.
Websites Spirit of Freedom   

Reporter and Travel

Dive Experience 501-1000 dives
Where else diving Caribbean, Costa Rica, Revillagigedos, Rapanui, Micronesia, Polynesia, Melanisia, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand
Closest Airport Getting There

Dive Conditions

Weather sunny, cloudy, dry Seas calm, choppy, surge, currents, no currents
Water Temp 80-82°F / 27-28°C Wetsuit Thickness 3
Water Visibility 25-100 Ft/ 8-30 M

Dive Policy

Dive own profile yes
Enforced diving restrictions No Deco, max depth 130ft, surface with 500psi. You were logged off the boat, and back on board with max depth and time. Computers were not checked
Liveaboard? no Nitrox Available? yes

What I Saw

Sharks Lots Mantas 1 or 2
Dolphins None Whale Sharks 1 or 2
Turtles > 2 Whales None
Corals 4 stars Tropical Fish 3 stars
Small Critters 3 stars Large Fish 3 stars
Large Pelagics 2 stars

Underwater Photography 1 (worst) - 5 (best):

Subject Matter 4 stars Boat Facilities 1 stars
Overall rating for UWP's 4 stars Shore Facilities N/A
UW Photo Comments Ridiculously small area for photographers, for this special charter trip. Probably OK for their regular weekly milk run, where there may be few photographers. This trip, everyone had at least one camera. The entire front salon turned into one big camera room.
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Note: The information here was reported by the author above, but has NOT been reviewed nor edited by Undercurrent prior to posting on our website. Please report any major problems by writing to us and referencing the report number above.

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