Great Expectations

Bob HalsteadThe reason I am writing this is that, right now – November 2012 – I am sitting on a great dive boat – MV Golden Dawn – after diving some of the World’s Best Dive Sites – eg. Carl’s Ultimate and Newton’s Bommie, at Eastern Fields, and I am disappointed. This is because the visibility sucks.

I’ve dived here several times before and each time the visibility has been what you expect in the off-shore Coral Sea – almost unlimited. But this time it is really bad. Near the surface visibility is down to only 5 metres, deeper a little better. Early in the cruise we were able to dive to 25 m and get below the murk but now the visibility is still only 15 – 20 m down deep. The murk is not plankton or spawn, it is slimy run-off glop.

I am disappointed for myself because I love to dive these usually super-clear environments that abound with marine life, but I am more disappointed for the guests aboard who came here expecting clear water. Their Great Expectations have been shattered. Having said that, these experienced divers are laughing at their misfortune, not crying over it. That is because they know that, hey! It’s Nature, Stuff Happens!

So I have been hearing stories of other trips they have made that did not quite work out the way they expected. Stories where it rained every day, where the winds blew so strongly the destination had to be changed to one more sheltered (and less brilliant). Even trips where they caught a cold on the way out and were unable to dive when everything else was perfect. Tell me about it!

Nature can wield a cruel cudgel but my fellow divers also told tales of trips where boats broke down, even sank, Cooks could not cook and Captains were incompetent. They were scathing about boats where they were treated like beginner divers, and where dive sites were nowhere as good as the promotional video showed.

There are dive operators who, for reason of cheapness, laziness or stupidity, do not take their clients to the best dive sites where live corals, fish and critters abound, but instead use closer, but weaker sites. They may rely on the fine reputation and promotions of an area given by good operators to get guests, and pretend that what they do is the same thing.

We were discussing all this and I realised that some of you may not know the awful truth and were busy saving for that “once in a lifetime” dive trip to some exotic destination. This is what you should know.


Weather can have a devastating and unpredictable affect on any dive site. Dry seasons can turn wet, calm times turn rough, and warm seasons decidedly chilly. Reefs can be glorious or be going through a period of rehabilitation after an out break of Crown of Thorns Sea Stars, or some blight. Anyone who dives enough knows these things. Coral reefs are not monuments; they are living and dynamic, and change – but not always for the worse. This year out of Port Moresby I can report a remarkable regrowth of corals on the Papuan Barrier Reef. It is thrilling and beautiful to witness, even through murk.

Even from day to day reefs can change – many rely on currents to concentrate the fish and bloom the soft corals. Dive the wrong time of day, or month – say during neap tides, or the wrong side, and the reef may not show its best.

When I was running our day dive boat Solatai out of Port Moresby a guest who dived twice a year complained that we always dived the same inshore site. He had chosen two days when winds were strong and we could not get to the outer reef. I called over a regular diver who came out most weekends and asked him what he had experienced with us over the past year – he raved about the many sites he had dived and the multitude of different marine creatures he had seen including a Whale Shark, Hammerhead sharks and Orcas.

So learn this – dive often, not once in a blue moon, and you will experience all your Great Expectations.


And also realise that some operators are better than others, pick those with good reputations that regularly dive the best reefs. The trip may not be the cheapest and the travel time may be a bit longer, but your dive experience will be far more satisfying. But also please remember, no matter how good the operator, sometimes Nature can be unkind.


I am on a top dive boat with a gang of experienced divers at a truly remote reef system in the Oceanic Coral Sea and the visibility is dreadful. So what did we do – sit around and complain? Act like a bunch of victims? Accuse the promoter of false advertising? Blame the Government?

Rubbish. We went diving. We still saw lots of wonderful stuff. The photographers made sure they got really close to their subjects, macro was probably more popular than wide angle, but actually we used both.

Cave Basslet, Liopropoma multilineatum
Cave Basslet, Liopropoma multilineatum

And I took some really nice fish photos, many of fish I had not photographed before, including photos of a fish I have been chasing for 20 years. This elusive basslet lives deep in coral caves and crevices, usually pops out of its hole for only a few seconds at a time, and if you shine a light on it in order to focus, it darts back into its hole. It is a truly difficult fish to take pictures of.

This was reinforced by the fact that a couple of the best fish ID reference books I used have pictures of DEAD specimens of this fish, and one book with a live specimen (not very well photographed) explained in its caption how difficult the photo was to get.

I had seen glimpses of the fish myself in a swim-through cave at 30m and thought of a way I might photograph it. So down I went, gently eased into the cave, watched for the fish in the low light available, then, when it appeared. I turned on my Sola RED light. The fish stayed out, my Nikon D7000, with 60mm lens in a Nauticam Housing could be focussed, and I took my shots!

I know it is only a silly little fish but I was, and still am, thrilled to bits! The fish is Liopropoma multilineatum. It is a real beauty, only 7-8 cm long. My early disappointment changed to exhilaration!

The thing is – if the water had been clear I would have had my wide-angle lens attached and been shooting the soft corals and schooling trevally, bannerfish and Potato cod, and missed my opportunity with the basslet entirely.

Difficult water conditions sometimes provide opportunities more than disasters. Don’t lament your fading Great Expectations. Get New Expectations, and rejoice in a different success.

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3 thoughts on “Great Expectations”

  1. After years of adventure travel in various forms, including diving, I’ve come up with a little phrase that for me, summarizes many of the sentiments mentioned in Bob Halstead’s post and in the other posted comments:

    “Nature is not a zoo”

    If you want guaranteed sightings of animals, close up, go to a zoo–you’ll see them alright, but in a grossly unnatural setting, obviously. If you want to see any living creature or plant in its natural habitat, you have to accept unpredictability in all its forms and not complain about it. Nature is not a zoo.


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  2. Just back from Cocos where the warm surface waters mixing with the colder deeper up currents gave us photographers the curse of ‘wobbly water’ and unsharp pictures. It was still a great experience though although I could see that one passenger in particular was collecting complaints (his own) throughout he week, I’m sure in order to get some recompense. Sad!
    Conditions for diving are rarely perfect in every way, but isn’t that why we keep on doing it?

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  3. Bob – thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog post this morning, and will be sharing it with our facebook fans. Hard & fast expectations are a daily occurrence in our lives – & unfortunately not everyone appreciates that Mother Nature is the only one truly in control! Fortunately, the more experienced the diver, the more understanding they are, and will find the good in every dive site, regardless of conditions. As our friend Cathy Church once said “there’s no such thing as a bad dive – you just weren’t looking closely enough!”
    The cave basslet you photographed is simply stunning, a far cry from “a silly little fish”. These are the dives that stand out in our memory – the unexpected discovery, where we emerge from the dive with that sense of elation. So congratulations on the great shot, and know this – whilst your visibility sucks – it made my day!
    Happy diving!

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