Australian Adventure: Liveaboard Diving on The Great Barrier Reef

I learned how to dive in 1984 from a salty Australian dive master named Murray Hill.

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My first dive card, age 15

There were several Aussies who lived on the Bouygues-Blount Joint Venture compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and they always talked about diving the Great Barrier Reef as a source of immense national pride. So, even though I was treated to some truly amazing diving in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea during those early years, I always placed diving the Great Barrier Reef at the pinnacle of my Adventure Travel list.

With my father-in-law taking care of most lodging and travel expenses during this trip to Australia, Angela and I reappropriated much of our travel savings to ensure our experience diving the Great Barrier Reef would be epic. While there is still plenty of amazing diving to be had during the day-trip excursions from Cairns and Port Douglas, we chose to see those places less traveled, opting for a liveaboard trip instead.

For $1540 USD each, we booked a five-day, four-night reservation on Mike Ball’s Spoilsport through Liveaboard.com. It’s an all-inclusive package that comes with accommodations, wonderful gourmet meals, and all the five-star diving you can tolerate. Alcohol is the only exclusion, but one must always drink in moderation to be able to dive early the next morning.

After meeting the crew and other guests, we departed Cairns for the outer Barrier Reef, Osprey Reef, and the Coral Sea, with a low-altitude flight returning us from Lizard Island to Cairns on the final day.

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This was our first liveaboard experience, and it certainly won’t be our last. With great food and the convenience of showering and napping while traveling between dive sites, a liveaboard is certainly the best way to enjoy a dive-heavy vacation. It’s also a wonderful way to make fast friends.

Diving is something of an intimate sport. For starters, it’s potentially a matter of life and death. You must possess the ability to size each other up quickly as you buddy up. You must be able to communicate without words at depth. And you must anticipate the actions and reactions of those around you in order to make diving both safe and spectacular. It also helps when your new dive buddies can tell fascinating stories over a drink at the end of a long day of diving.

We had the great good fortune of making several fantastic friendships during this week of diving. Joe and Abbie, Edgar, Aengus, and Ricardo are people we still communicate with on a regular basis and with whom we plan to travel again.

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Our group of new friends riding the tender out to a drift dive with Spoilsport in the distance

The actual diving on the Great Barrier Reef is difficult to describe. First of all, it’s monumentally huge in every way. The dive sites are regularly defined in the hundreds of yards, and one can easily become disoriented among the massive bommies and switch-back channels. The corals are oversized, with fish gliding by in vast schools and individual specimens growing to colossal proportions.

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During this trip, I experienced two dives that I now count in my top five of all time. The first was a night dive in Cod Hole, found in the Ribbon Reefs just east of Lizard Island. We had already been diving on the site earlier that day, and, while it wasn’t a bad dive, I remained unimpressed with the Great Barrier Reef to that point.

That night, however, the potato cod came out to hunt.

We had been warned in the pre-dive briefing not to leave our flashlight beams on any particular fish for too long. “You’re essentially painting a target on them for the cod to hit,” the dive master told us. “If you see a pretty fish, look at it quickly and move your light away. Otherwise, that’s a pretty dead fish.”

The warning couldn’t have been more accurate, as 250-pound cod dash in from the dark just over your shoulder or from directly below your chest to slam into the fish caught in the light. Under water, where vibrations travel quickly, the sound of the 8-foot cod hitting a 2-foot parrotfish is not unlike a car wreck. All shattered glass and bone, with a soft rain of scales glittering to the sand below as both prey and predator disappear again into the black water.

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A potato cod on the Great Barrier Reef (photo: Mike Ball)

The cod are voracious eaters and indiscriminate. The same five massive fish returned again and again throughout the dive to devour parrotfish, squirrelfish, and angelfish alike. I even saw the biggest cod chase and barely miss a small white tip reef shark.

It was an awesome experience to be that close to such accomplished hunters and yet be completely safe. This dive alone made the liveaboard trip worthwhile.

However, the next day of diving didn’t disappoint either. We spent the night steaming toward Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea, arriving at the North Horn just in time for breakfast. After a quick orientation dive on Osprey, we geared up for the main event: an organized shark feed on the North Horn.

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A still from the shark feed, captured with the 360fly HD camera

Known for its nutrient-rich waters that attract big sea life in abundance, the North Horn is the perfect dive site for shark watching. A natural rock amphitheater forms the backdrop as a bucket of fish heads and chum is lowered by pulley system to the rock outcropping in front of us. Both black tip and white tip sharks showed up by the dozens to compete for the morsels, accompanied by a 200-pound potato cod who was unafraid to get into the mix.

The feeding frenzy was over in a matter of minutes, and I was able to capture the entire episode in 360-degree video using my 360fly HD camera. The best two minutes can be seen on our YouTube channel. That kind of diving adrenaline can be addictive, so much so that I’m looking for other shark feed opportunities on future dive trips.

We rounded out the week of diving with some easy drift dives and a few meandering sites that featured lots of puffers and clownfish peeking out of the anemones.

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A pink skunk clownfish, so named because of its markings, not its smell

On the last night, we drank too much and sang far too loudly with our new friends. Aengus ate a live octopus. The next morning, we got lost and chased the surprisingly rare lizards on Lizard Island. And we ended the phenomenal experience with the aforementioned low-altitude plane ride back to Cairns.

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Flying low over the Great Barrier Reef is almost as spectacular as diving it

Now that I’ve checked off diving the Great Barrier Reef, I have to come up with a new Number One on my Adventure Travel List of Amazing Things to Do. I’m thinking Petra.

Today’s expat evaluation: +5, but only if I become a liveaboard dive master

6 thoughts on “Australian Adventure: Liveaboard Diving on The Great Barrier Reef

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